One of the many challenges of writing is moving the plot forward. Action is the fuel of a plot, and it is the writer’s job to pour action all over everything and set it on fire.
All too often, however, writers just sit there and watch while their characters yammer away about one thing or another, sipping coffee and talking about “life” as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Or, even worse, writers will waste page after page describing a character’s interior dialogue—the ebb and flow of their precious thoughts—while the character waits for the bus or stands in line at the grocery store. In such cases, the characters themselves are doing absolutely nothing, and the plot inevitably grinds to a halt.
Dull, annoyingly introspective characters can poison an entire story. To avoid this problem, here are some tricks the pros use whenever the action stalls and something needs to happen:
One of the easiest ways to move a plot along is to bother the character with an important phone call. Let’s say your character is out getting a muffin and can’t decide between bran, which would move his digestive track along, or poppy seed, which he likes better because it tastes more like cake, save for the seeds, which get lodged in his teeth, forcing him to floss in the middle of the day. If, after a few pages, your character has failed to choose a muffin, all you, the writer, have to do to untangle him from the situation is make his cellphone ring. When the character answers, tell him something urgent and horrible, then watch him jump: “What? Slow down. You say my house is on fire?”
Instantaneously, your character will stop caring about the muffin and flee whatever coffee shop he’s in to go watch his house burn to the ground. If you really want to grab your character’s attention, remind him that he has two-million dollars in cash stashed under the floorboards. Then make his phone ring again, and tell him he has twenty-four hours to get two-million more dollars, or his wife and daughter are going to die. (Note: If you do this, always remember to alter your voice in order to throw the police off track.) Trust me, after a couple of phone calls like that, muffins are going to be the last thing on your character’s mind.
One of the best ways to grab a reader’s attention is to introduce a dead body. For instance, one of my favorite ways to move a plot along is to drop a body out of the sky. Suppose you’ve got two lovebirds sitting in a park, saying all kinds of romantic things to each other and basically boring the reader to death. Drop a body out of the sky on the pavement in front of them and bam, the boredom is gone.
Trust me, when a dead body falls out of nowhere, it raises all sorts of questions and makes it difficult for people to continue discussing their wedding plans or whatever other nonsense people talk about when they are in love. A dead body just splatted on the ground twenty feet away! Nobody can ignore that. At the very least they have to think, “WTF!” and call 911. After that, you are free to get rid of the boring park people and focus the narrative instead on your brilliant but flawed detective who seems groggy and uninterested in the fact of a body falling out of nowhere, but is really three steps ahead of everyone else at the scene because of his amazing powers of observation and his unparalleled network of underground informants.
Let’s face it, starting a car isn’t the most fascinating thing in the world, but if you plant a pound of C-4 under the driver’s seat and rig it to explode when the ignition key is turned, it gets a lot more interesting. Many lesser writers try to make car-starting more interesting by not having the car start, especially if the character is in a hurry or being chased by zombies. But this just prolongs the agony of car-starting—and besides, it’s a cliché. It’s much better to make the car blow up, incinerating whoever is inside, leaving everyone to wonder who planted the bomb and why.
People never get tired of exploding cars—or exploding anything, for that matter—so you’re on safe ground there. Just make sure your main character isn’t inside, or you are going to have do some fancy writing to bring her back to life: It was an identical twin in the car; the body isn’t who they thought it was; the character’s soul left that body and entered another body that was dying at the very same moment in a nearby hospital; the character in the car was beamed up by aliens just before the explosion—that kind of thing. Readers never get tired of finding out that someone they thought was dead is really alive, though, so however you decide to fool them is fine.
One of the best ways to give your plot some momentum is to involve your main character in an accident that almost kills them, and have them wake up in the hospital with amnesia. This tactic never fails, because when your main character has amnesia, it means everyone else in the story must spend a great deal of time reminding them who they are and why anyone should care. Which of course gives you, the writer, plenty of time to figure this stuff out as well.
How much of the patient’s memory returns and when is up to you, but it’s best if the patient retrieves their memory in bits and pieces—fragments that don’t make much sense and frustrate the hell out of everyone, especially the investigators who are trying to figure out how the accident happened. Because it was no accident. This adds tension to your story. It also gives you an opportunity to write sad and touching but slightly creepy scenes between the amnesiac and their spouse, who is a little too interested in just how much the vegetable in the bed is going to remember when their memory returns, as it inevitably must. Indeed, the trick to using amnesia as a plot device is in convincing the reader that all those lost memories might not come back, even though everyone knows they will.
The amnesia story line is powerful and cannot be used too often. But there is one caveat: Resist the temptation to include more than one amnesia victim in a story, because writing dialogue between amnesiacs can be difficult.
Another trick professional writers use to generate movement and tension in stories is to create a hostage situation. This can happen any number of ways. It could be a bank robbery gone bad, or a kidnapping, or a psychotic who likes to torture people. Whatever. The key point is to put one or more innocent civilians in the hands of some desperate, evil criminals who seem credibly capable of murder. After the hostage or hostages are taken, the criminals should threaten to kill them if they don’t get: a) ten million dollars in cash, b) a helicopter to the airport, c) their own plane, fueled and ready to go, and d) a load of pizza delivered, stat.
The beauty of a hostage situation, from the writer’s point of view, is that they basically write themselves. Once the hostage is taken, there must be efforts to contact the criminal or criminals, tense negotiations must ensue, the police have to gather all the information they can about the criminals, and the criminals themselves must become increasingly desperate. To add extra tension to the situation, you can always give one of the hostages diabetes, or make them go into labor. Criminals hate women in labor. At some point, too, one of the negotiators must attempt to approach the criminals unarmed, usually to deliver the pizza and “just talk.”
None of these things is optional, so there isn’t much creative leeway. These are simply the things that happen in a hostage situation, and it is your job as the writer to present them as realistically as possible. Where you, as the writer, do have a choice is the ending. You have three choices:
Option No. 1: End the whole thing in a holy hail of gunfire.
Option No. 2: Allow the police to deftly negotiate a surrender without a shot being fired. (Never very interesting, in my opinion.)
Option No. 3: Have your tactical team secure the safety of the hostage victim or victims, then take the criminal out with two taps to the chest and one to the forehead. Or let a sniper with an itchy trigger-finger finish the job. Just remember that when the bullet hits the perp, they have to fall in slow motion—and slow motion is not easy to convey on the printed page.
So next time you are sitting around watching your characters talk themselves to death, borrow from the playbook of the pros. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.