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Give your story momentum

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I recently got a bit stuck and fed up with a story I was writing (which was particularly annoying as I hadn’t got very far). For some reason I got stuck moving the story forward. The problem, I suddenly realised,  was that I had this great situation that I wanted to explore, but nothing for my characters to do.

You often hear author’s say something like, “the characters had a mind of their own”, or “this story just seemed to write itself”. Whereas you may think they were just lucky on this occasion (or lying), the fact is that their story or characters probably did have their own momentum, due to the actions that the author already had planned out for them.

My particular story had a situation in it that I wanted to unfold as the story progressed. But in the mean time, my characters had nothing to do. How was I going to move my story forward? I couldn’t just have the characters sit there while stuff slowly and gently acted upon them. Not very interesting.

So it was clear that they needed to do something, in order to get the story going. The problem then becomes, what can the characters do, when the events in the story do not actually require them to act?

This is actually something that crops up a lot in the Harry Potter series. Very often, you will have a series of events that would occur throughout the story regardless of whether Harry and his friends get involved at all. It is only at the end where Harry’s actions have a direct consequence on the unfolding of the story. Sure, Harry does react to things going on around him, and will often actively investigate things he sees or suspicions he has. But the fact remains that these events would still have occurred whether he was playing detective or not (this is not necessarily a criticism by the way – I like Harry Potter stories, and it is of course a hallmark of many mystery stories).

The point is that Harry does have his own motivations, as well as acting as a stand-in for the reader. The story is given momentum through Harry’s, and our curiosity.

So that is one way – to make your character a detective. But that is not the path I chose for this particular story. Although there will be a bit of detective work later on, it is necessary for the character to be unaware of the meaning of what is happening to him. Totally oblivious. In this circumstance I chose to have the characters’ motivations, and supporting characters emphasise central themes in the story. In this way characters perform actions related to the story but can still be unaware of situations that will later act upon them.

Time will tell if that was a good idea or not, but it seems to be working so far. Any other ideas on giving a story it’s own momentum?