To many writers, their favorite novel’s plot seems to meander like the Mississippi River. But it’s rarely true. In most cases, underneath what appears to be a leisurely or thoughtful story lies a well-crafted series of plot points that not only drive forward but also maintain tension.
Writing Tip for Today: Your story must give the reader not only a sense of forward movement but also the feeling that the tension grows with every scene. How to do this? Here are some things to consider:
- Leave Out the Boring. First-time novel writers often think they must account for their character’s every waking moment in the story. Not so! As Elmore Leonard advises, leave out the boring parts! So if nothing much happens over a weekend in the life of the character, summarize this or use a simple transition instead of dramatizing (acting out) this segment of time. A great discussion of this idea is in Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing by the late Gary Provost.
- Feet to the Flame. Readers often ask me if they can’t let their characters off the hook for a time or start out the story with weak goals due to a midlife crisis or sense of defeat. I say no. You can show a character who is giving up on life by having an attitude of “What have I got to lose?” but if the character is just plain ambivalent, it’s difficult to muster sympathy for that person. The person who goes for broke because they have failed has energy to drive the story. If the character says in effect, “I’m a loser, baby,” and climbs in bed to die, it’s going to be very difficult to spur a reader to find out if the character rolls over or just succumbs to the inevitable. Existential stuff is best left to the philosophers.
- Manage Your Reader. Your task as writer is to manage your reader’s sense of time, show them what to pay close attention to and what to ignore. You do this by emphasizing important places (also known as plot points) with dramatic scenes, by expanding or contracting time with long or short sentences, quick or slow actions, patterns of repetition, inner attitudes and emotions.