A common problem that plagues novelists—from beginners to those who have mastered major skills like voice, characterization, and beautiful prose—is a lack of narrative drive.
Done well, and paired with excellent pacing and a compelling voice, narrative drive is an essential component to keep readers hooked to the page, reading chapter after chapter, long past when they should have gone to bed.
So, what is narrative drive, and how do you make sure your novel has it?
Review your protagonist’s emotional cause and effect.
It may seem tedious, but tracking emotional cause and effect is the single most effective way to make sure that your character is driving the narrative, to make sure you’ve told a story, rather than simply slinging together a bunch of interesting events that no one actually gives a shit about (harsh, but true).
While you won’t likely have this nailed in the first draft, by the time you’re ready to send your novel to an agent, you should be able to answer “why does your protagonist do that?” about every decision they make in the novel.
Yes, every single one.
A wizard shows up at your character’s front door and invites them on a quest? You need to know why they say yes (or no).
They go on the quest and nearly get eaten by a giant lizard? You need to know what the character is feeling after that event. And that emotion? Yup, that needs to influence what they choose to do next.
Now, of course, characters are meant to emulate real people, and real people have a whole host of conflicting emotions. This is not a problem. In fact, your characters likely have conflicting feelings, too, which should be on the page in a compelling way.
Maybe our poor Chosen One, fresh off surviving a near-beheading, feels scared and wants to go home. But maybe they also feel the need to prove themself to the cute wizard apprentice that’s along for the journey. As a result of those conflicting emotions, they’re willing to keep going to save face.
And why do they want to save face? Because of some specific backstory you’ve already figured out—or will now need to explore.
This is why writing is an iterative process. As you know more about what happens in the story, you’ll know more about what needed to happen before page one to give your characters their unique beliefs, wounds, and goals.
This is why revision is such an important part of the writing and publishing process.
You may have heard the advice (which I believe Pixar popularized) that plot points should connect with words like but or therefore, rather than and then. Emotional cause and effect is another way of illustrating that point.
Stories that go: “a wizard tries to recruit Max for a quest, but Max says no. And then rebels attack, destroying Max’s home. And then on his way out of town with the wizard, Max’s childhood crush confesses Major Feelings, so Max invites her along” can end up feeling lifeless, despite big action.
With that kind of framing, it’s very likely the narrator isn’t making decisions that move the story along. The MC (main character) just reacts to random events, which will lose readers.
Instead, we want stories that connect with but or therefore. We can have the same plot points, but when deepened with emotional cause and effect, the reader gets much more invested in the story.
Understanding a character’s thought process and emotional depths is why readers, well, read, rather than choose other forms of storytelling. It’s the interiority we don’t readily get in other mediums. In real life, we rarely find out why people do what they do. But in fiction, we get a deeply intimate account of the protagonist’s inner world (yes, even in genre fiction!).
In the most successful stories, character decisions are rooted in their emotions. Those emotions, in turn, are rooted in the character’s core beliefs and their perspective on the world, in their backstory. This is what makes them feel like real people, making decisions, that have consequences (both good and bad).
So, let’s take that same scenario above, but deepen it with emotional cause and effect.
A wizard showed up at Max’s front door and urges him to go on a magical quest. Max feels scared because his brother agreed to go on a quest and never came home. That fear causes Max to decline the Wizard’s invitation.
Therefore the rebels tracking the “Chosen One” are led to Max’s current location. His home. The rebels destroy his home, which fills Max with rage and grief and guilt. Max blames himself for putting his village at risk, for being too much of a coward (“at least my brother was brave enough to keep the rest of us safe”), so he vows to make it up to those who were hurt by completing the wizard’s quest.
But because of the delay in getting started, Max’s childhood crush has time to return to the destroyed town, and not realizing Max is the reason it was destroyed, she begs to go with him on the quest.
And so on.
Now, of course, the tricky part is getting all those thoughts and feelings that drive character decisions onto the page in a narratively interesting way. In a way that hides the hand of the author and makes the reader feel like it was always going to be that way …
But that’s an article for another time.
A note of caution: do not use this as a procrastination tool. You don’t need a perfect cause and effect figured out for every line of dialogue. This is a great tool for brainstorming, troubleshooting, and getting unstuck. The emotional cause and effect should make sense throughout the story, but that comes through the iterative process of revision. Don’t try to nail it on Draft One. Leave some room for magic.
*Feature photo by Mikhail Nilov (Pexels)