Narrative Movement

In her writing book Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin discusses how a story must have narrative movement. The reader should feel that something is happening, that the story is moving along.

It’s easy to confuse narrative movement with action. In college, I was assigned an excerpt from Le Morte D-Arthur, which I believe suffers from this problem. (To be fair, it was written in the 1400s.) There’s a description of a battle that goes something like this: Sir Beefy Dude knocked Sir Muscle Guy off his horse, and woe fell upon Sir Muscle Guy, for he ran about the field, but the horse could not be recovered. Sir Turnip unhorsed Sir Radish, Sir Muffin unhorsed Sir Cupcake, Sir Balloon unhorsed Sir Moon…

At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s pages of detailed description about which knights got unseated. A literal blow-by-blow of the battle. Getting through it was a slog.

So why is this description so boring? There’s a lot going on–it’s a huge battle scene. But the problem is, there’s not much that’s actually happening. It’s just a list of events. The whole thing could be described in a few sentences, without loss of understanding.

Narrative movement isn’t about a flurry of activity–it’s about feeling like the plot has progressed. Are questions being answered? Are new questions arising? Am I invested in knowing what happens next?

Maybe if I know the backstory of Sir Radish, or if Sir Radish is somehow important to the fate of another character, then I’ll care that he got unhorsed. Otherwise, he’s just a name in a list of names.

But how do we get the plot moving along? Perhaps it’s more about how we build meaning into our stories.

Let’s take another event as an example. Not a huge battle, or an explosion, or anything so grand and terrifying. How about if we have a watch that breaks? This is not immediately exciting. I’m probably not going to run out and buy a book because someone tells me there’s this really cool scene where a watch stops working. But this is the sort of event that can move the story along, depending on the context.

First, we have to care about the watch. Who owns the watch? Does it belong to the main character? Her grandmother? Has it been handed down through generations? Is it a new watch given to her as a graduation present? And how does it break? Perhaps an accident? Or does her jealous sister stomp on it? Does the watch have special powers, perhaps allowing the user to travel through time?

When the watch breaks, it’s going to change something–the relationship between the sisters, for example. Or maybe someone will be stranded in time. The important bit is that the watch changes something significant in the story. Perhaps it forces the characters into action, or creates a new problem.

When I’m drawn into a story, it’s usually not because of explosions or battles, shouting or sex or gore. It’s because I care about the characters and the situation. And when something happens to change the situation, that’s what moves the plot forward.