I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about narrative drive. What it is. How it works. And why it works. Every story I’ve read has been fodder for my thoughts on the topic.
First, what is narrative drive? It’s different from characters and setting. Many people say it means a tale is “plot driven,” but I don’t think so. I believe it means: “that element of a story that keeps you turning pages and wanting to know what happens next.” This is most often tied to plot but is not identical with it and also includes aspects of character and setting.
Narrative drive is about information, specifically, the release of information to the reader. The biggest tool writers have is that they know what’s going to happen in a story ahead of readers. Information is the energy that drives a tale, and the writers own all that information. To begin with, at least.
A story with narrative drive releases that hoarded information to the reader in dribs and drabs, giving only that information to the reader that the he or she wants and must have to understand what is happening. Just that much information. And no more.
Recently, for example, I read The Outsider by Stephen King. It begins with a murder and a suspect who just doesn’t seem capable of doing it. Yet, the evidence is against him. As a reader, I want to know how this situation can be explained, and King does a masterful job of releasing the information I want in little bits at a time. You might say, he ‘milks’ the situation for all he can get, and that kept me turning the pages, looking for the next tidbit. That’s narrative drive.
In contrast, I just finished an SF novella that failed the narrative drive test. This story was written by an author I admire, who is gone now, and who I’ve enjoyed plenty of stuff from in the past. The writing itself was excellent, better than King’s prose, but the problem was that halfway through the author telegraphed the ending and for the rest of the way the tale felt like a paint by numbers piece.
With King’s story, I was too absorbed to look ahead and see how many pages were left. With the SF story, I looked ahead just to see how many pages were left. Meaning, how many pages did I need to read before I could move on to something with greater narrative drive.