Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Invisible Questions:  
Creating Narrative Flow

By 
Sam Reeves
©2003, Sam Reeves  

magine the writer scrutinizing his manuscript and sensing something is wrong.  He structured each sentence well.  The punctuation is correct, and sentence length varies nicely.  He screws his mouth to the side as he tries to define what is missing.  The paragraphs feel bumpy.  He imagines transitions should glide from one sentence to the next.  Yet, there is a start-and-stop feel throughout his paragraphs. 

He does not realize that everything a person reads reveals only half of a conversation.

Between the Lines

"Every sentence feels like a topic sentence!" I said a few months ago while staring at the dirty part of half a blank page.

I rarely write from an outline.  I close my eyes, scan the storyscape, and report the next thing that moves.  However, I found that the ideas from sentence to sentence fail to direct the reader along a stream of thought.  It makes no difference if I rearrange the order of the sentences.  I rake back through the previous text, hoping to pull out some junk.  I repeat the process for the next sentence.  Nothing changes until, a few hundred words later, a pattern unfolds.

The process for assembling my thoughts is start-and-stop, and this produces a narrative with a start-and-stop feel.  Instead of weaving a storyline, I list ideas.

But isn't that what narrative structure really is?  Sentences encapsulate thoughts.  Similar thoughts group into paragraphs.  Paragraphs act as stepping-stones through the scene.  Isn't a manuscript simply a logical arrangement of information packets?

Yes.  But there is more, hidden in the text.

Pull a book down from your shelf and find in it a long paragraph, a nice big black block.  Read the first sentence and stop.  Read the second sentence and stop. And then the third.  Can you hear the second voice, between the visible text, whispering questions?  One sentence introduces part of a picture that baits the reader into subconsciously asking a question about the idea or action.  The writer, in turn, answers that question in the next sentence while simultaneously expanding information that prompts the reader into asking additional questions.  And then the process repeats itself.

Let's look at a bumpy paragraph from my novel in progress The Loth Stem Forest:

At the northeastern city limit of Jentry, dirt streets gave way to the neglected pavement of the countryside.  A brief wind pushed at MaJarel's back, and for a moment, the weakness lifted from his arms and legs and it no longer felt like he walked against the current of a thick liquid.  With it came the scent—the memory?—of food.  Torches twinkled through the trees in the distance as travelers rode or walked toward the gates of the Loth Stem Forest two miles into the brush.

The first sentence states that the pavement has been neglected.  The second sentence describes how the wind affects MaJarel.  The third tells us he can smell food.  And so on.  Each offers a packet of information that when grouped becomes a list simply describing the edge of town.  The thoughts group, but fail to direct the reader along a linear progression.

What if, however, we restructure the sentences and add new ones so that each evokes curiosity from the reader? 

At the northeastern city limit of Jentry dirt streets gave way to the neglected pavement of the countryside.

The writer should put himself in the reader's place and ask, "What do you mean 'neglected pavement'?  What does it look like?'

-- a pale strip of shifting stones --

Structure that image so that it evokes another question.

A pale strip of shifting stones stretched out before him leading to the rim of the Loth Stem Forest where MaJarel could see movement.

The reader asks, "What kind of movement?"

The author responds:

Torches twinkled through the trees in the distance as travelers rode or walked toward the gates of the Loth Stem Forest. 

It might be easier to see the process with the sentences aligned in a paragraph.  I inserted the invisible reader questions within parenthesis.

At the northeastern city limit of Jentry, dirt streets gave way to the neglected pavement of the countryside.  (What do you mean 'neglected'?  What does it look like?)   A pale strip of shifting stones that no vehicles had rumbled over in more than forty years stretched out before them, leading to the rim of the Loth Stem Forest where MaJarel could see movement.  (What kind of movement?)  Torches of travelers twinkled through the trees in the distance.  (Who are they?  Where are they going?)  Everyone under the age of thirty from the surrounding towns would be walking or riding toward the gates of the Loth Stem Forest two miles into the brush.  (Why?) 

Now the entire new paragraph with invisible questions omitted:

At the northeastern city limit of Jentry, dirt streets gave way to the neglected pavement of the countryside.  A pale strip of shifting stones that no vehicles had rumbled over in more than forty years stretched out before them, leading to the rim of the Loth Stem Forest where MaJarel could see movement.  Torches of travelers twinkled through the trees in the distance.  Everyone under the age of thirty from the surrounding towns would be walking or riding toward the gates of the Loth Stem Forest two miles into the brush.  Once they had paid the toll to pass through the gates, they could cleanse their poisoned food in the hot energy roots of a Loth Stem.  Then, they could eat until satiated for the first time in a month, a thought that MaJarel savored until the wind picked up.  The brief wind pushed at MaJarel's back, and for a moment, the weakness lifted from his arms and legs and it no longer felt like he walked against the current of a thick liquid, but with the wind came something else.  The odor from the chest boiled in his lungs.  He moaned from the scent--the memory?--of food. 

The next paragraph obviously would answer how he reacts to the scent.

Hidden Benefits

Did you notice that not only did the flow of the paragraph improve but also heightens the drama?  By baiting the readers into asking questions, you entice them to wonder what will happen next. 

This simple technique will not transform a weak plot or lackluster prose into a page-turner, but it may alleviate some of the pains of dragging the bottom of your mind for what to say next.  One of the most powerful tools in storycraft is a sense of what the reader wants to know.  You can control that by restructuring your sentences so that they spark curiosity.  You may find that not only does the narrative flow improve but also the words come faster.  You will be more conscious of your writing.