Writing Fiction: 4 Tips To Build Narrative Drive (Suspense)

You’re writing fiction.

Would you like to write a page-turner, that is, a novel which keeps your reader up long after his bedtime? Of course you would.

Let’s look at how to do that.

Whatever genre you’re writing, be it a cozy mystery, or science fiction, or even a literary novel, you need suspense to keep readers reading. “Suspense” is narrative drive: readers are driven to zoom through your novel because they’re frantic to discover what happens next.

New to writing fiction? Excellent. You can discover narrative drive and implement the tricks to create it (fiction strategies are all tricks) before you develop bad habits.

Writing fiction made easier: leave out the boring bits

Narrative drive is all about EMOTIONS.

Specifically: curiosity and worry/ anxiety.

I’m sure you’ve heard authors recommending that you “leave out the boring bits” when you’re writing fiction. In the immortal words of Elmore Leonard:

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

These tips will get you started implementing narrative drive in your fiction.

1. Stop explaining! Explanations ruin your fiction

Remember curiosity and anxiety.

Resist explanations—they ruin your fiction.

If you think you need backstory… you’re wrong. Readers just want to know what happens next.

BTW, “backstory” is everything that happens before your story starts. YOU need to know the backstory, but your reader doesn’t. He’ll pick it up as he reads.

Avoid the temptation to dump information—you’re destroying your fiction. Create open loops. Close them later. (Much later, for preference.)

2. Create open loops and never close a loop before opening another one

Instead of explaining, use open loops. “Open loops” are also known as the Zeigarnik Effect—they exploit your readers’ primal desire for closure. When you open a loop, you’re developing both curiosity and anxiety in your readers.

Open loops are hints and teases.

Use them to:

  • Create red herrings if you’re writing a mystery;
  • Foreshadow future events;
  • Unsettle readers as much as possible.

Remember Chekhov’s gun:

… if you draw attention to something, you will eventually need to reveal why it’s worth noticing.

In your first draft, don’t worry too much about open loops, or anything else. Just write, because you’re telling yourself the story. Remove backstory and other info dumps in revision.

Use a spreadsheet to track your open loops, otherwise you’ll forget they exist. Ask your beta readers to let you know if you’ve left any loose ends.

In your first draft, don’t worry too much about open loops, or anything else.

3. Ensure your main character is sympathetic, even if he’s unlikeable

Readers must identify with your main character, so ensure that he “saves the cat”. In other words, show him acting in a kind or courageous manner shortly after he’s introduced to the reader.

No matter how unlikeable your main character, if you show him being kind to a pet or a child, you’re golden. One of the best “save the cat” moments in movies occurs in the Clint Eastwood film, Hang ‘Em High.

Clint saves a calf from drowning in the very first scene. Subconsciously we think of him as a sympathetic character from then on, no matter how violently he acts.

4. Ensure that each scene has ONE point of view (POV)

Remember to “stay in character” when you write. Maintain one POV in each scene, because you want readers to feel the action. Use all the senses: sight, sound, etc.

The more deeply you draw readers into the fictive dream, the greater the suspense.

When you send your beta readers your manuscript, ask them to mark any points at which they dropped out of the story. You’ll often find that at those points, you failed to maintain the relevant POV.

Many elements contribute to strong narrative drive

I’ve been reading Angel by Colleen McCullough. Although I adore her writing, I’ve given up reading Angel halfway through—for the second time.

There’s zero story question. The main character, Harriet Purcell, starts out as sympathetic, then becomes unsympathetic. Needless to say, there’s no narrative drive.

Many elements contribute to a powerful narrative drive in your fiction. The above tips will help. Have fun. 🙂

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