By: Michelle Gunnin
“Even a snail is on its way somewhere. It must have a destination in mind.” ― Brent M. Jones
And then…and then…and then…
Writing that is bogged down is slow. It creeps along at a snail’s pace and leaves the reader wishing for a salt shaker to end the madness. In order to keep readers’ eyes on your work, it has to move. You don’t want to be the writer who sends snails into extinction!
As writers, we have probably all heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ and we know it means we have to embed our details within the action of the story. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn because our minds want to make sure readers are aware of every detail. My students struggle to grasp this idea. They want to tell how their character got up and got on the bus. They want to go step by step through the activities of the entire day, even though the action of the story doesn’t start until dinnertime! Of course, as kids, their minds are more linear. They think sequentially, and when they do, it makes the writing easier for them. “And then we did this. And then we did that.” And then, and then, and then. It’s a hard habit to break with young writers, but I have found the overuse of details is true of my own writing as well. I include too much that has nothing to do with moving my story forward. It is the fluff, and it might sound wonderful to turn a phrase, but if it doesn’t move my story I need to let it go.
Have you ever read a book and felt yourself talking to the author, asking when does this story start? Can you move it along? When I am reading I tend to give myself a few chapters, but if I don’t get pulled in by then, I will put the book down and find another. Or if the action is hard to follow and confusing, I will put the book down. Or if there is too much description without a direction as to where it is leading, I will put the book down. I know it sounds as if I am extremely picky, but I am not really. I am a voracious reader and I read all kinds of stories. In fact, reading is one way I have learned to pay attention to how stories move. If I like a book, I will go back and study what the author did to keep it moving. It is how I learned dialog is an extremely effective way to communicate character traits without having to tell my reader. I can add a conversation between two characters that will show the reader so much about their relationship, and give personality traits in just a few sentences, rather than paragraphs of backstory which bog the story down. One of the best things about being a reader and a writer is the continuation of learning. It never stops, and it means there is always room to grow in my craft.
Let’s Pick Up the Pace
Here are some ways authors keep things moving:
- Action- this may seem simplistic, but if there isn’t action in your story it will be boring. I am not necessarily talking about a fist fight, but your character has to be involved in something which draws the reader into the story. You can put the action at the beginning as a hook, or you can lead up to it in the climax. If the story goes nowhere, the readers will not go along either. They will jump ship mid-voyage and move along to the next site.
- Dialog- I don’t like to write dialog because there are so many ways I can get it wrong. I never can figure out if my commas are right, or if I indented in the correct places. Do not let fear of punctuation stop you from writing great conversations which will keep your story moving. If you have to, leave out all punctuation until you are editing, and then look up the correct way to get it right… AFTER the ideas are down on paper. Study other authors and how they use dialog to show things about their characters.
- Flashbacks- Jumping around in time, always keeps the reader wondering where the story will go next. I must admit, as a reader, flashbacks can sometimes frustrate me, but in another way, they keep me guessing and trying to put the puzzle together. You can start with some action from your character’s childhood and then move back to the present or visa versa. Moving around in time keeps the flow happening when done well. Just make sure to have someone else read it and give you feedback to make sure you don’t lose your reader in time. Some of the best books I have read are the ones where I don’t know what is going on for half the book, but then all the sudden all the lines converge and magic happens.
- Cut. Cut. – Read every sentence and determine if it moves the story forward. If it doesn’t, cut it. I have written enough children’s stories to know the attention span is short, and you can lose your readers/listeners in a second. When I first started, I was cutting half of what I wrote. HALF! But, I had to admit, once I cut the stuff that wasn’t necessary to move the story forward, it was a much better story. If you have to go sentence by sentence, do it. Combine sentences and polish dialog so you can cut more of the fluff.
- Point of view- When I am writing from the first person I have found it is much easier to show things. If I am narrating from the third person, I tend to ramble on and on. I want to inform my reader of every visual detail and include the life story of each character. Narrowing my viewpoint helps me stay in the story and not be distracted by words that don’t fit. Plus, if I am a character, the interaction between characters makes more sense in my head. It is like I am in the story, not just narrating it. Don’t get me wrong, third person can be a great way to get into the head of more characters and make the story richer. I have seen it done well. I have also climbed into a first-person story with the author’s character and become part of it. Either way, the flow must continue throughout.
- Embed- Putting details in the dialog or adding them as part of a scene rather than creating paragraphs will help keep things flowing, and it’s more accurate. In real life, it is rare to watch an event and get every detail. At the moment of a car crash, for example, you do not notice the wind gently blowing the leaves on nearby trees. Therefore, in your story, the individual details need to fit the scene. If they don’t, embed them elsewhere. Like this. ‘I could barely see through the rain in my face as I climbed out of the car and made my way to the police car.’ This sentence tells us it is raining, that the wind is blowing, and gives a clue as to the cause of the accident, all by embedding a few words into the action of my walk from the car.
- Mystery-Keep readers guessing as to what is going on. You shouldn’t be too confusing, but teasing them along is a way to move your story and your reader forward. What will be around the next curve? What will happen in the next chapter? The cliffhanger is proof that keeping them guessing is an effective technique. Curiosity is a writer’s best friend. Learn how to use it and your readers will thank you.
So That’s Where We’re Going!
Flow and movement are the keys to unlock a great story and let it out. The ways to move things forward are numerous, you can use all of them in different combinations to create a compelling piece that will excite your reader and leave them wanting more. Reading and studying the ways good authors move their stories forward is one of the best ways to learn to recognize the techniques. Then experiment.
Try something new. Don’t be afraid. Follow it all the way through, then if it doesn’t work you can always hit delete. I always tell my students, you learn as much from failed attempts as you do from your successes! To keep your story moving forward, you have to keep moving forward too.
An everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com
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