The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading

A red stylized rocket with neon rings around it

by Russell Honeywell | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from Paula Munier’s Writing with Quiet Hands, recently released from Writer’s Digest Books.


As a reader, a writer, and an agent, I read thousands of stories a year—or at least the opening pages of thousands of stories. And, all other things being equal, the reason I most often stop reading is a lack of narrative thrust.

Narrative thrust is the taut building of story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, using the complexities of plot and character to propel the story forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax. You must write each scene so that it leads logically to the next, as if you were connecting a model train, car by car, presenting story questions as you proceed down the track, pushing the action forward to its inevitable, if unpredictable, ending.

A lack of narrative thrust occurs when one scene does not logically lead to another.

You need to connect each scene, as readers need to know what the protagonist’s motives are, and what he wants in every scene. Only then will they care about what happens next. Otherwise your story will read as a series of random scenes strung together—rather than as a compelling narrative.

Narrative thrust provides momentum for a story; it’s the gas that fuels your story’s engine. You can also think of it as the magnet that pulls the reader through the story. You know it when you experience it—just think of the last story that kept you up all night, the last novel you couldn’t read fast enough and yet didn’t want to end.

But recognizing narrative thrust as a reader and knowing how to create it as a writer are two very different things. So let’s take a look at how you can enhance the narrative thrust of your story—and how you may be unwittingly sabotaging it.

The Art of the Story Question

When we talk about novels with narrative thrust, we’re not just talking about the page-turners written by the Gillian Flynns and Harlan Cobens of the thriller world. The best novels in every genre boast a strong narrative thrust. Simply put, this means that the authors have mastered the art of the story question—the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions readers ask themselves as they read, and keep reading.

Much to my family’s annoyance, I’ve been obsessed with story questions since childhood. As a kid, I drove my father crazy asking a million questions as we watched his favorite shows on television. Why doesn’t Matt Dillon shoot first (Gunsmoke)? Is Captain Kirk going to kill all those cute Tribbles (Star Trek)? Can Phelps really train a cat to be a spy (Mission Impossible)? Can I be Joey Heatherton when I grow up (The Dean Martin Show)? The Colonel, not one to appreciate the artistic temperament, would say in an authoritarian voice, “Watch and find out.”

My compulsion to question every beat of a story worsened over time. Once I became a writer and an editor, this obsession became an occupational hazard that always threatened to ruin the viewing pleasure of my non-publishing friends and family. Yes, I’m the terrible person who leaned toward my companion watching The Sixth Sense just a few minutes into the film and stage-whispered, “But he’s dead, isn’t he?” Even now, decades later, I still drive people crazy by asking questions while we watch a show together. Especially my non-writer partner, Michael, who, like my father, has a tendency to answer my ubiquitous questions with a sweet if somewhat terse, “Let’s watch and find out, honey.”

If you do this—aloud or silently—as you enjoy a story in any medium, congratulate yourself. Even if your friends and family hate you for it, it’s a good thing. You’re thinking like a writer, putting your writing self in the storyteller’s place and asking yourself, “What would I do if I were writing this story?” Just as important, you’re noticing the story questions in the narrative—and learning by osmosis how you can build them into your own narrative.

The most successful artists balance imagination with craft, creativity with logic. For a writer, this balance is critical because even the most original story told illogically will fail. When it comes to this delicate balance, narrative thrust is the canary in the coal mine. You need to build your original story in a sensible way, pulling your readers along clearly and cleanly with story questions that arise logically from your lucid and precise prose.

3 Levels of Story Questions

Story questions are posed at the macro, meso, and micro levels—and your job is to build them all into your prose.

The macro story question is the big question that drives the entire plot: Will Cinderella marry her prince? Will Dorothy make it home to Kansas? How will Sherlock Holmes solve the case?

The meso story questions drive each scene: Will Cinderella’s stepmother let her go to the ball once she’s finished her chores? Will Dorothy survive the cyclone? Will Dr. Watson move into 221B Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes?

And the micro questions are the questions scattered through the narrative at every opportunity—the more the better, as shown below, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:

The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air [Where is the house going?]. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon [What will happen to Dorothy? Will she survive?].

The north and south winds met where the house stood [That can’t be good, right?], and made it the exact center of the cyclone [Is that good or bad?]. In the middle of a cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone [How high is high? What will happen when the house falls?]; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather [What about Dorothy and Toto? What’s happening to them? Will they be carried away like feathers, too? When will gravity win out?].

If you’re thinking, Give me a break, this example is very old. Times have changed, and the criteria are different now—well, you’re half right. This is an old example and times have changed and the criteria are different—they’re even worse now, at least in terms of story questions. You need to start immediately with compelling story questions and keep ’em coming until The Very End, as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel does from the first word:

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen [Who has fallen? Is hebadly hurt or just scared? If so, of whom? Did he hit his head? Why is he dazed?]; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard [Cobbles? Yard? Where is he?]. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate [What gate? To or from where?], as if someone might arrive to help him out [Will someone arrive to help him? Who? Does he have no friends? No family?]. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now [Who’s going to kill him? Whoever’s talking to him? Who would want to? Why? What is he going to do? Just lie there and let it happen?].

Did you note all the story questions raised in just a few opening lines? That’s narrative thrust. That’s your competition. That’s what you need to do, too.

Pacing

At its heart, the purpose of narrative thrust is to put the fear of the storytelling gods in your readers. Whether you are writing a horror story or a lighthearted romance, you are scaring your readers into turning the pages. Do your job right, and they’ll want to see what happens next; they’ll need to see what happens next. They’ll feel compelled to keep reading, no matter how late the hour or how long the story.

The logical progression of your scenes, as well as the story questions that fuel the action in those scenes, are responsible for scaring your readers silly. But just as important is pacing, the rate of your narrative thrust. Pacing is the gait of your storytelling—and a slow horse is a dead horse.

The very word pacing has become a touchstone in the industry today; if I had a dollar for every editor who complained publicly or privately about the so-called “pacing problems” plaguing today’s submissions, I’d have a lot more dollars—and lot more deals. It’s gotten to the point where many editors will refuse to review manuscripts based solely on word counts they deem too high. The rationale: If the story is that long, it must have “pacing problems.”

To make sure your pacing is on track, here are some dos and don’ts, all of which you ignore at your peril:

  1. DO make something happen. The biggest issue in most stories is that not enough happens. There’s no narrative thrust without action.
  2. DO have your protagonist drive that action. The reader wants to identify with the hero, and through him experience the transformative journey that the story takes him on. When the hero is passive or inactive or a bystander to the proceedings, the reader’s interest flags.
  3. DON’T confuse foreshadowing with forecasting. Foreshadowing is a literary tool by which you use tone and style to create a mood or evoke a feeling, typically of foreboding. This helps create suspense. But when you come right out and tell the reader what (usually) bad thing is going to happen, you’re forecasting—and eliminating any suspense that may otherwise have strengthened your narrative thrust.
  4. DON’T break the fourth wall. This is often an excuse to tell the reader what’s going to happen before it happens—thereby destroying any suspense you may be trying to build. This is the “If only I had known” device, which is hopelessly old-fashioned and, more often than not, just plain lame. As in: “If only I had known that by the end of the day/night/week/month/year, my career/ romance/life would be changed forever.” Again, you’re depriving your readers of the element of surprise. Worse, you’re taking them out of your story to do it.
  5. DO raise the stakes for your heroine. Give her bigger and bigger obstacles to overcome as your story progresses; make those story questions increasingly challenging.
  6. DO add a ticking clock if you can. Give your protagonist a hard-stop deadline—if he doesn’t find the bomb by 2 p.m., it goes off; if she doesn’t tell her mother to butt out of her life by Friday, she’ll miss the chance to sail off into the sunset with her beloved on that weekend cruise to Catalina.
  7. DO as the king of pacing, Lee Child, says: “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.”
  8. DON’T belabor your descriptions. Stick to the one telling detail. Don’t describe your heroine’s every feature; just tell us that she never leaves the house without mascara.
  9. DON’T let your characters talk too much. Dialogue should not replace action.
  10. DO aim, above all, for clarity. Whenever readers have to stop to think about what you’re trying to say—or worse, reread it!—you risk losing them forever.

Cover for Writing with Quiet Hands (small tree against blue sky with clouds)Pacing is the one element of craft I am very particular about as an agent. If the pacing is off, I won’t shop the story. Period.


For more on the art and craft of writing from Paula Munier, check out Writing with Quiet Handsjust released from Writer’s Digest Books.

 

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , .
Paula Munier

Paula Munier

Paula Munier is a senior literary agent and content strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She began her career as a journalist and along the way added editor, acquisitions specialist, digital-content manager, and publishing executive to her repertoire. Paula has penned countless news stories, articles, essays, collateral, and blogs, as well as authored/co-authored more than a dozen books, including Plot Perfect from Writer's Digest Books.

Join the conversation

50 Comments on "The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
trackback

[…] Agent Paula Munier explains how to imbue your writing with narrative thrust to keep your readers turning the pages.  […]

Jessi Rita Hoffman
Well said! Lack of narrative thrust is also the most common problem I find in books I’m asked to edit or critique. Often an aspiring novelist zigzags backwards and forwards in time, hoping to create questions in the reader’s mind and to “write modern,” but for beginning authors, this often backfires and only confuses and frustrates the reader. Better to make a point of logically connecting each scene than to lay out scenes like patchwork quilt pieces the reader has to try to piece together for them to make any sense.Suspense and intrigue must come from the dilemma of the… Read more »
Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Absolutely true. I blame the influence of TV and film, which encourages novelists to write from the camera POV, rather than the character’s POV.

babs50nfab

This was excellent advice and will help me when I get to the editing stage. Thank you!

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

You’re welcome! Happy revising!

vanderso

I appreciate seeing the abstraction “narrative thrust” broken down into concrete steps. I’ve just revised my current WIP to work on pacing issues; it’s fascinating how you don’t miss the slow signs of your secret genius once you let go of it. Thanks!

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Good for you. Pacing is everything!

janlcoates

Great article! Thanks.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

My pleasure. And thank you, @janefriedman!

Kristin Johnson

Note to self: plant more questions in the reader’s mind…or inspire them to ask those questions. Great article.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Story questions are so much fun. Soon they’ll become a way of life, and you;ll be driving your friends and family crazy too lol

tonybulmer

Paula’s latest book is excellent, as is her previous book Plot Perfect.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

You are too kind. PS: I get a kick out of our twitter conversations.

James Pitter

Very thorough and helpful article. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s probably number 9: ‘DON’T let your characters talk too much. Dialogue should not replace action’. Food for thought, indeed.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

And if you write good dialogue, the temptation is to rely on it too much!

trackback

[…] from craft to business product is often stressful and fraught with angst. Paula Munier explains the big reason why agents and editors often stop reading, and James Scott Bell tells us why the writer and the market should be […]

trackback

[…] The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading […]

writerons: Andrew (Andy) Stevans

Great insights, Paula Munier. Your ability to explain relatively complex subject matter simply and clearly is a gift. I write memoirs and short essays. Maintaining thje readers interest (curiosity) and knowing the value of connecting scenes, of brief dialogue and pacing are required in historic narrative as well as in my farm stories–actually brief snapshots (600-750 words) of a series of chronological farm events from the view-point of a city bred teen. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette called this type of writing anecdotal.

Andrew L. Stevans, author of “Country Livin’ ” and other books.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Thanks so much!
BTW, your farm stories sound like great fun!

trackback

[…] Paula Munier: The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading […]

trackback

[…] The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading by Paula Munier […]

Laura moe

In my rough drafts I tend to clog the pages with backstory, but as I revise I ask questions all throughout. I like the idea of asking a question sentence by sentence.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Building in more story questions is a great revision strategy.

Donna Wolfe

How do authors like Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games make us care so much so quickly?

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

She gives us a big sister stepping in to save her little sister. What’s not to like?

Jewel Eliese

She gave us a hero, villain and, most important, a victim.

dawn

I’d love to have you comment on how this would look in non-fiction writing. What makes editors and agents stop reading non-fiction? Many thanks!

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

It all depends on the kind of nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction and memoir require the same kind of narrative thrust as fiction. For self-help and how-to, you need to begin by telling the reader how they’ll benefit from reading your book, and then laying out those benefits.
You need to organize your material in the most engaging and entertaining way. You need to provide lots of examples and anecdotes and concrete ways in which readers can apply the information to their own lives.

trackback

[…] big time. And a couple of what Paula Munier calls “micro-story questions,” the elements that help to deliver what she calls […]

Mindy

Thank you! This is so clear and concise, so helpful. Examples always clarify for me. Thanks, Mindy

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

I’m so glad you found it useful. Happy writing!

trackback

[…] The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors (and readers) Often Stop Reading […]

trackback

[…] The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading […]

Kalinya Parker-Pryce

Loved Writing With Quiet Hands. Am currently using its guidance in revision of my current WIP.

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Thanks so much! I wrote the book in the hope that writers would do just that! Because the writers who get published are the writers who finish, and revise.

karencrider

I like to write humor. Timing is everything. But I learned from E.B. White years ago that clarity and conciseness is paramount. I think when a writer puts all that in their writing a lot of the other problems are solved. What do you think?

ajflowers
Very intriguing post. I have a question about narrative thrust. While it’s good to make the reader ask questions, isn’t there such a thing that the reader is asking too many questions? Maybe they start to feel lost, or unsure of what’s going on. I feel like I run into the issue where I make the reader ask a question, but it never gets answered. And then before the reader can wrap their mind around the fact they aren’t going to get an answer any time soon, more questions start to pop up. What’s the difference between narrative thrust and… Read more »
Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

It’s a tricky business. You don’t want to raise questions that frustrate the reader because you’ve left out information they need–how old is he, what is she doing, how does that mechanism really work, where is he in the house now…. Rather, you want to raise questions that compel the reader to keep turning the pages–what will he find in that attic, who slashed her tires, how will the surgery go, when will she tell her husband she’s leaving him….

shadowkat678

Hint, hint, hint. Don’t do what James Patterson did in his Maximum Ride books and show a secret tunnel under a school that turns out wasn’t a school at all until recently (despite the claim of it being around for ages) just not to show where the tunnel goes or tell us anything about what’s going on with the school. 🙁

trackback

[…] about plot, trying over and over again to explain it in a way that will give you an a-ha moment. This excerpt—at Jane Friedman’s blog—from Paula Munier’s Writing with Quiet Hands gave me one of those […]

Judy Christie

Excellent post–very useful! Thanks!

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

Thanks! Happy writing in 2016!

Cyndy Etler

I took notes as I read this. Like, with a pen AND a highlighter. I just landed a three-book contract (!), and my agent and publisher love book one in the series. Alleluiah! But the prequel? Wellll, maybe not so much. It lacks arc. Argh, but it’s memoir! I can’t create events that didn’t–wait! Here’s this great article! You have saved the day. You have saved the book. And the sequel, too. Your points tell me exactly how to rework the former, and approach the writing of the latter. Thank you, thank you, thank you! (Oops. Excuse the belaboring.)

trackback

[…] to keeping their interest. Paula has a large chapter dedicated to this concept as well as a guest blog post, and I can’t stress its importance enough. (I have no affiliation with Jane Friedman’s […]

Paula Munier (@PaulaSMunier)

So glad you found it useful. Happy Writing!

trackback

[…] start with what got me to buy this book in the first place, and that would be Jane Friedman’s blog post about “Narrative Thrust,” a key element Paula elaborates on in Writing With Quiet […]

trackback

[…] Why Editors and Agents Stop Reading by Paula Munier from Jane Friedman. Peek: “…connect each scene, as readers need to know what the protagonist’s motives are, and what he wants in every scene.” See also What About A Novel Sweeps Us Into Its World by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. […]

trackback

[…] Thrust” as explained in Paula Munier’s Book (or you can see the shortened blog version here). If the reader, however, is too distracted, they’re going to feel confused and frustrated […]

trackback

[…] The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Often Stop Reading by Paula Munier […]

trackback

[…] asking interesting questions. According to literary agent Paula Munier, this would be known as narrative thrust, an essential hook in literature. As long as those questions move the plot forward and don’t […]

wpDiscuz