So this last weekend I came to a conclusion. I’d spent the week writing, as usual, working on the first draft of Jungle (you know, that sequel to that Colony book everyone keeps talking about), but between being sick and low on sleep (said sickness really, really wanted me to sleep), something just wasn’t clicking. Something about the chapter I was working on, even when I finished it, felt off.
I spent my Saturday thinking about it. Running things over in my mind. Thinking about what critical plot elements the chapter introduced, how it did so, what the characters did when interacting, etc. And finally, I reached an important conclusion: The chapter wasn’t working because it was dragging. It was a slog. And it had to go.
Said chapter is now marked for deletion and rewrite. Actually, rewrite isn’t even the right term. Summation is more accurate. Because, I realized as I was thinking about it, everything that happens in that chapter could also be told in a different chapter in half the time, at a later point in the story, when there is, to put it plainly, more going on.
The chapter I’d written was dragging. It wasn’t keeping the story moving.
Keeping a story moving can be a tough task at times, as evidenced by my decision to delete a 10,000 word chapter I spent my few free days last week putting together. Because before I could delete it, I wrote it, and at one point thought that it was a good direction to take the story. Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out.
So what went wrong?
Ultimately, there just wasn’t enough happening, and that was the real killer that did the chapter in. Rather than feeling like a chapter where stuff was happening, it felt like one where things almost happened. Like it was simply setting the reader up for another chapter where stuff actually would happen, but wasn’t really presenting anything of its own. And when that happens … you’ve got a dead chapter that can kill a reader’s interest in your book.
Now, here’s the thing. Did nothing of import take place in this chapter? Of course not. There actually were some very important reveals and foreshadowing that took place. The problem was, I realized, that from the reader’s perspective none of those details were important yet. They were all clues, yes, but clues that wouldn’t make sense in the larger picture until later. Which meant that until the reader knew that, they really were just a few odd questions of “huh, that’s interesting.” Not nearly enough to keep a reader’s interest unless they were truly curious.
See, no matter what actually happens in a chapter, if the reader doesn’t feel like things are moving forward (even if they are), odds are that they’ll put the book down. Which means that each and every chapter you write needs to keep things moving forward somehow.
This can be tricky, because our story isn’t a straight line. No good story is. We’ve spoken before about creating moments of tension as well as moments for the reader to breath. We’re familiar with this story structure, the whole “rise and fall” of action. Which means that our story, in order to have a good balance to it, has to have moments where things take a moment to relax. But even when it does, we can’t let the story stop. We can’t simply put things on hold. Something has to happen. Which … can be tricky when we at the same time want to give everyone a bit of a break.
The trick with keeping things moving is context. Context during a scene that’s a break. Context during a scene that’s foreshadowing. If a reader feels like what they’re reading is tied to the greater plot, they’ll want to continue forward. If they feel that it isn’t, they’ll get bored, wondering when the book will drift back on topic, and perhaps go read something else. We don’t want that.
See, where my chapter went wrong was that the context just wasn’t there. There were a number of questions raised that were key to the overall plot … but they were so far from being revealed that there was no way to tell for sure that they were actually related: They could have been interesting fluff. And since there wasn’t much else going on in the chapter, there wasn’t anything for the reader to dig into that said “Hey, here’s where things are going, you should keep reading.” The reader didn’t have any context to tie the foreshadowing to yet, so what was left was a scene that was …. I suppose interesting fits, but in the same way a textbook could be interesting. Without knowing what was coming, the little tidbits and hints didn’t yet coalesce into anything that would stick in the reader’s mind.
The result? I’m going to rewrite the chapter so that it takes place at a later point chronologically, so that there’s more going on in the chapter that’s central to the overall story while at the same time introducing those same foreshadowing elements I had before. In this way, the setting and context of the chapter still have the reader feeling like everything is moving forward—and in fact, it is. But in my first go at it, it didn’t feel like it.
This feels somewhat roundabout, so hopefully I haven’t lost anyone (or bored anyone). I do want to bring up another example of a story or kind of story failing contextually. Anyone here ever watched a TV show that had “filler” episodes?
If not, they’re kind of infamous, particularly in the realm of anime. Filler episodes are what happen when a show with an overarching, sequential plot drops said overarching plot for an episode or two in order to … spin its wheels in the mud, so to say. Anime is particularly well-known for being vulnerable to this, as many animes are based off of written mangas or light novels, and television has a tendency to move forward at a much quicker rate than a written work. So what some shows will do when they’ve caught up to everything that’s been written is … create filler! Episodes and stories that have nothing to do with moving the series forward, and ultimately go nowhere. For example, I recall my siblings really getting worked up over an episode of one anime that was about soup. No, I don’t know the details. Just that a show about ninjas had, out of nowhere, an episode about soup that had nothing to do with the rest of the show.
These episodes are disliked because they don’t have context to the rest of the series. For a sitcom setting, they’d probably be just fine. But for a story that has sold itself to the reader on being an involved, overarching plotline, a filler episode, one that doesn’t have any context to the whole, is just boring. It doesn’t fit!
Likewise, when we set out to put together our story, when we’re writing moments of rising and falling action, adjusting our pacing, etc, we need to make sure that we’re keeping everything in the proper context. Even if you have your characters take a break on their globe-spanning journey (nothing wrong with that), relaxing somewhere for a chapter or so, even as they relax be sure to keep everything framed properly. It’s a relax moment, sure, and you can get away with exploring a subplot perhaps … but don’t lose track of the core elements of the story. Keep them in the focus so that the reader still feels the story moving toward the conclusion in some small way.
Is this something that’s cut and dry? No, not in the slightest. It’s going to vary based on your story, your storytelling style, the kind of story you’re telling, genre … the list goes on. But at the same time, this is something that may help you take a chapter from being “meh” to being “Hey, cool!”
Always keep the story moving forward. Consider the context of the chapter and the context that the reader understands, then adjust your chapter accordingly so that it never feels like your story is simply treading water. Do this, and do it well, and you’ll never have a moment where the reader is thinking “Eh, this is getting dull.”
Good luck. Now get writing. And keep it in context.
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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Keeping Things Moving and in Context”
We’ve noticed a lot of ‘why did they bother to dramatize that’ on some of the Netflix shows we’ve been watching lately. Our new comment is ‘feels like padding.’
One of the problems is that when you write while sick, your better judgment is asleep, or busy with healing. You can still produce stuff – and it is superficially the same as what you normally write – after all, that’s the only way you know how to write – but it really isn’t.
I’m recovering from some heart problems, and the huge drug probelms that came after that, and haven’t been writing much in the past month. What I started writing when my brain started coming back was seriously deficient in some way – which for the scene I was writing turned out to be that the pov character was an observer more than a participant (for good structural reasons).
As my brain has come back, that became obvious, and then the solution was simply ‘write from his pov,’ and the fix was in.
But before that, without my whole brain, I couldn’t tell.
Good on you for catching it ealy enough and finding the fix. The whole will be stronger, and you probably haven’t lost much.