Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Forward Motion

During the movie, Stranger Than Fiction, as two characters attempt to foil the plot (not a maniacal one, an authorial one), one, who is a lit prof, says, "Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door. If I stay here, the plot cannot move forward, the story ends." To me, those were words of sheer genius. They summed up quite simply what sometimes writers, including myself, forget.

Plot = Life.

Plot is the story moving forward. Now, I'm not going to get drawn into a debate about what forward motion is better, plot or character, because both have their purposes. However, either way your story is moving, it's got to be moving in some respect. The characters should be growing. People should be pursuing their goals. Stakes should be shooting sky high.

If the plot does not move forward, your story will end. Or, it should end, because if your plot is over, there's nothing more for the reader to watch. So, you don't really get to take breaks of non-plot in the middle of your story, because the reader is going to think that's the end, close your book, and walk away. Your reader walking away is the end of your story whether you were done telling it or not.

The problem with not moving the plot forward is quite simple -- it's killing your tension. You've got everything set up. Everyone's invested. Protagonists are struggling against impossible odds, antagonists are making things hard as heck, and everything is as it should be mid story land. But if you just off the plot to meander down some side path of nothingness, your reader is just going to think, "I'm sorry, what just happened there? Where'd the story go? Why is happening?" And then they'll put down your book to go watch
24 or House or some other show, where things are probably happening.

I'm not suggesting that the main plot of the story always be in constant discussion. However, even times when it feels like the author has let the main plot sit and stew for the time being, there are usually subplots or minor story arcs that are being treated during that time. Though the plots at work at minor, it is not a moment bereft of action pulling the story on.

Plot is life. Without it, you stand a strong risk of losing your reader's focus.

How do you feel about moving the plot forward? How much down-time can you have before the reader gives up? Do you like some down time with not much going on in your reading?


  1. I generally think of the plot not moving forward as "the middle slump". If there's nothing going on in the middle, that's when I put the book down and wonder if I'll pick it up again. However, you also mention, sub-plots and minor story arcs that allow the forward motion. Too many will get you confused, not enough will make you turn on the tv.

    I think all stories should have at least one major plot and one minor. You'll always have something to fall back on.

  2. If my life was a plot, it would make for a very boring read ;)

    but, I get your point here and it's a good one. we need to keep focused on the forward action and motion of the story. good reminder.

  3. Life is plot. It's the ups and downs, but not so much of the middle stuff. That's where the reading gets tedious. Something has to be happening, whether it makes me smile or cry. I try to remember that when editing. No plot movement, no emotion? Cut it.

  4. I always like more down time in my own writing than I do when reading a novel. But your post brings up some excellent points. I've left you an award over on my blog:

  5. Piedmont-- I think you're right that it helps to have one major plot and one minor plot minimum. That where there is always at least one plot you can be moving forward.

    Tess-- I think most lives come with a time when there's no forward motion. Things in people's lives tend to hum along on a regular stream. That's not a bad thing for a life, but it's not a fabulous thing for a storyline.

    Stephanie -- It's certainly something we all need to think about during our editing. Each scene should be furthering one of the plots. If it isn't, then it's not pulling its weight.

    Tiana -- I think you make an interesting point that sometimes we like different things in our writing than we do in our reading. I certainly do. Thanks for the award. :D