The Narrative Trap

Some of the most brilliant fiction arrives in a mostly narrative form. Literary fiction in particular, often appears to “tell” a story without seeming telly. This approach makes for a pretty, yet deceptive web. And that’s where first-time or inexperienced novel writers often pay the price.
Writing Tip for Today: When narrative takes the place of scene writing, in all but the most skillful hands, the result is a detached feeling, where the camera never quite breaches the character’s emotions. If you feel drawn to a narrative style in your own fiction, here are some hints for making the reader care in the absence of scenes with action and dialogue:
  • Yep. Timing is Everything. Read a narrative passage from a novel you admire. Count the number of sentences or paragraphs of narrative before there is some way to anchor the reader in a scene. This might be the character’s sensory reaction to something in the setting, a bit of action, a line of dialogue. The point is that most authors give the reader a bit of something concrete every now and then. One really good example is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
  • Get Out of My Head. For many who write a lot of narrative, the culprit is that old enemy, back story. The character is often on stage alone (first clue), looking out a window or in some way remembering another time. If what happened before the story starts is more important or exciting than what is happening in real time on stage, maybe the story isn’t starting at the right place. Try to get your characters out of head mode and into action mode.
  • Draft Crappy, Edit Hard. Go ahead and write whatever you think of to get your draft finished: long soliloquies, kitchen table scenes, narrative that goes on and on. Just be sure to edit later with a cold hard eye, asking yourself if every page moves the story, and if every scene has movement. If you need to, the Rule of Three (pages, paragraphs, sentences) can help you balance scenes with narrative.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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