2. Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward.

2. Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward.

Imagine a giant ball of clay being held by a group of people. As one person presses against the clay, the clay’s shape changes.

The clay is your story; the people surrounding it represent the narrative forces pressing in upon it to shape it. For example:

Escalation: The tension must continue to escalate  scene by scene until it reaches a climax after which nothing is ever the same again.

Believability: The characters in your story need to act in contextually believable ways. All the time.

Causality: Everything that happens must be caused by the thing that precedes it.

Scenes and setbacks: If nothing is altered you do not have a scene. If your characters solve something without a setback you do not have a story.

Inevitability and surprise: Each scene should end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying to readers. The end of every scene must be not only logical but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene.

Continuity: Continuity develops through pace (the speed at which things are happening) and narrative energy (the momentum carrying them along).

Genre conventions: Readers enter a story with expectations based on their understanding of its genre. You need to be familiar enough with genre conventions to meet or exceed those expectations without resorting to cliches.

All of these elements, plus voice, setting, mood and more, press against the story in a continual give-and-take relationship, affecting one another and forming the shape of the tale. As you write, constantly look at the pressure each of these concepts places on the story:

OK, I need to escalate this chase scene—I had a foot chase before, so I can’t do that again. Maybe a helicopter chase? But will that be believable? Well, I’ll need to foreshadow that someone knows how to fly the helicopter and make it inevitable that they end up at the helicopter landing pad at this moment of the story. But does that fit in with the pace right here? Can I pull this off without relying on narrative gimmicks or coincidences?

Listen to the story, using questions like those in the sidebar below. It will reveal itself to you as you lean into it.

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