You write fiction. However, your stories seem a little… boring. Writing suspenseful bestsellers seems impossible. You wonder… how do bestselling authors create powerful novels and short stories which keep readers reading?
Here’s what keeps readers reading: narrative drive.
Write fiction that’s powered by narrative drive
What’s narrative drive? It’s what makes your story involving, and keeps it moving.
I’m currently watching Hostages on Netflix, the original Israeli version. The main character is a surgeon who’s about to operate on the Israeli prime minister. Terrorists seize the family in their home: the surgeon’s told that she must murder the prime minister when she operates on him, or her family will die.
What will the surgeon do? Will she choose her family, or the prime minister? Who will live, and who will die? That’s the story question. It powers the narrative — it’s the narrative drive.
Here’s the thing. Narrative drive results from deliberate strategies engineered by the writer. It’s not accidental. It won’t just happen because you’re a good person who’s kind to children and animals.
You must create narrative drive, and use it to power your short stories and novels.
The good news is that it’s not magic, nor even all that hard. You can do it. These tips will help.
One point: these tips have NOTHING to do with “talent” or “being a good writer”. To repeat: they’re strategy.
1. Control information: the less (generally) the reader knows, the better
Ta da da… you’re writing happily along, writing, writing…
In your first draft, you’re telling your story for YOU.
You don’t know the story yet. Characters develop, so do plot points. Since that’s the case, you don’t know how much readers need to know, because you don’t know all that much yourself, yet.
To write suspenseful fiction, you’ll need to CUT a lot of material from your first draft. No, it’s not what you want to hear, but do it. You want readers to chew their fingernails, and stay awake past their bedtime, wondering what happens next.
To cut down on deletions in any draft, especially in your first draft, eliminate clutter in your story the simple way: don’t write clutter.
- No backstory. Leave it out. No one wants or needs to know your characters’ history, or the town’s history.
- Stop foreshadowing. It’s a bad habit. To readers, it’s like going to a movie with a friend who’s seen it already. The friend offers constant commentary: “the good bit’s coming now — watch what happens… you’ll never guess what she’s doing…” You want to smother the friend. Readers can’t do the same to the author; so they’ll toss your novel into the trash.
2. Improve your story question: make it a life or death situation for your main character
This one’s the biggie.
Something important MUST be at stake in your story. If not literal life or death, then metaphorical life or death. When there’s nothing at stake, readers don’t care, and they won’t read.
Writers send me blurbs for their upcoming novels, or they attach the first few pages of a novel to an email message. The writing’s fine, but there’s nothing much happening. If he’s writing fantasy, the writer’s all about his story’s world. If he’s writing a thriller, the author piles up the body count. In a romance, the main character meets someone cute, but if a tree fell on the guy, her life would go on much as it did before.
Your characters MUST care, for readers to care.
Work out what your story question is (it’s always related to the genre) and then work out why your main character must win, or die.
3. Use open loops: when you close one, open another, always
Open loops are psychological strategies used most often as copywriting tricks. They’re hooks and unanswered questions. You can and should use open loops right throughout your novel.
Many novels use a rapid cutting technique of a series of cliffhangers — open loops. The author places a character in a tough spot, and leaves him there for a few scenes. When the author returns and rescues the character, he’s closing that loop, so he immediately opens another one.
Humans want closure; open loops leave things hanging, to keep readers reading. In later drafts, you can structure a novel so that you’re constantly leaving the reader with unanswered questions.
Open loops have setups, and payoffs, just as jokes do. Some “big” open loops, the story question of a novel, don’t pay off until the novel’s climax. Will the police catch the serial killer in a thriller, for example. Or in a romance, will the hero and heroine get together despite all their problems?
When you write fiction, use one or two tricks
When you write fiction, you build your stories, just as you’d build a house. I call first draft writing “making mud”, in the sense of making mud bricks to build a house. You’re creating elements; the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle if you like.
Once you’ve completed your first draft, you’ll trick your readers. You’ll combine the elements you created into an involving novel which readers can’t put down.
Is this easy to do? No, it’s not. However, knowing what you’re trying to do — even if you fall far short in practice — makes it more likely that you’ll write fiction which readers love. Have fun. 🙂
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