Sunday, 28 August 2011

How to Drive a Story Forward

Every story has to proceed to its logical end. How a writer reaches that end is an important process. 

When we refer to ‘driving the story forward’, we mean that the story must have momentum and structure to engage the reader right to the end, but it must also impart necessary information without everything stalling part way through.

It’s a constant within fiction writing – the story needs to move on without dawdling on unimportant, boring stuff. If that happens, your reader will either fall asleep or give up. As Elmore Leonard once advised, cut out the parts that readers skip. In other words, get rid of the boring stuff to allow the story to move on. Readers don’t want to know what your main character had for breakfast, whether he made tea or coffee and what he decided to do with his day while he watered the plants – they want to get right to the heart of the action.

There are several ways to drive a story forward – Use of dialogue, character motivation, conflict, plot twists and pacing all play a part in providing momentum.

To start with, dialogue is a great way of imparting information for the reader and moving the story forward. The way to do that is to make the dialogue count.

Take this example:

‘The restaurant looks busy tonight,’ John said, looking around. ‘Last time we came here it took ages for the food to arrive and it wasn’t all that good anyway, but now it’s under new management hopefully things have improved because I’m starving, I could eat a whole cow.’

‘I noticed they have your favourite wine on the drinks list, too,’ Jane said. ‘I know it’s expensive but we should treat ourselves, since you’ve now made Chief Executive.’

‘Yeah, why not?’ 

This conversation isn’t actually going anywhere nor doing anything other than filling up white space. It does nothing to move the story forward, a common flaw. Cut the unnecessary chitchat and get right to the point. For instance:

John eyed the restaurant, kept his thoughts to himself.

‘They do your favourite wine,’ Jane said. ‘Splash the cash. You’re Chief Exec, we can afford it.’

His expression darkened...

This reveals far more, and yet uses fewer lines. Why would John keep his thoughts to himself? Perhaps he doesn’t want to share them with his wife. And she seems more interested in spending his money than he does. This is characterisation through dialogue, but more importantly, it doesn’t hang about, it moves the story on.

Concise dialogue not only engages the reader, but it moves the story on in terms of what may happen next, or what might be expected.

Character motivations are often revealed through dialogue, too. In real life, some people let slip what they really think and feel when they are talking – the ‘real’ person behind the persona comes through. Our characters should be no different. What your characters really want and how they’re going to get it provides a catalyst – it moves the story forward.

Motivation drives the action, which in turn drives the story.

Conflict - the backbone of any story - also drives the story because readers will want to know what happens to conflicting characters at the end of the story. All the types of conflict you create act like fuel in an engine – it provides power and thrust. And of course, readers will be desperate to know if the good guy wins over the bad guy by the end of the story.

Plot twists are another strategy to use. A reader will not be expecting it – so a turning point or major revelation should leave the reader wondering what will happen next. You should be constantly revealing information in your scenes to keep the reader engaged – elements of the plot, bit by bit, pieces of a jigsaw that your reader will be mentally solving. This information revelation pushes the story forward.

Pacing is another way for a writer to move things forward. Vary the action and drama scenes with slower, reflective scenes where the characters, through their thoughts and actions and dialogue, can once again impart necessary information and move things along for the reader.

Each scene you write must advance story. Remember that it is a constant within writing – character motivation, internal and external conflicts, building and solving problems within the plot, revealing characters and above all, revealing necessary information all work together to move the story forward.

All these elements must have momentum...if they don’t then the whole thing could bore the reader. Make things move. Keep them moving. And the reader will enjoy what you write.


Next week: How character development can drive conflict.

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