Posted On December 4, 2017 by Print This Post

Weaving Magic: The Five Threads of Dynamic Narrative by Cate Hogan

If ever a writer had a good excuse to miss a deadline, it’s Cate Hogan. In this case, the deadline was for a guest blog rather than a book, and I was both pleasantly surprised and a wee bit shocked when Cate’s post turned up in my email folder, right on time. So what was her good excuse, you ask? Well, how about a volcano erupting and fouling up the internet in her neighborhood? Cate’s neighborhood, which would normally make me drool with envy, is the island of Bali in Indonesia. Please give Cate a rousing welcome to help her shake off all that volcanic ash – this is her RU debut! 

My journey as a story developer began in the film industry. I loved my job, but I harbored a dark, shameful secret. Unlike my talented colleagues, I rarely watched the latest in Iranian cinema or surfed the French New Wave. Instead, I’d finish each day under my bed covers binging on…you guessed it…romance novels. The horror!

Occasionally, they’d be adapted for the silver screen, and I’d always wonder why the book was so much better than the movie. When I finally left the film industry to become a fiction editor, the answer became clear.

Filmmakers offer their audience a fly on the wall perspective. Novelists fly off that wall and climb inside their characters’ heads. And as obvious as that may seem, it’s pretty awesome to think about the scope and depth this offers us as storytellers. Action, exposition, description, dialogue and interior monologue are the magical threads that portray a characters’ external and internal worlds. From the rush of a speeding pulse, to the stench of something rotten, or the press of a sore tooth; nothing is off-limits. If filmmakers are all-seeing gods, novelists are all-knowing ones.

Yes, all five elements appear in film in various forms (and limitations), but in fiction they’re given room to run. Of course, gifts often come with burdens. A picture paints a thousand words, and a single shot in a film can convey a huge amount of information. Literature requires more deliberation, balance and strategy. Too much action or dialogue might undermine the character development. Endless interior monologue or exposition will leave the plot feeling dense and labored.

Quick disclaimer: As is the case in all writing guides, rules are made to be broken…blah, blah, blah. If you’ve written a New York Times bestseller that includes fifty pages of straight dialogue, you’re a certified genius and far too clever to be reading this article. Lesser mortals can apply these tips to create scenes that are evocative, well-paced, and multi-layered. Also keep in mind that refining narrative elements is a task best tackled at a later draft stage.

So why is balancing these elements so important? Let me start with a steamy example. When I first began writing scenes of a, cough, intimate nature, my technique was highly developed. It involved closing my eyes and fantasizing to my heart’s content, before scribbling the details down. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, until my editor pointed out that I’d simply written a long list of actions. He gripped her waist…She groaned as he…They cried out in ecstasy…And so it would go on, and on, and on. In my rush to explore the action, I had forgotten about the description (Her hair was coarse silk in his fingers…), the dialogue, (“My god, woman, you test me!”), the exposition (She always wore her locks tightly pinned atop her head…) and interior monologue (Her hair alone had undone him. What hope did he have as her fingers moved to the buttons of her chemise?)

As soon as I balanced these elements, my scenes came to life. Weaving allowed me to speed up or slow down the pace of an interaction as required. The different narrative elements would draw focus to what was important, or summarize the bits that weren’t. As my lovers left the bedroom and approached a haunted house, it was a good time to employ more description, creating a foreboding tone as they explored the spooky location. On the next page, dialogue and action offered urgency, gripping the reader in the moment as the poltergeist finally appeared. Later, when they moved to the library to do some research, a focus on exposition and interior monologue provided a breather, as well as valuable new information and insights into the characters’ feelings and backstory.

The following are indicators of wonky narrative weaving. Keep a look out for these signs when working through your draft:

Too many drinks. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Novels with lots of drinking scenes—tea with grandma, cocktails or coffee with the bestie—are often static and dialogue heavy. Consider adding action that brings the scene to life and progresses the plot. I.e. Susie chats with grandma (dialogue) during a shared self-defense class (action). The killer right-hook they learn goes on to save Grandma’s life, thereby progressing the plot.

 

Beyond face value. Grandma and Susie might be learning self-defense and talking about a recent spate of robberies, but we’re missing a chance to go deeper. For example, Grandma is challenging Susie about the dangers of living alone, while Susie hits the punching bag and promises to buy some mace (action + dialogue). But what if silently, Susie is frustrated by Grandma’s unspoken criticism that she isn’t married like her sisters (interior monologue). Suddenly, the scene is working on three levels, instead of two. Strong dialogue is usually supported by subtext; the conflict between what is said aloud, versus what a character is thinking and feeling.

 

Dump the info dumps. Exposition and back story are vital; we can’t appreciate the significance of an event if we’re missing important context. But do we need a page of political history while our hero is fighting for his life? Likewise, dumping lots of exposition and world building in the novel’s opening scenes will cripple the pace of a story before it’s begun. It’s fine for a first draft—often writers need to get the details down just to keep them straight in their own heads. But once you start weaving, important facts should be peppered, not splattered. It’s also smart to introduce them closer to when they become relevant, so they’re fresh in the reader’s mind.

 

Police reports. It’s tempting to describe our sexy hero from head to foot, but most of the time we only need a few clever brushstrokes to create an effective impression. We don’t spend long minutes fixated on details in regular life, so your characters shouldn’t either. Unless the focus of our attention is central to an important event, painstaking description will slow the pace and become distracting.

 

Navel gazing. Romance is all about feeling, and interior monologue gives us an intimate glimpse inside a character’s mind. But it should be a glimpse, not a lobotomy. Avoid ‘over-explaining’ emotions and thoughts by showing more, and telling less. Love can be expressed through description, dialogue and action just as effectively. This also harks back to genre. Literary fiction is driven by intellectual insights, so it’s common to spend hours inside the head of some neurotic protagonist. In romance, the focus is entertainment, and the same approach would quickly become monotonous. For example:

 

Suzie couldn’t believe Grandma kept making indirect jabs about her single life. I’m not a loser! She punched the bag. I just hate men! And besides, it’s hard to date when your whole life is under scrutiny. Maybe if she gave me a little breathing space, I might actually meet someone nice. I’d like to see her face if I did! No one is ever good enough…

 

Etc. You get the idea!

 

When used well, interior monologue can be a great device. Overused, the character becomes that mad person in the park, muttering to themselves and swiping at pigeons. Keep these silent, internal lines short, and think twice about having your character speak out aloud when alone, unless it’s some cute quirk and applied in a deliberate manner. Ninety percent of the time it’s jarring and inauthentic.

 

Too much black. If my old screenplay professor said my script had ‘too much black’, it meant I needed to cut back on the description and exposition. Novels are of course denser in nature, and too little ink on the page could be a sign your MS is turning into a screenplay: all external action and dialogue, and not enough of the internal elements to give it depth. If you have a problematic scene, highlight the text in different colors; yellow for dialogue, blue for description, and so on. Every writer has a different style, but ideally your draft will be a rainbow tapestry of devices. If some pages are dominated by just two colors, you’re probably not utilizing all the tools in your belt.

 

It doesn’t take a trained eye to feel the effects of two-dimensional writing; a reader will sense a scene is flat without necessarily being able to articulate why. It’s important to honor your unique writing style, but don’t forget to weave strategically, utilize your tools, and climb deep into the hearts and minds of your cast. Just think of all those poor, long-suffering screenwriters, who would love to do the same!

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RU Writers, which narrative element do you love employing most, or wish to develop more? And how have your preferences impacted your choice of subgenre? Has a love of description led you to write sumptuous historical romance? Perhaps you enjoy the fast-paced action found in romantic thrillers. Share your thoughts below.

Author JOANNA CAMPBELL SLAN joins us on Wednesday, December 6.

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Bio:

After many long years working her way into a fancy harbourside office, Cate Hogan left Sydney’s cut-throat film industry on the verge of a breakdown. She found her passion (and sanity) on the beautiful island of Bali, where she now helps writers become bestselling authors. When she isn’t busy developing tomorrow’s stories, she’s writing articles, dodging tourists, and shaking her head at the rising cost of coconutswww.catehogan.com

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13 Responses to “Weaving Magic: The Five Threads of Dynamic Narrative by Cate Hogan”

  1. Wonderful post, Cate. I’m a big fan of internalization, but not to the point of crazy muttering in the park. (Loved that comparison.)

    I hope all is well regarding the volcano.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | December 4, 2017, 7:59 am
  2. Cate – Thanks so much for this extremely helpful post. I find checklists convenient without being overwhelming, and I know I’ll be using this post to check up on myself.

    BTW, I knew there would be a significant time difference between us, but it’s more than I thought! I just looked it up, and you must be yawning, if you aren’t already asleep!

    This is what I found:

    Current time
    Chicago, Illinois 9:05 AM on Monday, Dec 4, 2017

    Bali 11:05 PM on Monday, Dec 4, 2017

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | December 4, 2017, 9:09 am
    • Thank you, Becke. As a longtime reader, it was great to get the chance to post an article and make some new friends. I’ve already received some lovely emails from people, what a great community!

      Most of my clients are American, and yes, I do feel like a bit of a vampire on this side of the globe. Lurking at my laptop while you all play in the sunlight! Or maybe that’s just an editor’s lot, regardless of geography…!

      Posted by Cate Hogan | December 4, 2017, 8:58 pm
  3. I was reading in bed last night and nodded off during the four pages on internal monologue. I’m enjoying the book but the author is keen on lots of internal monologue for the main characters. Thanks for the tips on writing a multi-level scene.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | December 4, 2017, 2:31 pm
    • Thanks, Jennifer. I generally find articles about the technical aspects of writing a bit boring (compared to fun stuff like character and plot development) but I decided to make this my first topic on RU because of just how pervasive it is. Thankfully it’s relatively easy to fix once it’s been identified.

      Posted by Cate Hogan | December 4, 2017, 9:20 pm
  4. Evening/morning Cate!

    Great post and hopefully your volcano is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

    When I wrote I would always forget description..=) my characters would be running around naked doing amazing things in a blank landscape but having wonderful dialog….lol….I’d always have to go back and put them in clothes and a setting.

    Thanks again and take care!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | December 4, 2017, 10:03 pm
    • I believe it will be, Carrie. The last eruption was in the sixties…

      And of all the elements that get left behind, description seems to be the most common. It’s the least ‘essential’ and the easiest to overlook. Though I’m sure your characters are pleased (for the most part) to have their clothes back!

      Posted by Cate Hogan | December 4, 2017, 11:43 pm
      • I complain to my sister about this all the time. She’s one of my editing clients and the worst offender. Everything she sends me suffers from White Room Syndrome—nondescript people talking but not reacting in undefined settings. She is getting better about that, though.

        Posted by Staci Troilo | December 5, 2017, 7:02 am
  5. Wow, this is an awesome post, Cate. Thanks for pointing out, so succinctly, these vital elements to keep an eye on.

    Posted by Claire Gem | December 5, 2017, 11:51 am

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