Writing Wednesday: Move the Story Forward

In my last writing blog, I shared my enthusiasm for the professional side of tennis. With the US Open happening as I write this, it’s an exciting time to watch a Grand Slam. On the men’s side, the field is deep with several strong contenders, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. Several commentators have noted Federer’s recent play where he’s attacking the ball off his opponent’s serve. The man has won seventeen Grand Slam tournaments, Olympic gold, and umpteenth other tournaments. You would think it would be easy for him to rest on his laurels and coast from here on out. Not Roger. Last week at the Western and Southern Open, he attacked his opponent’s serve and moved forward to the net, displaying grace and agility to win the tournament. He kept moving forward, and it paid dividends. On the women’s side, everyone is watching Serena against the rest of the field with experts agreeing Serena has an excellent opportunity to win the calendar year Grand Slam, becoming the first person to do so since Steffi Graf in 1988. I’ve already watched a couple of hours of coverage, getting quite a lot of laundry folded in the process. Last night as I watched some of the Andy Murray/Nick Kyrgios match (and rooted like crazy for Andy Murray), there were several points where the commentators talked about moving the ball forward. For a tennis enthusiast who happens to be a romance writer, I thought of the importance this advice plays for writers and readers everywhere. How does this translate to writing? Quite simply it’s important for the writer to keep his or her eye on the ball and push the story forward.

Move the ball forward. The author should always be conscious of trying to move the story forward. There’s a saying in writing: No more sagging middles. Think about your favorite books. There was probably some twist or some plot point that made you keep reading. In the book I am presently reading, the author totally surprised me in the middle. She diverted to an alternate storyline with a huge fight leaving one character in the dust. I wasn’t sure if the character survived or not. Here I was reading the book while walking on the treadmill wanting to yell at my Kindle for Big John to live. No sagging middles for that book (for anyone who is curious, the book is Swept Away by Mary Connealy).

In tightly knit books, the author doesn’t wander all over the place. Instead, the author moves the story forward and advances the plot.

Let me come up with a hypothetical story: a romantic suspense set in Paris covering the theft and recovery of a French impressionist painting where the hero’s twin brother stole the painting and the heroine works for Interpol. Since I’m a romance writer, the hero and heroine will live happily ever after with the twin brother in jail (I’m more on the sweet side of contemporary) and the painting is back at the museum.

Near the climax of the book, the author (in this case, me) is not going to weigh the book down with two chapters of the characters eating croissants at a French café. The author is going to have lots of action and lots of scenes that stick to the plot and the characters recovering the painting. In the scenes with the most tension, there will probably be short, terse sentences conveying action and intrigue. The author will move the story forward, or at least would if this were a real story.

I myself struggle with moving the story forward. I love to meander with my characters and have them go out to eat, talk to their friends for no good apparent reason, or think about their pasts. During editing, I’ve had to say good-bye to scenes that do not advance the main plot, do not increase the conflict, and do not convey some critical aspect of a character. If it doesn’t increase the conflict, the scene has to go. Some of these scenes have some of my very best writing, but they are left on the cutting room floor because they slow down the story.

What are some of your favorite books? How does the author move the story forward and avoid the sagging middle? If you have any suggestions or comments, let me know.

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