Writing Tip: Keep the Story Moving Forward

When I was writing my first novel, I was so excited to see my own words on the page that I ended up with several scenes that didn't have much at all to do with the main plot. After I signed with an agent, she pointed out this tendency to wander and had me cut a lot. I mean, a LOT. It was painful to hit the delete key, but I realized she was right. (Click here to read my post on what to do with scenes you cut.)

When you're writing a novel, it's important to always keep the story moving forward. If you go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the plot or aren't going to somehow tie back into it later, your readers are going to get confused or bored, and they may stop reading entirely.

Be careful not to veer too far off course!

I recently finished reading a murder mystery that veered off in several directions with new characters who seemed interesting enough, but then they all disappeared and never wound their way back into the story. When the killer was revealed and the book was over, instead of feeling satisfied, I found myself scratching my head and thinking, "But what happened to that little blonde girl on the side of the road? And why didn't I find out what the deal was with that creepy truck driver guy? And where did that wise old lady from the restaurant go?"

It felt almost as if the author didn't finish writing the book. Having subplots can keep a novel interesting, but they need to keep the overall story moving forward. If they go nowhere, your story goes nowhere, and your readers might end up going somewhere else for their next book.


Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life, Honey on Your Mind, and Chocolate for Two. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at www.mariamurnane.com.


This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2013 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Frances A. Rove on December 14, 2013 at 12:42pm

Great advice, BUT I'm at a very early stage in writing my book and having problems with my inner critic shutting down my writing flow.  You have to write it first to be able to realize it's a tangent and cut it.  You can't fall hopelessly in love with all your "darlings" as Stephen King calls them, but you can't have your inner critic preventing you from writing for fear it is a tangent.  

Comment by Lisa Thomson on December 10, 2013 at 7:57pm

Great advice, Maria! Every character and scene should move the plot forward and not waste the reader's time...advice from a famous writer (can't remember which one) but that sticks with me.  I'm writing my first novel, so I'm far from knowing what works but I like to  look at a story like a song.  Usually the beginning is tied to the end and there is a little repetition in the middle. 

Comment by Patricia Robertson on December 10, 2013 at 12:46pm
And yet writer of the murder mystery was able to get published when so many well written books languish, sigh. . .
Comment by Susan Heyboer O'Keefe on December 10, 2013 at 12:40pm

I agree 1000 percent, Maria. Cutting not only helps readability; it also helps the problem of "writing long" that so many of us have. I'm mainly a children's author. When I submitted my first adult and very dark novel, Frankenstein's Monster, my agent's first reaction was, "You're a good Catholic schoolgirl! You write about bunnies! Where the bleep did this come from?" A breath later he said, "I love it! Now cut it in half!" I "slaughtered it" from 700 pages to 475 before he'd submit it. When it sold, the editor coaxed me to cut another 125 pages. In retrospect, I'm embarrassed that I truly was able to say in 350 pages what first took me 700.

The best advice I ever received about cutting--whether it's a paragraph, scene, or even a whole chapter--was to ask, "Does this advance the plot? And how?" The How? usually circumvents vague answers like, It's such pretty writing at this point, or, I did so much research on the topic I simply had to add it even though it's a bit more than the character needs. Either it advances the plot or doesn't. Yes or no. Thus really makes cutting decisions clearer to make--even if they're just as painful.

Besides the above, there's also a practical, hard-nosed reason to cut: economics. In print publishing, publishers have to figure in paper costs, which over the past few years have skyrocketed disproportionate to other expenses. A 1,000-page book from Stephen King? Publishers don't consider page length a risk. A 1,000-page book from an unknown writer? The cost of paper suddenly becomes a huge issue.

Susan Heyboer O'Keefe

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