Self-Critique: Narrative Tension
Saul Bottcher, IndieBookLauncher.com—Posted 13 August 2013
This article is part of an ongoing series on how to self-critique your manuscript. It contains a list of questions to help you improve narrative tension in your manuscript. For a definition of narrative tension, see our article Basics of Writing: Narrative Tension.
- Setup and Anticipation
- Reader’s Investment
- Developing and Sustaining Tension
- Genuine Stakes
- Relation to Other Elements
- Author’s Goals
Setup and Anticipation
- What am I doing within the first few pages to create narrative tension?
- If I’m not introducing my primary source of narrative tension immediately, what am I using to bridge the gap?
- What are the consequences the reader initially anticipates? Remember, they aren’t yet aware of any upcoming twists or developments. What makes the narrative tension work for them now?
- What is the ultimate question that my reader wants answered?
- What is the focus of their uncertainty: not knowing the outcome, not knowing the consequences, not knowing the motivation/cause, or something else?
- What am I doing to help create the focus?
- What character or idea is my reader invested in?
- Is their investment intellectual or emotional?
- If their investment is emotional, is it positive or negative?
- What am I doing to create this feeling of investment?
Developing and Sustaining Tension
- What needs to happen in my plot before I can properly address the reader’s primary question?
- During the story, does the reader see steady progress toward their question being answered, or is progress indirect? (For example, in a mystery story, is there a steady flow of clues and information, or does the protagonist spend the bulk of the story battling through other circumstances to get a single piece of information to solve the mystery?)
- If progress is indirect, what is my secondary source of tension? (Consider self-critiquing the secondary source as well if it takes up the bulk of your story.)
- Does the climax address the primary question? (It’s not necessary to give the reader what they want, but the climax should speak to the question in some way.)
- Among the possible outcomes of the situation, are there any “easy outs” which avoid interesting consequences?
- If so, why are these options not chosen by the characters involved? Does something prevent them from making the easy choice, or do their personalities or principles compel them to make the difficult choice?
- What have I done to build a foundation for these obstacles, personalities, or principles ahead of time so they are believable at the crucial moment? (It's not necessary to explicitly introduce every factor involved, but any surprises should fit logically with what is already known.)
- If my narrative tension is based on the struggles of a protagonist...
- Do they ever fail, or are they “charmed”?
- When they fail, do they suffer the full consequences of failure, or are they exempted by special circumstances?
- What have I done to make it clear to the reader that the outcome may not be what they’re hoping for?
- What “proof” have I given that I am willing to carry through with the undesired outcome and its consequences?
Relation to Other Elements
- Do the events of my plot build the narrative tension? (For example, if the source of tension is a relationship between two characters, does my plot allow for enough scenes featuring those characters?)
- Do the motivations and behaviours of my characters build the narrative tension? (For example, if the source of tension is a sensitive political situation, do the personalities of the individual characters cause them to act in ways that “throw fuel on the fire”?)
- Does my pacing support the narrative tension by emphasizing scenes that enrich the reader’s experience of the primary question? (You don't need to constantly focus on the question. Sometimes a maddening refusal to address the question is exactly what is needed to make the story compelling.)
- Does my structure (order of telling) support narrative tension? Am I starting the story in a place where I can introduce the tension promptly, and telling it in an order that sustains and builds the tension?
- What type of experience am I trying to create? How should the narrative tension rise and fall throughout the story?
- What emotions do I want the reader to feel?
- How much focus should be on the dilemma itself, versus the consequences or motivations?
- Looking back over all the questions above, have I made decisions that support the experience, emotions, and focus I want to create?
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