Thursday, August 26, 2010
Is your narrative smooth sailing or failing?
Historical novelist, Sara Sheridan reminds us of some techniques that help the narrative of a story.
1. Think of your story as a storyboard, like a comic or graphic novel. Run through it action by action. Anything in your text that isn’t part of the storyboard simply isn’t pacey enough. If you have pages and pages of description, you’re asking a lot of your reader. They won’t stick with you. But give them something to see happening, and they’ll stay up all night with your book.
2. Consider the tone of the narrative voice of your story.
What vocabulary have you used? Ornate language can distract a reader or evoke a particular place or time, so it’s a tightrope of which you have to be aware. Also, what is the balance between prose and dialogue? To assess this, read chapter endings in isolation to check that the narrative voice is compelling. That might sound odd. After all, no one is going to only read the endings of your chapters. But this is a great way to get a sense of the narrative voice of the whole book.
3. The easiest way to improve narrative drive is to simplify your verbs as much as possible.
In English we have a huge amount of tense formations and a high proportion of irregular verbs. It’s astoundingly easy to use three or four words where one will do. Keep it simple—make every word count. Stick to the simple present, past, and future where possible. If you can write in the present tense your prose will have especial immediacy.
3a. Be very careful of deluging your reader with adjectives.
It is far more evocative to use the action to create a description and a reader, in any case, can only process so much description at once. Choose your adjectives carefully and use them sparingly.
Unlike writing itself, publication is a team activity. You have to edit. I have learned more from working with editors than from reading or going to any kind of course. There is a sense in which the act of writing the book often makes you less able to comprehensively edit it. Novice writers are often ambivalent about editors, and think their book is perfect. No one’s book is perfect. I’d say that it’s absolutely worth getting an appraisal from a professional editor. However painful it’s going to be, ask for any criticism, and ask about suggested changes to narrative drive specifically. Your book won’t sell without it!
Does your narrative have what it takes? Ask fellow writers and friends and when in doubt, hire a professional editor. I have! Boy, did I learn tons in the process.
Original article appears as a guest post in the Writer’s Digest on August 17, 2010.