Keys to Moving Your Plot Forward

I tell writers often they are failing to “advance their plot.” What does that mean, and why does it matter?

I keep seeing novels that “land on my desk” that start off with a great situation but then veer off into the hinterlands. Other novels don’t even get out the gate. The opening scenes seem to have nothing to do with the premise of their story. I’ll go back and reread a synopsis and shake my head. Where is the premise setup? Who exactly is the protagonist?

This is such a problem that I’m going to share some points from a post I wrote two years ago on the topic.

If your scenes aren’t “advancing the plot,” you have a serious problem.

Each scene should reveal some new information, but not just anything—the information needs to help move the plot forward. The bottom line? Every scene must have a point to it or it shouldn’t be in your novel.

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, or you’ve read my writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox series, you’ve heard me spout this. When brainstorming your scene ideas, it’s crucial that you first consider the point of your scene.

Ask: What do I need to have happen in this scene that moves the plot forward?

Depending on where this scene is going to come in your novel, that answer will vary. Opening scenes in a novel should be setting up your protagonist in his ordinary life. Around the 10 percent mark of your novel, some incident or opportunity should occur that shifts the character’s direction and/or focus. It interrupts that ordinary world. Through a series of events, the character is then moved into position by the 25% mark to launch his goal. From then on, all scenes orbit around this one purpose: to aid or hinder or complicate the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal.

All this I explain in great detail in Layer Your Novel. Check it out if you don’t know which key scenes go where.

So when considering the point to your scene, you need to know exactly where in the story that scene will occur. Instead of thinking “I wonder what I should have happen to my character next?” first consider what section (some think in terms of acts) of your novel this scene is going to be placed.

For example, between the 25% and 75% marks of your novel, you want to show progress and setbacks for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. As you build to the big climax, you are making it harder and more hopeless for him, with more obstacles and complications. Keeping this in mind helps you determine exactly what the purpose of your scene will be.

Take Time to Learn Plot Structure

If you aren’t aware of basic novel structure and the essential plot points and where they are positioned in a story, you should take the time to learn this. Why? Because if you don’t get novel structure clear, your scenes aren’t going to serve the plot’s interest. They will wander about aimlessly, confusing readers and accomplishing little to nothing of importance.

And the best way to ensure your structure is solid is to get a thorough critique of either your rough or polished full draft or of your scene outline. If you haven’t finished writing your novel, you don’t have to wait to get help. I work with many authors at the outline stage. You can hire me to critique just the first few chapters to give an assessment of how the premise and characters are being set up.

5 Essential Components

Let’s say you know exactly what the purpose of your scene will be. You may have your protagonist’s best friend turn on him. You may want to introduce an accident or some violence to upend things. You may be bringing a love interest on stage, or have an ally try to stop your character from making a bad decision.

Now that you have the purpose in mind for your scene, what next? Let’s look at the first five key components to crafting that scene.

  1. The high moment. Your scene has to have a key moment that encapsulates the point of your scene. Think carefully about what that moment should be. It’s usually a reveal—a clue, a new bit of information, a reveal of character that impacts the story. It can be big or subtle.

Moments aren’t about big action but about significance. What is significant to your POV character for that scene. A high moment can be a complication that shows up, a reversal (something happens opposite to what the character expected), or a surprise twist to the plot.

  1. Start in the middle of action. Last year on this blog we spend a month covering the fatal flaw of “nothin’ happenin’.” The popular term in medias res means starting in the middle of something. Remember last week I gave the scene example of character John waking up and getting dressed, then heading to work? That may sound like the scene is starting in the middle of things. John is waking up and getting going in his day, right?

Nope. The idea here is to start in the middle of something interesting that’s going on. Something that makes the reader wonder just what has been happening up till now.

Imagine walking into a room to find two people in the midst of an argument. You know you’ve missed something, but you’re intrigued to find out just what. That’s the feeling you want to get with your scene openings. I suggest thinking about that high moment, then starting about 15-20 minutes of screen time earlier. That time factor will vary depending on your scene, certainly, but it’s a good rule of thumb when considering at what moment to open with.

  1. Establish the POV character and stay in that POV. Make sure to be clear whose POV this scene is in by the first or second paragraph. It may be obvious, such as when writing in first-person POV. But even with first person, it can be easy to fall into explanation and lengthy narrative that feels out of POV. So make that character present to the reader right away.

“Rule” is: only one POV per scene. So stick with that one character, showing only what she can see, think, or feel. If you need to get into another character’s head, wrap up that scene, do a scene break (put a # in the middle of a blank line), and then start the new scene.

  1. Establish the setting. This is one component that is frequently ignored. Make it clear where this scene is taking place. Don’t do an info dump of details, but rather show the setting through the POV character. I’ve written dozens of posts on the importance of setting, and I have to emphasize here—it’s almost always undertreated in every manuscript I critique. You don’t need much, but it’s essential. That includes a feel for the weather, time of day and year. Sensory detail is critical in order to bring a scene alive, and the most evocative details are those dealing with setting.
  2. Consider the conflict. Conflict is story. Ideally, you want conflict oozing out of every page. So take some time to think about the conflict inherent in your premise and plot.

The character arc requires inner conflict, which is really the character’s struggle as he is forced to grow and learn and change through the story. The outer conflict is embodied by antagonists and nemesis characters who create interference and obstacles for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. Outer conflict can be incidents that impact any or all of your characters.

Just know this: if your scene is lacking conflict, it will fall flat. If you’re struggling or unsure you’re on track, hire me! Contact me here to discuss your project and what concerns you have about your structure.

What do you struggle most with regarding these 5 tips to advancing the plot? Does this post help you?

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  1. What if there are several “questions” you want to raise in a single scene? for example, a policeman is questioning your POV character and brings up several issues that raise the stakes and will play out in the plot? Obviously, you’re not going to do a scene for each question. So it’s okay to drop several or is there a limit?

    1. You can always raise questions, the more the better. When one is answered, create three new ones. That keeps up the interest, tension, and mystery of a novel, regardless of genre. Yes, you can drop in all kinds of questions in a scene, and it’s not that each scene answers one question but that the scene moves the plot closer to the climax of the story. You can have many twists and turns, reversals and setbacks, and avenues of opposition along the way.

    2. I may be a hobbyist without much experience, but does every story needs to focus that much on the (main) plot?

      You say every scene needs a point to it, and I agree with that. But I believe that small subplots interwoven with the story can showcase the smaller details and developments about characters, settings and events. These details have value in itself, if they are interesting and well-written, and I believe they make the setting feel more organic.

      One example I can think of is from Harry Potter. I remember Ron getting to keep an owl that was used to deliver a message. That owl was later named Pigwidgeon somehow, and Ron called him “Pig”.

      This does not have any relevant to the main plot, and the relation owl-master was barely touched upon later if I recall(been a while since I read these books as a child). It didn’t tie in very significantly.

      However, I still remember it after 15 years. (I have a good memory for details.) I still think this added value to the story. That is because it shows that the protaganists are people with lives and thoughts besides the major plots. It was also entertaining for me to read this anecdote in itself. Finally it used the fantasy element of the relation owl-wizard.

      So I think that when used in a good, organic way, a writer can use small scenes to set the stage, or expand it. I agree of course it should not be overdone. It can also be used to provide important information that becomes relevant later, so to cut down on exposition during a climax, without using large exposition scenes or descriptions of what is going on.

      Although it also depends on what you qualify as a scene. A walk in the park of two or three pages should advance a plot, but an event involving a few pidgeons in that park does not.

  2. Each scene must reveal new information and move your story forward. This is key in story. You can’t call info dumps scenes or character sketches as scenes. Writers need to weave in details within the movement of the scene.

    Thanks for sharing this with your followers, Susanne. I’ve shared this online.

    1. Glad this helps you, Priscilla! I have countless posts on plotting, and, of course, many writing craft books that deal with scene structure and the need to focus on the high moment of a scene.

  3. I think every writer should watch the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. They do not have to be a fan of the series but if they watch it they will notice many, if not all, of the key components you mentioned. Key point is number 2. In the opening scene we see a man in his underwear racing a Winnebago through the desert while a man in the passenger seat is passed out. Right away the viewer jarred. That episode taught me to jar the reader in the opening scene. Do what you can to make them turn the page

    That episode also help me to understand what you and many others were trying to teach. I had one of those hand to forehead moments. Whatever works.

    Good stuff. Thank you!!!

  4. That’s very interesting. I particularly like the idea of starting in the middle of the action, and posing a question at the same time if I can, as in:

    Lieutenant Jane Gould pressed the button firmly and the stars began to go out. They faded first from the aft edge of the flight deck window, reddening and dwindling away as the field took hold. Then the orthodynamic drive lifted the ship right out of real space and she was looking at the other universe behind the darkness.

    What? Why? And (in the next paragraph) why is she angry about it all?

    I’ve also been given conflicting advice that a moment of change for the protagonist is, or is not a good place to open. I’d like to to know your advice on this one.

    1. Thanks, Robert. I would agree that you wouldn’t want to open with a moment of change. the change should occur by the end of the scene (and can be during as well). But by the end of the scene, the character should change in some way. A scene might open with a character processing what just happened in the prior scene. Keep in mind that the normal behavior cycle is action-reaction-process-decision-new action. It’s during that processing and deciding when we change. So it’s hard to open with a character changing, but processing, yes.

      I like your opening for this scene, and questions (either raised by characters or the reader) are always good on every page.

  5. Great advice! I always had problems pacing my scenes together. “Pen the Sword: the universal plot skeleton of every story ever told” by Adron J. Smitley is also a fantastic book on how to plot your story. Got it free with kindle unlimited. Works for Plotters and Pantsers. Blew my mind how easy it makes writing my novels. I highly recommend 🙂 I also read K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs, recommended in Adron’s Pen the Sword book. Both have changed my writing for the better!

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