If you are writing a novel, a short story, a play, or a screenplay then everything in your story should advance the plot or reveal character.

Do you sometimes find that a section of your story is lacking in dramatic tension, or feels a bit aimless or underwhelming?

Perhaps a moment feels a bit tangential to your main story line. This is a great time to ask ‘Is this moment advancing plot or revealing character?’ 

How to Make sure Every Moment in Your Story is Advancing the Plot

First of all, what is the plot? I’m using plot here to refer to the overarching story. A plot is usually organised around an inciting incident, which gives rise to a central objective or intention in the protagonist. See this article for more details about how to organise your plot around a central objective. 

The central objective gives rise to the central journey of the protagonist, on their road to attaining their overarching goal.

For instance, Frodo’s objective is to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom, thereby destroying it.

Harry Potter’s objective is to live, and in order to do this he must defeat Volde who is trying to kill him.

So if a moment in in your story feels flat, see if that moment is contributing in a meaningful way to the central journey of the protagonist on their road to their overall objective. 

Here’s an example. If Harry, Ron and Hermione were scouring the globe for horcruxes, which are necessary to defeat Harry’s nemesis, and they suddenly stopped to enjoy ice-cream cones and discussed a matter that was in no way connected to the events of the story, that that might feel strange because it is not advancing the plot. 

This is another way of saying, stay on topic. Keep the tension high and the characters focussed on achieving their goals. 

There is one exception to this rule, and that is when a moment reveals character. 

How to Make Moments Reveal Character in Your Story

Let’s stay with the example above of Harry, Ron, and Hermione stopping for icecream. Or even better, sitting down by the fire in their dorm for a friendly chat.

If what they discuss has no relation to any of the character’s central objectives, it can still be a valuable exchange in your story if it reveals character.

If we learn during the event for instance that Ron’s family are poor, or Harry’s parents were murdered when he was young, then we have learned something that enrichs our experience of the story world, and the characters, and this moment will likely not feel flat or irrelevant to your audience.

It’s also probably true to say that any moment that develops character does contribute to the advancement of the plot, because the character information will likely inform the character’s decision making process on their road to their final objective. 

For instance, if we learn that Ron is a coward, the team will have to factor this into their plans to defeat Voldemort. 

Conclusion

If a moment feels flat to you, apply this test, and make sure to rewrite the passage so that it contributes the character’s central objectives, or reveals more about your characters, and enriches the story world!


Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.