In part one of this series, I looked at the meaning of narrative and how to use it to describe what is going on in a story. In this tip, I will provide ten nuts-and-bolts items to make your narrative portions the best they can be.
1. Provide a goal for the scene. What is the character’s objective?
The first paragraph in Reapers:
The death alarm sounded, that phantom punch in the gut I always dreaded. I touched the metallic gateway valve embedded in my chest at the top of my sternum—warm but not yet hot. The alarm was real. Someone in my territory would die tonight, and I had to find the poor soul. Death didn’t care about the late hour. Reapers like me always stayed on call.
2. Establish time, place, circumstance, and viewpoint at the start of every scene. Also add a light source if the setting might otherwise be dark (veiled moon, a flashlight, a lantern).
The next paragraph in Reapers:
I rose from my moth-eaten reading chair, blew out the hanging lantern’s flame, and stalked across my one-room apartment to the window, guided by light from outside. The internal alarm grew stronger. Prickly vibrations raced along my cloak from the baggy sleeves to the top of the hood, tickling the two-day stubble across my cheeks and chin. Time was growing short—probably less than an hour left.
3. Cap off a scene with a curtain line—a focused ending that makes the reader hope for the scene to continue.
The last paragraph in chapter one of Reapers:
“Very good.” Trying to keep my hands steady, I slid the photo stick into my pocket and fished out the pill bottle. “Let’s see what we can do for Molly.”
4. Try to avoid describing lack of action:
Lack of action: “He couldn’t find a bathroom anywhere.” Action: “He flung open door after door. No bathroom!”
Lack of action: “He didn’t move.” Action: “He froze in place.”
5. Don’t release the tension. Keep your character in some kind of “danger” at all times. Danger shouldn’t be released by accident or coincidence. It should be vanquished by the character’s actions in a way that shows that he deserves to win.
6. The beginning of your story should include both mystery and immediate tension.
7. Particular is usually better than general: “Tennessee Walker” instead of “horse.” “The six maples” instead of “those trees.”
An exception to this advice: Being specific is more visual and paints a better picture, but if your point-of-view character wouldn’t identify the specific, then use the general term.
For some people, a tree is a tree is a tree. Others would differentiate between a pine and an oak. And a few would call a tree by its scientific name and think about how common or rare it is to find it in that region.
Simply put, be specific as often as you can, that is, whenever it fits your character’s ways.
8. Use active verbs as often as possible: Verbs that show the subject actually doing something are better than static state-of-being verbs like “is,” “was,” and “were.”
Exercise: Print out the first few pages of your manuscript and use a red marker to circle all uses of “was” and “were” (Or “is” and “are” if you are writing in present tense). Most new writers will find far too many and will be surprised at how many they find. These are opportunities to make the verb phrases more active and vivid.
9. Make sure your pronoun antecedents are clear and correct.
Frank and Jim ran to the ladder. When they arrived, he offered him a hand. (Who offered whom a hand? It is impossible to tell.)
He scanned the raised hands for a volunteer. They would have to be someone strong and brave. (“Volunteer” is singular, but “they” is plural, so the pronoun, they, doesn’t match the antecedent noun, volunteer.)
10. Look for paragraphs that begin the same way more than a couple of times consecutively. Do four paragraphs in a row begin with a name? Do six consecutive paragraphs begin with dialogue? Do three begin with subject-verb? A prepositional phrase? A participle?
When you alter the construction to solve this problem, do so with care. Don’t change only for the sake of variety.
Minimize paragraphs that begin with “As” or “ing” constructions. If an action is important enough to begin a paragraph, it usually shouldn’t be subordinated to a dependent clause. If you have more than one of these paragraph beginnings on a page, consider an alternative.
Please post any questions or comments you have on narrative.
Categories: Writing Tips