Moving the story forward is arguably the most important and difficult aspect of good writing. If someone tells you, “I couldn’t put the book down” or “It was a real page turner,” the author has been successful at moving the story forward in each chapter, paragraph and sentence. Stories that effectively move forward keep the reader engrossed in the story and wanting to know what happens next. There are several ways to accomplish this.
THE ORDER OF THINGS
One thing that keeps the story moving forward is to write in sequential order of the way things happen. If you mix up the order, you may lose or confuse the reader.
Consider the following sentence:
Mary worried about what she was going to say to her brother as she sat in the back of the restaurant where he was a waiter. She took in a deep breath when she saw him exit the swinging door leading to the kitchen.
The following revision corrects the order of things.
Mary entered the restaurant where her brother was a waiter and took a seat near the back. She worried about what she was going to say to him. When he exited the swinging door that led to the kitchen, she took in a deep breath.
Most novels will be paced by creating a mix of action and slower scenes where the characters gather their thoughts. But even action-packed thrillers need pacing, if for no other reason to give the reader a moment to breathe.
You can slow down the pace with longer dialogue, interior dialogue, backstory and more specific descriptions. Pace can be sped up with shorter words, shorter sentences, alliteration and fast dialogue. Mixing it up will add interest for the readers.
One mistake new writers often make is to spend too much time leading up to a specific piece of action. If you delay the action too much by describing the suspense, the reader will be disappointed. The longer it takes to get to the action, the more text readers will be tempted to skip over.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Someone who critiqued an early draft of my first novel advised, “Once you know he’s a cowboy, you never have to mention it again.” Providing information you’ve already conveyed about the character slows down the story and bores the reader. But, using the cowboy example, mentioning later in the story the cowboy accidentally killed an innocent person and that’s why he no longer carries a gun, is new information that will cause the reader to continue to keep reading to see how he’s going to survive without a gun.
Another way to keep the story moving forward is through escalation. Creating a beginning (introduction, set-up), middle (tension, conflict, crisis), and end (resolution) in each scene, chapter and entire manuscript will help to move the story forward. (See my earlier blog post on this subject.) Omitting any one of these three components will likely confuse the reader. If a reader is forced to go back and re-read something, there’s a problem.
It’s hard to imagine a novel without any tension. No matter what the genre, tension is the conduit the protagonist needs to reach his goals and will aid in moving the story forward. Whether in a sentence, paragraph, chapter or the entire book, tension coincides with unfulfilled desire, which is an essential ingredient for a steadily progressing story.
I love the word, tension. This definition comes from www.dictionary.com.
- the act of stretching or straining.
- the state of being stretched or strained.
- mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense,anxiety, or excitement.
- a strained relationship between individuals, groups, nations, etc.
Now show me a good novel that doesn’t encompass this word.
Tension can happen all at once, or it can come to a slow boil. In any case, tension will move the story forward. It can come in the form of an internal struggle such as dealing with the disappearance of a loved one. Or it can come in the form of an external struggle, such as trying to find the missing loved one. And as with these examples, the two can often be combined.
Effective dialogue will keep the reader interested in the story, but only if it’s meaningful. If it doesn’t help to develop the character, establish the mood or depict what the character is feeling, omit it.
In most cases, idle chitchat will slow down the story. One way to get around it is by disclosing the protagonist’s internal thoughts while the idle chitchat is going on. Example: Sara’s thoughts drifted back to her son’s dilemma while she shook John’s hand and talked about the weather.
A SHIFT IN DIRECTION
A shift in direction is another good way to keep the story moving forward. If your character has spent her whole life running away from something and all of a sudden faces it head-on, that will keep the reader interested in what happens next.
REVEALING THE PLOT AND PLOT TWISTS
Revealing the plot abruptly is another tool to spark a reader’s interest and urge him to read further. However, that’s not to say revealing the plot bit by bit can’t be equally as effective – as in, “the plot thickens.” Plot twists can also be intriguing. Just when the reader thinks he knows what’s going to happen next, try throwing in something totally unexpected to keep his interest.
MOTIVATION AND GOALS
A character’s motivation will drive his actions that move the story forward, and his actions will be geared toward meeting a specific goal. In order to be meaningful and to keep the reader’s interest, actions must be supported by motivation and should end in meeting the goal.
You can catch a reader’s attention with firsts – the first time the protagonist meets the antagonist; the first time they argue; the first time she feels threatened; etc. Make sure the reader feels what the protagonist is feeling when these firsts occur to keep the story moving.
CONFLICT & CRISIS
Readers love conflict, whether it’s internal (“How will I ever live with this guilt?”) or external (“I’ve been shot! Call 911!”). Without conflict, there is no story. Conflict can be introduced by forcing the protagonist to make difficult choices that cause a dilemma and further conflict. Having the protagonist do something unpredictable can also be effective. Or just as the protagonist is about to reach a goal, a roadblock can be thrown in that closes his escape route.
Keeping the readers guessing will keep their interest. Conflict and crisis cause tension, and tension is a key component in holding a reader’s interest and keeping the pages turning. The resolution of one conflict can also potentially unearth another conflict to drive the story forward.
How the protagonist overcomes crisis is the storyline, and it’s the crisis in the story that causes the protagonist to change. How well the narrator integrates conflict and change will affect how the story moves forward.
STUCK IN NEUTRAL
Description is great, but not at the cost of bogging down the flow of the narrative. If the story contains too much pleasantry or mundane information, it will bore the reader. If it doesn’t move the story along, if it doesn’t add to the story’s momentum, it should be avoided.
For example, it’s not necessary to tell the reader what the bank robber had for breakfast unless the short-order cook overheard him planning the heist and decided to poison his food to deter the robbery.
If your story seems to be stuck in neutral, ask yourself how things could get worse for the protagonist. Then raise the stakes and go there.
A change in your character’s thought process, ideals, beliefs, physicality or lifestyle is required to move the story forward. If the character doesn’t experience some form of self-discovery, then what’s the purpose of the story?
Backstory is narrative providing history of the character’s past–what’s shaped him into the person he is at the beginning of your story. Unfortunately, author’s may like it better than readers. Achieving the right balance is important. Too much and it bores the reader. Too little and the reader may not understand your character’s motives.
Backstory pulls the reader out of the present, so include it only when the reader needs to know something. It’s not recommended to start the story with backstory, nor is it recommended to include it in big chunks.
Well written chapter endings help to keep the reader turning pages. Some level of a cliffhanger is a must for most chapter endings, with the outcome of the situation serving as the beginning of the next chapter.