Moving the story forward is arguably the most important and most difficult aspect of good novel-writing. If someone says, “I couldn’t put the book down” or "It was a real page turner," the author succeeded at engaging the reader in each chapter, paragraph, and sentence. Such expertly paced novels keep the reader always wanting to know what happens next.
The difficult part may be in that every scene must have a point to it. No matter how many car chases or dramatic screaming matches your manuscript may have, if the story stalls, you're going to lose your audience. But don’t fall into the misconception that just because you have something to say that you believe is interesting, readers will be interested. Most readers are impatient and distracted by delays in the real action and will skip over the other parts to get to it. Some may even put the book down, never to pick it up again.
Here are ways to keep your readers engaged.
Maintain order. Keep the main action of the story in sequential order so as not to confuse readers and slow them down by having to go back and reread sections of the narrative. It’s okay for you to be inspired by chaotic story-line thoughts in your head, but you must organize them for the reader.
Keep it fresh. Someone who critiqued an early draft of my first novel advised, “Once you state he’s a cowboy, you never have to mention it again.” My book wasn’t about cowboys, still I knew what she meant. In this example, to keep the cowboy image in the reader’s mind, you could add cowboy-related information—such as his attire or what cowboy-related things he’s doing—but stating that he’s a cowboy more than once is not necessary.
Escalate the action. This may seem too obvious to even mention, but it’s important to keep the story moving through escalation. The story needs to show an escalation of conflict, drama, conflict, and tension to drive it forward. The perfect story escalates smoothly from scene to scene, creating a sense of rising action.
Find the right balance among dialogue, description, and character internal monologue. The right balance among these story elements will vary, as each story is different. But in all cases, they should interact so as to present the plot and characters in a narrative that consistently flows forward. Too much interior monologue and exposition may slow down the plot. Too much action and dialogue could undermine character development.
Incorporate sudden changes. A sudden change is another good way to keep the story moving forward. If your character has spent her whole life running away from something and then suddenly faces it head-on, that will keep the reader interested in what happens next. Interject something that throws everything off balance—perhaps an obstacle for the character that forces him or her to deal with something new.
Create firsts. You can catch a reader’s attention with firsts—the first time the protagonist meets the antagonist; the first time they argue; the first time he or she feels threatened; etc. To keep the story moving, make sure the reader feels what the protagonist is feeling when these firsts occur. Beef up chapter beginnings and endings. The beginning of each chapter should engage readers in some level of activity that pulls them into the story/scene, involves them with your characters, and makes them care about what’s happening. Chapter endings need to close out the chapter but also open the door for the next one. Cliff-hangers, even small ones, are a great way to accomplish this at the end of chapters. Don’t give readers the chance to put your book down when they finish reading a chapter.
Use backstory sparingly. Backstory informs the reader about the character’s past—what has shaped the character into the person he or she is. Too much and it bores the reader, too little and the reader may not understand your character’s motives. Balance is key. Backstory pulls the reader out of the present, so include it only when the reader needs to know something. When you do provide backstory, avoid lengthy passages or you risk making the reader forget what is going on in the present. (See Chapter 10 for more about narrative exposition and backstory.)
Avoid the mundane. Dispense with pleasantries in dialogue and mundane information that will bore the reader. Include these only where they add to characterization or serve some other purpose in the story. For example, it’s not necessary to tell the reader what the bank robber had for breakfast unless the short-order cook overheard him planning the heist and decided to taint his food to deter the robbery.
Omit unnecessary physical movements and descriptive details. It’s best to keep the narrative as concise as possible to keep the story moving forward. Avoid what is unnecessary.
He snatched her shoulder bag with his left hand before jumping off the curb and disappearing into the stream of cars heading toward the center of town.
Better: He snatched her purse before disappearing into the stream of heavy traffic.
She felt along the wall for the light switch and flipped it on. The many pieces of furniture in the small room—a large bed, dresser, two end tables, two bookcases and a desk—kept her from noticing the dead body at first.
Better: She flipped on the light switch. The furniture in the crowded room kept her from noticing the dead body at first.
Start in the middle of the action. Instead of starting a scene at the beginning, try starting in the middle of what’s going on. Make the reader temporarily wonder what happened leading up to it.
Keep in sight the protagonist’s goals and motivation for reaching them. Characters who are driven to achieve their goals at any cost appeal to readers. To keep the story flowing nicely forward, don’t allow readers to lose sight of the protagonist’s goals, what motivates him for reaching them, what stands in his way, and what he is most afraid of losing.
Keeping the story moving forward is a common challenge for writers, especially new ones. Each scene you write must advance the story in some way with the use of dialogue, action, description, pacing, narrative, character motivation, transitional scenes, and conflict.