On “The Narrative Path”


So I’m always keen to identify writing tips and such that I don’t see talked about that often, and I’ve noticed something that really good books seem to have.

Something I’m going to call The Narrative Path.

Fiction is somewhat unique among other arts in the nature of how the subject is presented to us. Aside from skipping ahead, and people (like me) who sometimes accidentally skim other pages and ahead during reading, written stories are presented to us sequentially and in a piecemeal fashion. Granted great writers often manage to pack large amounts of meaning into brief sentences, but unlike film where you are given entire images with accompanying music and dialogue to digest, and music where any particular beat may have any number of notes or individual instruments playing, or even a drawing which you are just giving an image as is and the way you scan it is entirely up to you, writing comes at you word by word, sentence by sentence and so forth.

This is really important for how you present stuff to the reader. What I’ve noticed in books that I often find myself getting lost, and struggling to keep track of whats going on (as a side note I always have this thought that I’m not reading well enough when this happens!) is that the narrative is often shonky, introducing material in orders and ways that are hard to absorb.

For example in one novel which will remain nameless there was a scene where the MC describes the scenery, mentions their sister walks in (in the middle of the paragraph) and goes back to observing the scenery. I can kinda see what effect the author was trying to create with this sequence, but for me it was easy to miss the appearance of said sister and the confusion compounded when the MC started talking assuming the reader had remained conscious of said sister.

My plan of mentioned that example is not to completely poo poo that sort of sequence, but to highlight how a reader traveling through the words of that novel could get disorientated, I’ve noticed several other typical Narrative Path errors in various other works too:

  • Laundry list introductions – especially characters
  • Head hopping
  • Scene hopping
  • Scenes that feel like the author has flipped a coin for whether each sentence is going to be told or shown

Again my point is not to slam any particular sequence, after all some authors pull off all of the above brilliantly. Like all things writing its about being mindful and intentional about what we’re doing on the page to create the best story.

So for me the idea of Narrative Path is being aware of the journey that a reader will be taking through the words you put on the page. This is at the scene, paragraph and individual sentence level. I believe that many authors (and this is a theme that I talk about all the time) know their story a little too well, and aim simply to get all the details onto the page, which is fine as say an early draft, but consideration of what the reader will experience is vital.

Take the opening pages of Gone Girl as an example. The writing starts with a slightly odd discussion about the narrator’s wife’s head, moving onto thoughts on marriage, to the character snapping awake. Personally I find the path a little jarring, BUT it clearly executed with thought to what is being presented to the reader is a coherent fashion.

What I’ve noticed in some Wattpad works of friends I looked through recently is that the narrative was essentially all over the show, jumping between character’s thoughts, actions past present etc.

Again not that jumping around = bad writing, however often it shows a lack of thought or refinement in creating a clear Narrative Path.

Narrative Path is similar to how a movie tricks us, even though we know actors are playing characters we still have a sense that they are going through the story linearly, a good movie hides the fact that each scene is created distinctly, even shots next to each other in the film could have been shot completely separately.

I think that a strong Narrative Path is vital for any story, because without it all the good other aspects of a story can get lost and jumbled.


So what you do think? Have I just invented a term that is already covered by simply saying ‘narrative’, ‘style’ or ‘voice’

As always let me know your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “On “The Narrative Path”

  1. That’s an interesting way to look at things for sure. Yeah, I guess “Narrative Path” for me would be something sacrosanct to each reader at a whole. Some might like a novel that has a slapdash manner of handling things, jumping between ideas, and being out of bounds in general. That might even be the point of the story, to be told in such a jarring way. But, a clear “path” might just be the cleanest way to present a story albeit, having variety for me enhances things. If done right, a character could be describing a thought or the action, while also having a conversation about something else. It can be done, and it does take a little more effort on the reader, but, so is making a great path.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Makes sense. It’s less about the individual scenes/moments, as the transitions between them; making sure one flows smoothly into the next, regardless of whether there is a change of time/place/viewpoint.

    Not creating obstacles that will trip up the reader and jolt them out of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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