‘Moving the story forward’ is another of those things that deserves a second in depth look. You may have come across the expression a number of times in the course of fiction writing. It’s a wide reaching phrase, but it’s also one that writers shouldn’t ignore.
But what does it actually mean?
If you’ve seen the phrase in advice columns, critiques or feedback from editors etc, it means that the editor wants to keep the momentum of the story moving to its conclusion, without interrupting its natural flow and without being overloaded with unnecessary, superfluous information.
From the opening sentence to the closing paragraph, the writer must always move the story forward – it should never slow to a boring pace because the narrative drags on and on and on, nor should it deviate from the main thread of the plot, which often happens with some writers.
In basic terms, it means that each scene and each chapter is a stepping stone to the next scene and next chapter, and so on, right up until the end of the story.
Think of a group of travellers undertaking a long journey. Imagine if the travellers decided instead to walk rather than drive. Then imagine if they decided to have lots of relaxing breaks along the way, and finally they decided to take a nice scenic route. Such a journey would take far too long, it would be boring in places and because of the meandering, it certainly wouldn’t be a direct route from start to finish.
The same is true of any story. There must be a direct route from the beginning to the ending without it slowing down or deviating wildly from the main plot.
The story must always move toward its conclusion, and there are several ways to do this.
Ways to move the story forward
Dialogue is one sure way to move the story forward. It allows the story arc to progress through characters interacting with each other and imparts necessary information for the reader where needed.
Dialogue between characters also serves to hint at things to come, another good way of moving things forward.
‘The boat at the docks departs at 8pm,’ he said. ‘It will get you into port at midnight. Someone will be waiting for you.’
‘Who’s my contact?’ David asked.
‘You’ll know when you get there. They will take you to the hotel. The others will be waiting. They will assist the next stage of the mission in Rome…’
Description is another way. Again, imparting necessary information for the reader and required exposition keeps the momentum of the story going. Writers do this by describing certain details – they may use direct information or they may use hints for things that are yet to take place later in the story. Either way, it helps move things along. For example:
He knew that trying to rescue all the hostages by himself was futile. He would need help, the kind of expertise that he lacked, and the expert he needed was the one person he detested most in the world - his ex-wife’s new man. As much as he hated the idea, he had no choice. He would go to New York and find Lazarus.
Transitional scenes also allow forward movement. Without them, the story would stutter, become bogged down and deviate from the main plot. These kinds of scenes allow the writer to forgo the boring stuff that characters might otherwise undertake in order to get to the next scene as quickly as possible.
So, instead of, ‘Sarah got in the car and started the engine. She retouched her lipstick and tidied her hair before adjusted her seat belt. She checked her mirror and started her journey to Peter’s house…’
The writer could instead say, ‘Sarah raced to the car and headed for Peter’s house…’
The next scene can then start at Peter’s house. It cuts out the waffle and the unnecessary boring stuff and takes a direct route to the next important scene. It moves the story forward.
Various action scenes also help to drive the story arc because these kinds of scenes will have conflict and resolution and of course, character motivation. The varying pace of these scenes helps to drive the story towards the climax.
By using all of these components together, the writer can keep momentum and move the story forward to its conclusion in the most direct, efficient way.
In effect, a story should never stand still – it must always move forward.
Next week: Character basics