Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Narrative Traction - Part 6: Troubleshooting, Plotting and Identifying

Welcome to my six-part writing series: Narrative Traction. This week is Part Six: Troubleshooting, Plotting and Identifying.


The two most valuable questions you can ask beta readers are: 'Did the opening paragraph grip you?' and 'Where did you start to lose interest?'

If the opening paragraph doesn't grip someone, it has no narrative traction. It is not promising something more interesting will happen if you keep reading. It has failed as an opening paragraph.

Anywhere a reader loses interest is where the narrative traction has dropped. Usually because you left it too long to introduce another traction thread, or missed opportunities to raise the pull of the threads you already have in place.


The opening narrative traction thread is usually called a 'hook' something to hook the reader in and drag them through the novel. You need to identify your first hook and open with it as strongly as you can. It needs to be something that gets the reader's attention immediately and keeps them interested.

You must then withhold that information. However, you can't withhold the wrong information. Sometimes I go to give feedback on a manuscript, and I just have no idea what is happening. There's a mystery all right, the mystery is who or what the character is, where they are, what they are doing and why they are doing it. That's not narrative traction. That's just poor writing. Ideally, you want to give readers enough information to make them comfortable and feel centred in the story, that is what allows them to be interested in the hook you are offering them.

And then you must resolve the hook while the reader still cares about it, but not too soon. I realise this sounds a bit 'how long is a piece of string', however how long you withhold depends on what you are withholding and why. If you open a romance novel with:

'All Renee had ever wanted was to be kissed by a girl with blue eyes and freckles.' You might not give readers that kiss until the final scene. Or you may offer it at the end of scene one, but somehow it leads to a complete disaster that kicks off the rest of the plot. Maybe Renee never kisses a girl with blue eyes and freckles, maybe she falls in love with a black woman with lips that make Renee's knees buckle and a hair so big it brushes the door frame as she walks through.

You must develop that skill yourself, and the best way to do it is to read consciously and note how other brilliant authors do it.


Imagine for a moment, Renee gets her kiss with her blue eyed, freckled girl in the last scene of the book. Imagine the first line of the book was actually 'Renee had a secret, she liked girls' and the line before the kiss, at the very end of the book was: 'All Renee had ever wanted was to be kissed by a girl with blue eyes and freckles.'

Maybe you, the writer, knew that from the start. However, if you forget to tell the reader, then the fact that this payoff is FINALLY happening, has no impact. Because they reader had no idea. Or maybe you mentioned it at the start of the book, and never again, so the reader forgot. Either way, the impact is completely lost. The narrative traction isn't there.

It seems overly simple, but to introduce narrative traction to readers, the easiest way is to tell them what they want. Or tell them what they don't know. Give them information that allows them to have expectations for what is coming.

If we opened the book with: 'All Renee had ever wanted was to be kissed by a girl with blue eyes and freckles.' Then the book turned into a horror with no romance or kissing of any kind, it would be kind of stupid, because we would be wasting the opening line on something irrelevant, but it would also be misleading. With that opening line, we are telling the reader Renee will kiss a girl with blue eyes and freckles, or that we will subvert their expectations, and have her kiss someone else through some sort of personal growth or development.

Don't make promises you don't intend to keep, but also don't keep promises you never made in the first place.

So once again, the process is:

1. Make a promise that the reader wants to see fulfilled.

2. Withhold that promise to keep them reading.

3. Fulfil that promise in a way that makes them want something else.


If you are a pantser, I wish you all the luck in the world. However, if you are a plotter, you would be well served making a note of your narrative traction arcs in your synopsis. How you go about this depends greatly on how you write your synopsis, however mine a laid out something like this:

Chapter One – Day One
Scene:  Opening line: “What if the whole family moves to New York for me, and I’m not good enough?”
TELYN and WYNN are walking home. Wynn is worried about the move to California because their parents SOPHIE and JACOB are giving up their jobs so WYNN can pursue his acting career. Telyn is excited about the move, desperate to get out of their very boring small town where she is being bullied and reassures him it will be fine.
They are confronted by COOPER, a local deadbeat, who attempts to mug them. He grabs Telyn and the BONEFALL occurs. The sky rends and a leviathan skeleton crashes down on the town. Lightening rips through all of them and most petrol tanks and gas lines explode.
Purpose: 1. Introduces WYNN, TELYN and COOPER.  2. Introduces setting. 3. Introduces primary conflict.
Hooks: 1. Wynn worried about the affect his career will have on his family, worried about failing.
2. The mugging, will they be injured?
3. The Bonefall, what is happening? What is it? How is it happening?
4. Will they survive the explosion and lightning strike?
Beats: Action/adventure. Mystery. Wonder.
Characters: Telyn, Wynn, Cooper (Vivian, Sophie and Jacob mentioned).

From this chapter and scene, hooks 2 and 4 will be resolved in the next scene—though with ongoing implications for the rest of the book. Hook 3 will be sustained not just through book 1, but through all three books of the trilogy. Hook 1 is rendered completely moot by hook 3. This chapter is designed to be around 3500 words long.

At least as many, if not more traction lines are introduced in chapter 2.

I haven't noted when the threads will be resolved, because that is something that comes quite naturally to me. However, having all the hooks listed in your synopsis can help a lot, since when you are editing, you can check you didn't forget any. Everyone hates dangling plot threads.


Troubleshooting is usually going to happen with those two questions I mentioned at the start. 'Did the opening paragraph grip you?' and 'Where did you start to lose interest?'

Generally, you need beta readers to fix narrative traction issues. People who will be honest about these things are the best beta readers in the world. Love them, cherish them, even if what they say stings a little. Places where the story loses narrative traction are places where you have failed to convey your excitement about the plot. Unless you also find the scene boring, in which case you knew it was flawed before it went to the beta reader and you deserve it.

If you have worked to put in narrative traction, it can be very hard to find where it drops, because the problem is one of clarity and communication. There are ideas you have not explained to the reader. You might have forgotten to tell them what they want. Which is why a virgin pair of eyes is vital.

The worst-case scenario is that your ideas just aren't big and interesting enough, which is going to require a lot of re-writes and reconsidering of your plot. However, remember, sweet romances sell well and they have very little in terms of plot and high stakes. They do have a huge depth of emotion though, so if your narrative traction is lacking, it might be an emotional problem, rather than one you can fix with more explosions.

Generally, if your characters don't care, your readers don't care either. So even if the stakes are high, if your character is blasé about it, the reader will be too.

Remember the line is 'All Renee had ever wanted was to be kissed by a girl with blue eyes and freckles.' ALL SHE EVER WANTED. That's a lot of emotion right there. There is yearning in that. 'It would be hot to be kissed by a girl with blue eyes and freckles' does not have the same pull.


You have reached the end of the narrative traction series! I hope it was as amazing for you as it was for me. Pacat's lessons on Narrative Traction boosted my understanding of writing tenfold in about an hour. While I didn't manage to do it as succinctly or elegantly as she did, I hope you learned a lot you can apply to your own writing.

Remember to follow me on twitter if you want updates of what my cats look like on a daily basis.

1. What Is Narrative Traction
2. Types Of Narrative Traction
3. Infomational Narrative Traction
4. Event Based Narrative Traction
5. How To Create Narrative Traction
6. Troubleshooting, Plotting & Identifying

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Narrative Traction - Part 5: How To Create Narrative Traction

Welcome to my six-part writing series: Narrative Traction. This week is Part Five: How To Create Narrative Traction.

Hopefully after the last two blog posts, you feel you can accurately identify both types of narrative traction in text. Maybe you have even flipped through some of your own favourite books and made notes where you have identified passages with strong narrative traction.

This week I want to look at the actual mechanisms that cause narrative traction and how you can use them in your own writing.


There are three main steps to creating narrative traction:

1. Make a promise that the reader wants to see fulfilled.

The important part here is that the reader wants to see what is going to happen. If you introduce a romantic element and romantic tension, the reader needs to want the characters to get together. If they don't, they're going to put the book down.

Knowing that there will be a kiss or explosion or rise to power is not enough, readers have to want THIS kiss, THIS explosion and THIS rise to power.

2. Withhold that promise to keep them reading.

Problems that are solved instantly or easily are not interesting to read about. I have a good friend and one of the big problems in her writing always used to be that she couldn't sustain a conflict. As soon as there was tension between characters, it made her so uncomfortable, she resolved it right away. There was angst in her writing, but only for half a paragraph.

Compare that to something like the Captive Prince trilogy by C.S Pacat where she manages to drag out the sexual/emotional tension for so long they don't even kiss until book two. Or Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld where there is no kiss until (HUGE SPOILER, GUYS!!) the last scene of book 3.

3. Fulfil that promise in a way that makes them want something else.

It is important to learn how, and perhaps more importantly, WHEN, to fulfil promises. Too soon, and the reader will feel things are too easy, that they haven't been earned. However, if the promise is too small, and you leave it too long for the pay off, the reader will lose interest.

It is also important that every promise is fulfilled in a way that makes the reader want something new, or that other promises have been made and are now carrying the story forward. You can't have a gap, not even of a page or so, without something pulling the reader deeper into the story. Once they are satisfied, they will stop reading. Because we all read because we want something—a feeling of some kind. Once we have it, we stop.


One of the most important elements here, is readers can't anticipate something, if they don't know what is coming. If the reader doesn't know there is a letter, they can't want to know what the letter says. As with stakes and motives, you need to tell the reader what you haven't told them yet.

As per my earlier example from China Mieville's  'Go Between': 'Something was in the bread.'. We are literally told something is in the bread, but not what. If Morley had sliced open the bread, then put it aside without explanation, we wouldn't have known what we were waiting for.

Take these examples, direct from Pacat:

'Devon never talks about his past.' – We want to know about Devon's past.

'No one knows what happens in room 101.' – We want to know what happens in room 101.

'There is a murderer on the island.' – We want to know who the murderer is.


So, the basic formula for narrative traction, be it informational or event based, is Promise- Withhold – Resolve. And you can track this, and made sure you are adding more of this, when you are writing your synopsis.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I am a firm advocate of plotting. However, if you are a pantser, you will simply need to remember this formula and always be thinking of new ways to add these elements in without forgetting about them or resolving them too soon. It requires a lot of innate skill to be a pantser—skill I don't think most writers have. If you are one of the lucky few you are blessed, but if you aren't, just write a synopsis, okay?

Throughout your synopsis, you can actively mark narrative traction threads. Where they start, how they are intensified, and when they are resolved. If you number them, or colour code them, you will be able to see where they overlap and if you have several strong narrative traction threads going at a time, you will hopefully have a very compelling story.

However, be aware these are not elements you bring in on top of your plot. They are parts of the plot that you are developing in specific ways, at specific times.

EG: Harry's Letter To Hogwarts.

If Harry had read his letter right away and the Dursleys had said he could go, and good riddance, all the tension would go out of the earlier chapters. However, the information is presented and withheld in stages. The letter arrives, but Harry isn't allowed to read it. He's not allowed to read it for weeks and the Dursley's go to more and more extreme steps to keep him from reading it. He doesn't get to read the letter until Hagrid arrives. And with Hagrid comes a lot more information… and a lot more promises to the reader.

If the plot synopsis says:

- Harry is raised by his aunt and uncle.
- A letter arrives inviting him to Hogwarts.
- Hagrid arrives to take Harry shopping for school supplies.

You can see that nothing fundamental has changed. Those things all happen in that order in the plot of the book. However, when presented that way, you can see how they could all happen without much narrative traction and without any tension.

We can alter the plot synopsis to be more inclusive of the tension and traction that actually occurs:

- Harry is raised by his aunt and uncle who are abusive and make him live in a closet under the stairs, denying him everything but his most basic needs, keeping him isolated.
- A letter arrives inviting him to Hogwarts, but Harry isn't allowed to read it. More and more arrive and Vernon takes them away to try and escape the barrage of mail.
- Hagrid arrives to give the letter to Harry, explaining some, but not all, of Harry's back history…. Poorly. (Creating more questions than it answers.)

The plot points are the same, you have simply added in more conflict, more tension and more narrative traction. However even at this stage of Harry Potter, there are several narrative traction threads going. Here I am only looking at the contents of the letter. Not, for example, Harry talking to the snake, the magical elements or the relationship between Harry and his extended family.

Next week, for our final installment of this narrative traction series, I am going to delve a little deeper into putting narrative traction into your own synopsises and how to troubleshoot when your narrative traction just isn't working.

1. What Is Narrative Traction
2. Types Of Narrative Traction
3. Infomational Narrative Traction
4. Event Based Narrative Traction
5. How To Create Narrative Traction
6. Troubleshooting, Plotting & Identifying

Also, to stay on top of updates, follow me on twitter and facebook, or subscribe to this blog (just use the widget to the right of this panel).