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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. First, a suggestion for you – please consider placing the audio slider at the top not the bottom of the article (listening is almost always better). And as for moving the plot, it’s great advice, but in my story it would be a small step, considering a lot of the MC’s life is in her bedroom, critical to the story. My second WIP plot movement would be easier.

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