If things get slow, just ask yourself, WWJBD?
One thing I feel sure of: Once James Bond enters the scene he will not sit down somewhere and get lost in his head.
He will set a goal.
Do not fear stating this goal overtly. Doing so can actually ramp up suspense and remind you to push your story forward.
Let’s say we are writing a middle grade novel about a boy named Brandon who hopes to find the courage to tell his first crush, a recent immigrant named Parvati, that he likes her. He knows she likes soccer, and he wants to demonstrate his proficiency at it, so you set a scene at a game, show him playing, and put the girl in the stands.
This scene sounds relevant to the story, but it lacks impulsion toward the over-arching story goal. WWJBD?
Harnessing his inner James Bond, Brandon will ramp up his efforts in this particular game by setting a scene goal relevant to his attainment of Parvati’s attention. He’s known and valued for his set-up shot—the whole team counts on him for this—but today he will show Parvati what he is made of and go in for the score.
Now that Brandon has shared his scene goal, the reader will form a question in her mind: Can Brandon switch up his usual team role and win her admiration? This question has the all-important role of “bond-ing” the reader to the protagonist. As an experienced reader of stories, you know that one of three things will happen:
- He will meet his goal and the story will move forward.
- He will not meet his goal and end up worse off than before.
- Goal attainment will be delayed.
Is it best, just now, if Brandon musters everything he’s got, prevails with the winning goal, with the result that Parvati comes over to talk to him? Or is it better for your story that he misses the goal, injures another player with his unexpected strategy, incurs the wrath of his teammates, and, covered with mud, watches Parvati shaking her head and leaving the stands with another boy? Only you can decide what’s best for your story.
For the sake of our discussion of story movement, let’s look at the third option—a delay. In inexperienced hands, a delay can be a way of avoiding the forward movement of your story. When used deliberately, however, a delay has its uses.
Let’s say that halfway through the game—when sweet success is one kick away!—a thunderstorm causes a rain delay. He looks up and sees that Parvati has already made a run for cover. Tension builds within Brandon, who is sure that their mutual love for soccer will be the shared language that will bring the two together. He must live with his unfulfilled desire through the entire group math project they work on that week, which day after painful day reveals that when it comes to math, he is no match for Parvati. Tension builds toward the next game.
Do not make the mistake of sending him into that game, however, with the exact same goal and the same stakes for failure, or it will feel as if your story has stalled.
If you repeat a scene goal, raise the stakes.
Feel free to raise them a couple of ways—now Parvati has seen that he’s no good at math, Brandon’s specific goal attainment will feel all the more critical. And maybe she has made friends with a clique from the math club, and brings them all to the game, and he sees them pointing to him and laughing. And maybe he caught a cold that kept him out of practice that week, so he doesn’t realize the team has switched up its own strategy.
What Would James Bond Do? He’d swallow his fear, run onto the field, and kick some middle grade…soccer balls.
No matter your genre, keep your story moving with scene goals and increased stakes, and you will win your reader’s attention—as well as all the friends to whom she’ll describe your story as a page-turner.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.