Moving the Plot

July 23, 2010 at 5:43 am (fantasy, Plot, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


You hear the advice all the time. If something isn’t moving your plot forward it shouldn’t be in your story. Given the current goal oriented generation where anything that isn’t immediate becomes dull, this is pretty good advice. Your description of that sunset may be absolutely flawless but if your reader can’t see the point of it (because just being a beautiful piece of writing is insufficient) then it has to go.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I hate wading through endless reams of description of settings that in the end don’t make the tiniest bit of difference to the story. Even a fight sequence that has gone on too long begins to irk me and I just want to cut to the chase. So who won and what happens next? I am very much a product of the modern world in that I like there to be a point. At the same time, sometimes I really enjoy just well written work. That witty dialogue or really interesting aside. It may have nothing to do with the main plot and only be very thinly related to character development but if it is written just right, it can suck me right into the story.

That said, how do we move the plot forward?

Plot generally involves a character (or group or characters) getting from point A to point B while X, Y and Z try to stop them. That would be the motivation for the characters and the conflict they will face. If the plot becomes too direct you would have a story in about five lines and it would be incredibly boring.

Farm boy loses family.

Farm boy trains to fight.

Farm boy faces bad guy and loses.

Farm boy takes time out to learn some valuable lesson.

Farm boy defeats bad guy.

The End.

This would be the basic plot of both Star Wars and Eragon and probably many other fantasy – space opera kind of things. Don’t get me wrong, this plot works very effectively (or can), but when you boil the story down this much it gets a bit dull.

I guess the question you have to ask yourself is why does line A (farm boy losing family) lead to line B. Lots of people lose family members without suddenly enlisting to learn some ancient fighting method and going on a quest for revenge and to other throw an evil empire. What about your character makes them take that step and how do they reach that decision? How do you help your reader believe it?

The plot moves forward when you know where you are and where you want to go and you know why your characters are taking those steps. I’ve had many would be stories stagnate because I didn’t know clearly where I was planning to go next and I wasn’t really sure why my characters were doing something anyway. Once you can answer these questions the plot should move forward though it is adding all the small details and weaving those interesting sub-plots that will make it interesting.

Your thoughts on moving a plot forward?

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29 Comments

  1. Agatha82 said,

    What a good question. I am quite an impatient reader, and like to get to the good bits and I don’t like “atmosphere” for the sake of atmosphere but of course you must give the reader an idea of where the characters are as well.

    About plot, yes, you must show the reader what is motiviating the character. That’s what matters to me. I need to understand why the farm boy has decided to go fight the bad guy. If you told me that it was the bad guy who was directly responsible for his parents death, then, to me, that would be a good motive that I would understand. It’s when the writer fails to make us understand WHY someone is doing something, that makes us feel cheated.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I also feel cheated if I’m given a reason but am unconvinced by it.

  2. Alex J Cavanaugh said,

    That’s why I outline – so I know where I am going.

  3. chris behrens said,

    I believe in “Hot Writing,” meaning just write it out and then work with it. Forget the rules and forget what people say or want. Just write what comes naturally. If you’ve got “IT” a good story will flow on the pages and one that you can tweak after getting some advice from the right people. Now finding the right people, that can be a bigger challenge.

    Plots should move forward, and I agree today’s readers don’t want old school details, but I still think they are important. So the challenge is how to incorporate the right details and where to place them. I think this challenges us creatively, and I like it because then we, today’s writers, are helping to create a whole new style–I think!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It makes you wonder what the audience may want in twenty years. Will they become more or less impatient?

      • chris behrens said,

        In twenty years, hmmm, I don’t know, but I bet details will still be needed, again, just how they are added will be the key. That’s where writers will be challenged creatively. But no matter what, I will hold tight to these words by Lorian Hemingway, “Write like there is no tomorrow, and write only for yourself!” That really helped me with my current project. We can get so caught up in trying to please the market or be a part of a trend that we lose sight of why we started writing in the first place. Also, another key phrase from the guest speaker at the 2010 NJSCBWI Conference, she said, “Write the story that you want to read!” Another great saying to hold to. Her sister is on the NYT Best Sellers, “EAT, LOVE, PRAY” I think.

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        Great advice – write the story that you want to read. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Socialpaws said,

    Hello, you make some good points.

    I feel that the genre of a book makes a large difference to what is expected. If the focus is on the development of characters you will find the plot often moves much more slowly to give the reader time to explore the characters in full, just as those who read Crime or Thriller books are often not happy with long descriptive prose.

    I realise that description can be difficult to balance out evenly. I once picked up a book where the first three chapters described a fireplace. I put the book down. Bad start.
    I guess readers are fickle.
    Best wishes,
    Socialpaws

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      How can you describe a fireplace for three chapters? I’d love to read that just so I know how they did it.

  5. Laura Diamond said,

    I think a lot of tension is built when a character wants to get from A to B, but a lot of things block him or her along the way. The side tracks can be interesting AND can create angst, which pulls me in all the more.

    Great post!

    • Lynn Rush said,

      I’m with you on this one, Laura. I love all the obstacles that get in the way. It pulls me in more and more to see how the characters deal with it. 🙂

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      The side plots can definitely work to your advantage.

  6. Hart said,

    I’m not a huge fan of a ton of description, but I AM a huge fan of about 20 sub-plots–another feature our short-termism doesn’t tolerate. The stories I love best have several separate things going on, that somehow all contribute to the ending, but that can be hard to spot as related early on… but I’m freaky that way.

    I love that you’ve boiled down Star Wars and Eragon that way–I’d never spotted them as the same plot before, and it makes it really clear how different stories with the same underlying plot can BE.

    As for moving the plot along… I am storyboarding my current WiP and it seems to be really effective for spacing out all the details that need to come in (it’s a cozy mystery) and leaves little room for anything that ISN’T plot related.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Yes, I think the sub plots do have to ultimately contribute something to the main plot or us modern readers just get a little bored with it. That’s kind of sad but true I guess.

  7. Paul Greci said,

    In general, when I do an edit I look for description, dialogue, exposition, narrative, that both drive the story forward and develops character. If there is tension in the description in the way it impacts the character either physically or emotionally, or both I think that is the type of description to keep. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for sharing your editing tips. Always looking for new ways to read a draft and things to look for.

  8. Robert Lee said,

    Terrific Post! It makes me want to write!

    “What about your character makes them take that step and how do they reach that decision? How do you help your reader believe it?” I saw Kathryn Bigelow speak in NY years before The Hurt Locker was even a thought, and she shared one of her favorite character defining/ introductory moments. It was an early scene in the film Three Kings where Archie, played by George Clooney, is pushing his way through an Iraqi bunker. One of the Iraqi soldiers offers him a cuisinart coffeemaker. He holds it up for him, brand new in the box, and Archie simply states “I’m divorced” as he swats it to the ground. The audible shattering of the glass lingers as he exits the room. As a writer (screenwriter) I’ve yet to reach that level of collaborative perfection. The scene is maybe 15 seconds, and the audience knows him.

    -Robert Lee
    http://www.ialwayshaveaplan.wordpress.com

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Thanks for sharing that. Now I want to see the movie again just to watch that scene.

  9. Lua said,

    Cassandra, this was such a helpful post! My motto about this is, “if it’s the kind of description I skip ahead when I’m reading a story, then I shouldn’t be writing it.”
    Before I start to write a story, I take my time and outline. I write summaries for all the important scenes and connect them to each other to make sure I know where I am and where I am going next. It also helps me to stay on track and prevents me to write something completely pointless and irrelevant.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Outlines apparently help cut down on useless description – a few of you are suggesting this tactic.

  10. Alex Willging said,

    It’s for this very reason that I have a problem with the next book I’m reviewing for Dorrance Publishing, and also why I’ve started writing full outlines before I even begin writing new stories. What a wonderful post!

  11. Miss Rosemary said,

    When you boil it down to farm boy, they all do sound the same don’t they? Lol.

    As far as my plots … one novel has a great plot just beds more details, the other has too many details and I’m afraid it will be too complicated and another has NO plot. GAHH! This is one of the things that you think should come easily to writers but is really quite difficult. It involves more planning than I sometimes have patience for. lol

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Yeah, I have a completed first draft of a story with so many subplots in it, the main plot got lost. I may sort it out eventually or maybe not.
      Best of luck with your writing.

  12. Jemi Fraser said,

    Great post – and lots of good opinions here!!

    I tend to start with an ending scene in mind. Then – even though I don’t outline – I have an ending scene in mind – a place they need to get to. I think that helps me keep the plot moving forward – I know where they need to go.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Knowing where I’m going always helps to keep me moving, but sometimes I still get lost in teh middle. Thanks for the comment.

  13. Sylvia Dickey Smith said,

    I sort of write like Chris, and now know what its called! Once I got stuck with my plot but knew how I wanted it to end, so I stopped in the middle of Act II and wrote the last chapter. Still felt loss, so wrote the next to the last chapter, and the nest to the next to the last chapter, then I was home free–knew exactly how to get there!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      That’s an interesting strategy. I don’t know if I could work backwards but it could certainly be worth a try. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Fireflies in the Mason Jar « Serial Distractions said,

    […] “Moving the Plot“, Australian author Cassandra Jade offers up great advice for moving the plot forward: […]

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