I’ve written before about the importance of making your audience ask ‘what next’, but let’s play with that for a little bit. There are a lot of stories out there – more and more, it seems – that only answer that question. Sometimes they play with the structure of it, or offer some crazy twist, but in the end, all they do is answer that question. Make no mistake- it is a question you want your readers to ask, but your story should do more than that. In short, your narrative should not just be narration.
Think of telling someone about your day – I got up, and then I got dressed, and then I had some breakfast, and then I got in the car, and zzzzzzzzz. Bo-ring, right? Do you see the problem phrase? “And then” – if all you’re doing is saying “and then”, you’re telling a boring story.
So let’s assume you have build anticipation for that which is to come – so what next? Two simple words to replace “and then”: but and therefore. (for the record, I know I am far from the first to realize this, or point it out, but holy hell, it makes all the difference). Apply those two words to the simplest of anecdotes – it’s instantly more interesting: I got up, but I really didn’t want to, therefore I hit my snooze button like it owed me money, but I had to write that blog post on narrative structure therefore I dragged my sorry and slightly hungover ass out of bed.
See the difference?
But you obviously can’t just say but every other sentence – it has to be woven into the overall structure. Maybe you’re an plotter; maybe not, but either way this should be on your mind. Think of the beats in Fellowship of the Ring, after the fellowship sets out:
- They try going over the mountains
- but there is too much snow
- therefore they have to go through the mines
- but goblins have killed the dwarves
- therefore they have to fight their way through
- but the Balrog is too much
- therefore Gandalf sacrifices himself
And there we reach a turn of the story, when they reach Lothlórien. Notice what this structure does: not only does it build anticipation for the beats to come, it shifts the focus from the Fellowship to their obstacles. The story begins to be more than simple narration. and then they went through the mines and then they fought goblins etc, makes it just about the heroes and makes them unrelatable, because they always overcome. But, because of all the buts, there is always the possibility of failure.
But you can’t just shove obstacles and consequences in the path of your story – you sort of have to handle that well. There are a million ways to go about this, of course, and you should do what works for you, with your style, but I invite you to think of cuts in movies for a moment. A director chooses what you see, and how you see it. You have the same control the lens in the mind of the reader – and used properly, it can be even more impactful than the audio/visual a movie provides.
How so? Because a movie only has access to those to senses – you can engage all of them within your reader. Scent, for example, is the sense most closely tied to memories. Ever get the barest whiff of something, and suddenly, you’re transported to a moment in time? That is what you can do for your readers. But that’s not news, is it? Of course you can describe anything – but we want to do more than just narrate it.
So choose carefully what your reader sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes. Don’t shove it in their face, either. That’s just narrating. Give them the whiff of sent, the whisper barely heard and invite their imagination to fill in the rest from their own experiences and sensations – that is what will put them in the environment. All of that frames your story, gives it context and depth – so choose what to focus on, and how long it is lingered upon.
Do that (and a few other things) and you take your reader from simply reading a story to being a part of it.