Welcome to my new, six-part writing series: Narrative Traction.
What Is Narrative Traction?
Narrative traction, as defined by CS Pacat, is the promise that something more interesting will happen if you keep reading.
We are often told in writing classes that tension and stakes are what keep a reader turning pages, yet I think we have all read scenes, or even entire books, that are not overly tense, but are still riveting reading. After all, thrillers are not the bestselling fiction genre, romance is. Romance, of course, often has a lot of tension of the will they, won't they variety. But sweet romance sells just as well as the high stakes ones. So, we can not ONLY credit success with tension and stakes.
There is a thing Pacat calls 'the sparkly' that needs to be explored before we can look deeper at narrative traction. It's something I rarely hear other writers talking about, as I think it is something we have been taught to be ashamed of, despite the fact it is one of the most obvious and powerful driving forces of book sales. That's right, we're all being told to be ashamed of what sells books. (Though I think romance is the genre where the least shame is felt about 'the sparkly' and maybe that's why it is the bestselling fiction genre.)
We all have stupid tropes, architypes and clichés we love. Meg, my co-author, loves twins and unique magic systems. I love dinosaurs, girls dressing as boys and a certain character trope—cold, intelligent, unobtrusive characters with glasses. Maybe you love 'enemies to lovers'. Maybe you love grizzled, middle-aged detectives. Whatever it is, if you pick up a book and the blurb mentions that trope, you will probably at least consider buying it.
This is 'the sparkly' and every person has their own sparkly.
It is very important to first, identify the sparkly that appeal to you as a reader and then to identify the sparkly in your book as a writer. These are the things you need to highlight in your pitch to an editor/agent and that your publisher needs to then highlight in a good blurb. Because, as I have said, they are the ideas and tropes that make you, as a reader, want to buy a book.
Sparkly that some people love can put other people off, but that's not a bad thing. If someone dislikes dystopia, you don't WANT them to read your dystopian novel. They're not going to enjoy it, they're not going to recommend it to other people and if they write you a review, it will be along the lines of: "I hate dystopia novels."
I'm telling you about sparkly, because they are an important part of identifying the promise you are making the reader, when you tell them something better will happen if they keep reading.
Think about a book recommendation from a friend. They will likely highlight a few key themes: genre, maybe a character or setting element they love, then they will tell you it's awesome. They are promising you you will enjoy it if you read it. They are giving you something to look forward to.
Or, maybe you pick up a book, read the back cover and it mentions your favourite sparkly—ninjas girls riding dragons. You want to read the book, because you are anticipating ninja girls riding dragons.
However, you can also do this in the text itself. At the start of Harry Potter, when the Dursley's won't let Harry open his mail with his invite to Hogwarts, we anticipate that eventually he will get his letter and go to Hogwarts. We are looking forward to that, we want to see what Hogwarts is like and learn about wizard school, so we keep reading, eager for that to happen. Harry going to Hogwarts is a promise that Rowling has made us in the text and we want to see that promise fulfilled.
When you start to examine best sellers, you will see this pattern repeated. A promise is made that readers want to see come to pass. Not just one, but hundreds. Even before a promise is fulfilled, a new promise is made, so by the time you get the satisfaction of Harry reaching Hogwarts, you are already focused on the next promise, and the next, until you're at the end of the book and you're desperate for the next one, because the book ended with even more promises.
So, pick up your favourite book and identify the first element that interested you and make you want to keep reading. Write a list of all the other promises that are made before that one is fulfilled. I'm guessing there will be at least one, otherwise, you would probably have put the book down as soon as you got what you wanted.
To master narrative traction, you must be able to answer the question: Why am I reading this? What do I want to know?
Once you have identified it in other's writing, you will be better able to apply it in your own.
Come back next week for part two of narrative traction: Types Of Narrative Traction.
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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