Narrative thrust is what drives the reader to keep reading. If your story is weak in this area, then readers won’t be interested enough to stay with the story. Narrative thrust involves all the elements of storytelling: action, setting, voice, theme, description, conflict, dialogue, character, point of view. Measure out each element appropriately so that your story is balanced enough to hook your readers and compel them to keep turning the pages.
Weaving the elements in, under, and around each other will produce a more gripping scene or chapter. You want to avoid writing one element at a time. For example, when you’re describing your characters, do it while your character is in action. This will avoid a laundry list of character detail, for example, she was five foot four, blue-eyed, blonde, and hefty.
“I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag.” –THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
In the above excerpt, we see Katniss through her actions, and through her actions, we see some important telling details. The story is moving forward even as we are given a snapshot of what she looks like. The details aren’t clumped together like a laundry list and we enjoy the description more because it’s active.
Test narrative thrust using old-fashioned curiosity.
“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. [Why? What about New York is better than where they moved to? Where did they move? What happened to make them move?] Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy, three, the twins Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister Margaret, dead and gone. [Who is this family? Why did they go to Ireland? When did this happen? What happened to Margaret?]
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. [Was it dangerous? What kinds of things happened to the narrator? Who is the narrator?] It was of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” [Why is the Irish Catholic childhood the worst of them all? What happens to these children?]
In these first two paragraphs from ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt, we learn that the narrator is going to share some or all of his/her experiences from childhood. We know it was miserable, that a sibling has died, presumably at a young age, and that the parents made a grave mistake moving from New York to Ireland.
All of that information is filled with conflict and tension—the primary ingredients for page turning.
“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Above all—we were wet.” [This entire paragraph + sentence takes it one notch deeper: we’re not only curious and want to know more, we now have clues as to the kinds of things we’re going to read about.]
The more sentences that get by that don’t stir curiosity, take it as a warning flag your pacing has slowed…so will your reader’s interest.
If you think about pacing in the terms of action-reaction, or cause and effect, then you’ll have an easier time keeping the pacing consistent but engaging.
For every action there must be a reaction, whether it’s a reaction in the physical or the emotional sense. Don’t forget, after the reaction, characters need to assess what just happened so that they can make a decision to generate the next bit of action.
Keep these key points in mind as you’re constructing your scenes:
- Protagonist needs to be active and make decisions, good and bad, although bad decisions create more narrative thrust
- Dropping clues to help tantalize the reader without giving too much away
- Set stakes and keep notching them up
- Set deadlines for your characters to reach their story goals
- Weave your detail in with action
- Make your detail matter. If it doesn’t come up again or have any consequence, it’s likely dead weight and slowing your pacing
Do you find pacing and narrative thrust to be difficult or easy to manage? What is one of your favorite tricks to ensure an engaging page-turner?
Have a writerly day!