Move the Plot2

What Does It Mean to Move the Plot?

What Does it Mean to Move the Plot Pinterest“Move the plot, move the plot—everything in your story must move your plot!!!”

So rail all writing professors.

Meanwhile, the writers themselves just want to bang their heads against their keyboards in desperate frustration. “Okay, yes, fine, great—I want to move the plot. But what does that even meeeeaaannnn?!?!?!?!”

(Enough interrobangs, for you?)

(No?)

(Okay, sorry: ?!?!?!?!!?!)

The whole concept of how to move the plot can too often seem more than a little vague. We get that moving the plot basically means “making story happen.” But sometimes it’s difficult to identify which scenes accomplish that and which don’t.

There you are with a (seemingly) perfectly good scene. Stuff is totally happening. People are falling love. Good guys are fighting bad guys. Empires are crumbling. And yet… your editor won’t stop sending you these terse notes: “Cut it. It doesn’t move the plot.”

Arrrgh. No wonder the frustration level sometimes goes through the roof on this issue.

That’s why, today, we’re going to take a definitive look at what it actually means “to move the plot.”

Move the Plot = Change the Plot

Sometimes writers get hung up on believing they’re moving the plot when, really, they’re not. This is because, ironically, moving the plot doesn’t necessarily require movement. Just because characters are running around doing lots of stuff in any given scene does not automatically mean that scene is moving the plot.

Moving the plot simply means changing the plot.

A scene that moves the plot is a scene that creates forward momentum by leaving the story different at its end than it was at the beginning. As Wordplayer Kate Flournoy mentioned in a comment to the post How to Write the Perfect Plot (in 2 Easy Steps):

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that every scene should contain something that changes the flavor/direction of the plot, however subtly, on whatever level. It might simply be a teensy forward step in a character’s arc, or it might be a mind-boggling discovery about the villain that will end up contributing to his downfall. It might even just be a tiny smidgen of foreshadowing. But it has to be there.

A Scene-by-Scene Comparison: To Move the Plot or Not Move the Plot?

Let’s take a look at this concept in action, shall we?

Following are two (very short) scenes.

One of the easiest ways to determine whether a scene is failing to move the plot is to examine its scene structure. More often than not, if a scene isn’t moving the plot, it’s because one of its crucial pieces (usually, goal or conflict) is missing entirely.

However, because you can fool yourself into thinking a scene must be moving the plot simply because you know your structure is all there, we’re going to look at two perfectly structured scenes—one of which moves the plot and one of which does not.

Example #1: No Plot Movement

Leah arrived for work at the Daily Tribune and pounded on the door of the editor, Mr. Larkey.

“I know you canceled my story, and I’m not going to stand for it!” (Goal)

The door opened a crack, and Larkey’s lackey Larson poked his big ugly mug out. “Mr. Larkey says beat it.” (Conflict)

“He can tell me that to my face.” Leah gave the door a mighty shove.

The door wouldn’t budge against Larson’s bulk. He reached out a paw and easily slid her back. “Beat it.” He closed the door in her face. The lock turned.

“Hmp.” Leah kicked the door for good measure. “Don’t think this is over!” She turned to go. (Outcome)

The structure’s all there. But did the plot change? Not a bit.

And how do we know this?

Take a look at Leah’s goal. Does her relation to that goal change in any measure? At the beginning of the scene, she wants to get her article printed, but Mr. Larkey (and Larson) stands in her way. By the time we get to the end of the scene, there’s been quite a bit of movement—pounding, shouting, shoving, and kicking—but nothing has actually changed. Leah still wants to get her article printed, and Mr. Larkey still stands in her way.

In short, this scene is a whole lot of sound and fury signifying a whole lot of nothing.

Example #2: We Have Movement!

Leah arrived for work at the Daily Tribune and pounded on the door of the editor, Mr. Larkey.

“I know you canceled my story, and I’m not going to stand for it!” (Goal)

The door opened a crack, and Larkey’s lackey Larson poked his big ugly mug out. “Mr. Larkey says beat it.” (Conflict)

“He can tell me that to my face.” Leah gave the door a mighty shove.

The edge of the door smacked into Larson’s nose. Blood spouted. With a shriek, he stumbled back.

Behind his desk, Mr. Larkey shot to his feet. He jabbed a finger at Leah. “You’re fired!” (Outcome)

So did the plot change? You bet. Leah’s attempts to strong-arm her story back into the paper not only failed, they got her fired. Plot officially moved.

Ideas for Moving Your Plot

Your scene won’t always need to end with a flat-out disaster. You can also make use of sidelong disasters (“yes, but” disasters), in which the character achieves her goal but with consequences that push her sideways, instead of allowing her unimpeded progress toward her main story goal.

The point is this: every scene must create a new set of consequences that your character has to deal with. Otherwise, the landscape of your story remains static, and your character ends up like a hamster on a wheel—running for her life but getting nowhere fast.

As Kate mentioned above, you can create scene change in any number of ways.

  • Throw in a scene revelation that knocks your character’s socks off.
  • Thwart her goals.
  • Let her accomplish her goals—only to have the victory turn out bittersweet.
  • Even if you can’t change the course of the plot for the protagonist, at least change something for a subplot character.

Change is the life’s blood of fiction. Use it wisely in every scene and you’ll keep your plot galloping forward, your readers riveted, and your editors silent as a semicolon.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How will you move the plot in your latest scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Ugh, this is one of my biggest challenges in my fantasy WIP. My first novel was much easier in this regard because it was a family drama written in first person. The plot, though leisurely, was orderly, with the action squarely focused on the protagonist, and because the central conflict was the protagonist vs. herself, pretty much any event could move the plot. The fantasy novel, however, has 2-3 important subplots involving secondary characters running at the same time as the main plot. It is really difficult to make sure something changes in each scene, especially since, with my character-driven story, I spend a lot of time establishing the characters’ relationships. Editing is going to be fun. 🙁 But enough grousing. Thank you for this timely reminder- I love when you pick apart common writing advice and explain to us puzzled aspiring authors what it actually means. I’ve never heard “move the plot” discussed in this way before, but it makes tons of sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, you know me, I’m all about demystifying the rules of writing. I firmly believe creativity works best when we understand it, rather than sanctifying it as some mystical, airy-fairy *feeling* that we don’t know anything about and wield like a kid with his dad’s shotgun. :p

  2. Great advice. Every scene needs to have a purpose. One thing I do while preparing to work on the second draft is to write a quick summary at the end of each chapter/page break and answer the question of “What did this scene accomplish?”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s smart. I think it’s really good to put things to ourselves in concrete questions. Rather than just saying “yes, I know every scene must accomplish something,” phrasing it as a question forces us to *really* examine what’s happening in each scene.

  3. It can be a challenge. There’s a fine line between exploring what *might* change the plot for suspense, and spinning our wheels.

    Even in the Leah example, if we and she were fully invested in her getting her story out, being openly refused by her editor (probably after a more thorough, passionate plea from her) would be a plot change. We’d realize she has no choice left but to quit and publish it elsewhere, or give up The Story That Must Be Seen, or something else earthshaking. Because that story had made it earthshaking and inevitable, where another version of it might not.

    I think it’s a rule of thumb: if a scene doesn’t change the goal itself (or something else we care about too), it should juggle the Almosts or the What’s Next in a way that clearly brings us closer to changing it. It helps if it’s a clash that doesn’t happen again (I call that the Tarzan Test, don’t fight a lion twice) so there’s a sense that possibility is out of the way. It also helps if a scene that doesn’t change the goal still makes a permanent change in what’s possible next– if only because it escalates the conflict so simpler tactics don’t feel safe any more.

    • `The Tarzan Test’. That’s one I’ll have to remember. 🙂

      Thinking about my own WIP in light of the article, it’s easier to see changes when there’s more outward action. In sections that are stronger in character development it can be tricky to tell if movement has happened or not- but part of that may be my tendency to, despite my best efforts, occasionally mix up scenes and sequels. I’m glad, Ms. Weiland, that you did several articles on that very subject.

    • “It also helps if a scene that doesn’t change the goal still makes a permanent change in what’s possible next– if only because it escalates the conflict so simpler tactics don’t feel safe any more.” – So helpful — I had never thought of it in these terms before, and your phrasing — “a permanent change in what’s possible next” — gives me a lot of idea. The plot is making real progress, I guess, when possibilities are being CLOSED OFF, forcing the characters finally into the only possible resolution. I think that is a helpful model for thinking through plot progression.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good points. Examples for posts like these are always tricky, since the real test of whether or not something works is almost always dependent upon the larger context.

  4. Joe Long says:

    I find myself agreeing with you guys here and perhaps disagreeing somewhat with Katie(!!!)

    In isolation, knowing nothing else about Leah’s story other than what’s quoted in the two passages, I realized the first scene was incomplete. There needed to be some further reaction or consequence. However, I thought that those could be delayed until later.

    We learned (assuming we didn’t before) that there’s a conflict between Leah (or what’s in her article) and her editor Mr. Larkey. We learn about both Larkey and Leah, in that she’s bold enough to confront him and he issues an in-your-face rejection. It throws an obstacle between Leah and her goal – but does the reaction to this circumstance need to be immediate?

    If I was outlining it, I’d know there’d have to be a reaction, even if it’s delayed. Assuming (according to the first version) that Leah wasn’t fired on the spot, she’d need to go about plotting how to get around this new obstacle at some point, whether soon afterwards or where it continues to fester. She’ll have to balance how much she values her job (and the opportunities it gives her to tell her story) compared to the value of that story itself, etc.

    I’m facing a similar situation to the example, though. I had written a chapter out of sequence in order to enter it into a Halloween themed anthology. I wrote it with the intent of being a chapter in my book and included enough references to established events and relationships while doing it in a way that readers wouldn’t need to read the earlier chapter to enjoy this one. However, as I’m approaching that period of time in my current writing, I find myself asking how it moves the over all plot. As Jason mentioned above, before I start a scene, even if I know everything I want to happen, I take time to ask myself, “Why? What does it matter?” and frequently the scene takes a new direction or emphasis on events in order to establish the plot movement, even if they outlined structure barely changes.

    PS – Katie, when posting the site has once again stopped asking me if I want to subscribe to replies.

  5. My plot centers around a group of time travelers who travel from A. D. 2018 back to 570 B. C. and meet the future Old Testament prophet Daniel. But they find that Daniel is a pagan god worshiper who captures them in the name of King Nebuchadnezzar. Their leader –Kev Williams–tries to talk Daniel into both releasing them and to become the Old Testament prophet. But the plot changes when Kev’s goal is thwarted by the Babylonian war goddess Inanna and her evil brother Nergal. Kev now realizes that he not only has Daniel to contend with but also two powerful supernatural entities. That’s what I plan for the scene so far.

  6. I tend to visualize “moving the plot” as creating a logical connection between what comes before and what comes after, but that’s really just a truism. It doesn’t tell me anything about what the actual content of a scene should be. This is where concrete examples and lists of possibilities make a big difference! Of course, figuring out the seemingly intractable problem of how to get from point A to point Z is what makes writing fun. It’s worth doing because it’s hard.

  7. K.M. Weiland, Queen of Cool.

  8. Katie – this is a very useful post. I like how you really break down what is meant by that often-used advice. I have a question about plot movement (and specifically conflict) when writing a negative character arc. I have an antagonist who gets some of her own POV chapters and her arc through the whole story is negative (corruption type). In the beginning, she is lured in by the lie. It seems to help her achieve her goals! The reader should see the tension that this is leading her down a bad path, but I’m afraid that doesn’t qualify as “conflict.” How do I provide the plot-moving conflict of goal-followed-by-obstacle when she’s actually reaching her goals in the beginning (only to be completely corrupted by her means and affiliations later down the line)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing that’s important to note is that “conflict” doesn’t need to be present in every moment of the story. Scene structure splits every scene in half. You have scene – which is about the character taking action – which is where you get the conflict. And then you have sequel – which is about the character reacting to what just happened – which is where you get tension (or the threat of conflict).

  9. I almost jumped out of my skin when I read this. 😀 I still follow your posts (just don’t comment often) and I hadn’t read this one yet when a friend called it to my attention… honestly I’d totally forgotten I’d said that. *grins*

    Great points, as always. I like how you illustrate things with examples. Very helpful.

  10. Thank you so much for this! I’ve had a lot of problems with scene structure lately. I’ve figured out how to do it, but nothing ever turns out quite right. Those examples you provided showed me that my scenes aren’t moving my plot. Now I finally understand this bit of writing advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Scene structure can be very helpful for showing us *how* to move the plot. But it can also turn into an academic approach that actually gets in the way of plot movement. We definitely have to find the balance.

  11. I’m not a good outliner (I have bare bones for the novel as a whole when I start), but I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a mini-outline for each scene when I get to it:
    Goal, Obstacle/Conflict, Disaster/ Outcome, Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. (I’m pretty sure I stole and/or modified this from Katie.) This seems to work well to make sure each scene has a purpose, without tying me to detailed outline that I’m afraid to wander from.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I started doing this a few books ago too. It’s where I really noticed my plots coming together and become cohesive in their execution.

  12. This is good. As I am reading critically, I can see where/how the author has moved the plot simply by adjusting the character’s attitude. She’s considering doing or saying something she hadn’t before. That creates that subtle shift and if you’re not paying attention you can zoom right by it. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is a great exercise. Watching this technique, in particular, in motion will really show you the possibilities.

  13. Thanks for this. I have a question, which might actually lead to another blog post because your answer might be too long. When a plot is made more complex by a subplot involving the MC’s ally, I assume that those chapters/scenes must move the subplot forward while assuring that what is happening with the ally is something that will, in the end, benefit the MC. Is it okay, then, to have chapters in which the MC does not even appear? Such chapters might include subplot involving the ally/supporting character, but also backstory through which the reader learns more about the antagonist’s motivation, something that is not necessarily shared with the MC, but with a secondary ally?

    I hope this somehow makes sense to you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. As long as everything ties in thematically and builds toward the same Climactic Moment, you can explore as many subplot characters as you want (although, of course, less is usually more 😉 ).

  14. Well explained! Reminds me of the #1 rule for actors doing improvisation, the “yes, and” rule. When someone says something, you don’t deny it (that kills the scene), you say yes and then add something to it to push the scene forward.

  15. Basically, don’t allow for long stretches where nothing happens.

    Still, it’s wise at times to let the plot slow down, to let your characters be themselves. Most of the advice I hear is that when you are not moving the plot you ought to be revealing character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s where the sequel scenes come in, in which we get to witnesses the very important reactions to the scene disasters, such as the one in the post’s example.

  16. Thanks for this. Really, it’s not always obvious to me whether the plot is being moved or not in a scene and I think those two examples helped clear the fog a bit. It’s all about them ch-ch-ch-changes.

    And, silent as a semicolon, love it! Because you don’t want your editors loud as an interrobang. 😉

  17. Ms. Albina says:

    Great article. I need to revise my writing and descriptions. I am starting with a vision with my Lotus story.

    Example: Suddenly a disturbing scene flashed upon Lotus and her mother’s minds eye as they both had the same vision at the very same moment. Which was seeing fire flames.

  18. Ms. Albina says:

    In the story Lotus will have to find a way to relocate the villagers from hope village. Thank you. I have 20 characters in the Lotus story with two villain one being an octopus.

    Is your character arc book done yet?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Creating Character Arcs is available here. But the workbook is still coming. It’s due out in late summer or early fall.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        I have the book. I do want to hopefully get my writing published this year.

        • Ms. Albina says:

          In my co-author book have the yellow death plague in it until Leilani finds a cure for it. Do you know what the plot is when you write it?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes. I work through all the plot questions in the outline.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            I am doing a novella with Lotus and her siblings that have to help with stopping/saving people from a fire which is in a village. When you write how many sentences do you write for the setting or scenery for the character. I have 17 chapters and also will do 14 chapters and a prologue and also be Lotus’s adventures.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It’s never a particular number of sentences. It depends on the story. But, say, three is a good place to start.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Thank you. I meant epilogue also.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Do you write five sentences for character descriptions because I am going to revise mine.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Or less.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay thank you.

            My description example: Leilani and Zane’s children were blessed with their parents raven hair, but their eye colors were different. They had bronze colored skin and different colored mer-tails when wet.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            I am going to use this description: My description example: Leilani and Zane’s children were blessed with their parents raven hair, but their eye colors were different. They had bronze colored skin and different colored mer-tails when wet.

            I have five different setting changes. How do you change to her scene or setting to the next?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Usually, just indicating the new setting at the beginning of the scene is enough to orient readers.

  19. Revelation time! I bet many of my scenes don’t move the plot. This will give me a lot to work with in turning my beloved Nano into a novel. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing is harder than revisions when you don’t know where to start. Nothing is better than revisions when you know exactly what to do. 🙂

  20. THANKS SO MUCH. Wow, I needed this post. I’m one of those writers you mentioned at the beginning of your post. 🙂 So thank you again.

  21. Monica Rodriguez says:

    This was SOOO helpful! I’ve struggled with this, yet I always thought I understood it. When a scene seemed off and i couldn’t pinpoint why, i checked that i had my goal, conflict, and outcome, and someone’s that helped. Now i can really see if a scene is moving the plot forward it not. Absolute gold!

  22. Adam Fox says:

    I really liked the ideas for changing the plot. My favorite by far is to play Bad Genie and give the chars what they’re trying to achieve, but with consequences (new enemies) or terms (limitations) or a Pyrrhic victory cost that makes them regret it.
    My favorite example of this is an anime called Demon King Daimao, where the MC is an upstanding nice guy who every time makes logical, moral decisions but that somehow edge him ever closer to being a demon king.

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