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.
PROMISE – WITHOLD – RESOLVE
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.
TELL THEM WHAT THEY WANT
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.
PLOTTING & IDENTIFYING
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.
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POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
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