Wednesday, November 29, 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

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Narrative Traction - Part 4: Event Based Narrative Traction

Welcome to my six-part writing series: Narrative Traction. This week is Part four: Event Based Narrative Traction.

Once again, what is Event Based Narrative Traction?

As I said in the second post, informational narrative traction is where you withhold information that the reader wants. Even based narrative traction is when there is something the reader/viewer wants to see happen. EG: The first kiss in a romance novel.

Again, this comes down to what the readers wants, so the first step is creating that want, and creating it strongly enough that the reader sits through your entire book to get it. As in my last post on Informational Narrative traction, I have found some examples of Event Based Narrative Traction. These were a bit trickier to find for two reasons. Firstly, because to want an event to happen, you usually have to know something about the plot, characters and setting, so it was hard to find examples that made sense and secondly, it is quite tricky to find event based examples of traction that aren't quite long. They require a lot more set up.

First up, we have 'Captive Prince' by C.S Pacat (who taught me about narrative traction in the first place!):

"I hear the King of Akielos has sent me a gift," said the young man, who was Laurent, Prince of Vere. "An Akielon grovelling on its knees. How fitting."
Around him, Damen was aware of the attention of courtiers, gathered to witness the Prince's receipt of his slave. Laurent had stopped dead the moment he had seen Damen, his face turning white as though in reaction to a slap, or an insult. Damen's view, half-truncated by the short chain at his neck, had been enough to see that. But Laurent's expression had shuttered quickly.
 That he was only one of a larger consignment of slaves was something Damen had guessed, and the murmurs from the two courtiers nearest him confirmed it, gratingly. Laurent's eyes were passing over him, as though viewing merchandise. Damen felt a muscle slide in his jaw.
Councillor Guion spoke. "He is intended as a pleasure slave, but he isn't trained. Kasor suggested that you might like to break him at your leisure."
"I'm not desperate enough that I have to soil myself with filth," Said Laurent.
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Break him on the cross. I believe that will discharge my obligation to the King of Akielos."
"Yes, Your Highness."

What is implied could happen here? What do we want to see happen? There are a few key phrases. Firstly, 'He is intended as a pleasure slave' and secondly 'Break him on the cross'. We're not sure exactly what is going to happen to Damen, but we know he is helpless, a slaved and chained up, and we know it is going to be violent. Within the context of the story, there is already a lot more going on. This scene acts to pile on several other elements of event based narrative traction, since the over-arcing plot of the trilogy is Damen's drive to get home and get revenge on his brother for usurping him and selling him as a slave to the enemy. This is an example of a secondary traction arc, to carry us over the next few chapters as we find out of Damen will be turned into a pleasure slave or whipped on the cross.

Here is another example from 'Triptych' by Karin Slaughter:

Everything Will Trent said and did grated on Michael's nerves, from his 'of course,' when Michael said he would drive to the way he stared blankly out the car window as they travelled up North Avenue toward the Homes. The GBI agent reminded him of those geeky kids in high school, the ones who kept slide rules in their breast pockets and quotes obscure lines from Monty Python. No matter how many times he watched it, Michael still didn't get Monty Python and he sure as shit didn't get geeks like Trent. There was a reason those guys got the shit beaten out of them in school. There was a reason it was guys like Michael doing the beating.

Again, this promises pending violence. We can see from the hostility Michael feels for Trent, that there is going to be some sort of conflict or climax between them—either soon, or later in the book. Michael wants to hurt Trent, not just hurt him, but bully him like he did the other geeks in school. He sees this as his right. And if you're reading Karin Slaughter, it's because you want to see these kinds of conflicts play out.

Now for something a bit lighter. From my all time favourite trilogy, 'Leviathan' by Scott Westerfeld:

Since getting on the bus with Jaspert, Deryn's skin had itched with wondering what she looked like to strangers. Could they see through her boy's slops and shorn hair? Did they really think she was a young recruit on his way to the Air Proving Grounds? Or did she look like some lassie with a few screws loose, playing dress-up in her brother's old clothes?

This tells us Deryn is a girl, dressing as a boy, to join the air force. We know, somewhere in the future, she is going to get caught and it will have serious repercussions. That is the promise being made to the reader with this set up. We want to keep reading, because we want to see how that happens and what the consequences are.

And finally, we have a snippet from 'The Blade Itself' by Joe Abercrombie:

And here it is. That horrible, beautiful, stretched out moment between stubbing your toe and feeling the hurt. How long do I have before the pain comes? How bad will it be when it does? Gasping, slack-jawed at the foot of the steps, Glokta felt a tingling of anticipation. Here it comes…

This is an example of more immediate narrative traction. Obviously, a toe stubbing can't be drawn out over a whole novel. Or even a few pages. That pain is going to hit in the next paragraph. However still we can fell that pull, that traction, driving us forward to witness the explosion of pain he is about to suffer.

I hope now you can identify event based narrative traction. Next week we are going to look at how to creative narrative traction in your own work—the nuts and bolts of it. The final post in the series will be troubleshooting and working narrative traction into your plotting and synopsis.

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).