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Five Common Reasons Stories Screech to a Halt

Five Common Reasons Stories Screech to a Halt

A good story makes it feel like characters are on a collision course, events are coming to a head, and the story is generally on its way to a climax and resolution. We call this feeling of progress toward the finish line “movement,” or, alternatively, momentum. When movement stalls, audiences get bored and lose their motivation to continue. To prevent this, let’s cover five reasons movement halts and how to fix each one.

1. The Hero Has No Options

Cover art from Wanderers, showing someone walking down a country road at sunset

In Wanderers, protagonist Benji is sent by the CDC to investigate a strange disease that causes people to walk endlessly like zombies. However, he can’t even take a blood sample. Even though these walkers feel normal to the touch, every needle used on them breaks. Then someone tries to stop a walker from heading to their destination, and the walker explodes. Benji figures that at least he has some blood and organs to analyze, but he’s wrong. Someone steals the remains from the hospital, and no clues are offered as to who. As the book continues, Benji gets nowhere.

In many stories, the hero proactively pushes the plot forward by rescuing friends, plotting a heist, or stepping in to prevent disaster. But in some situations, it doesn’t feel like the hero has any steps they can take to advance the story. This could be because they were just captured and locked in a cell, because plan A failed and there is no plan B, or simply because they need information and the storyteller wouldn’t give them anything.

Regardless of how it happens, the audience is given the impression that there’s no way forward, causing tension to plummet. Of course, in most cases the storyteller will create a path forward later, but that doesn’t change how the audience feels while the story is stalled. Even if this is a brief issue, that’s all it takes for readers to put a book down and forget to resume it again.

How to Fix It

We’ll always want moments where the hero fails and all seems lost. The key is to manage how long they last and where stopping points such as chapter breaks are.

  • If it’s not important for your hero to face despair, introduce a plot device to show a path forward as soon as possible. Once plan A fails, the characters should move right to discussing plan B. Maybe when your hero is thrown in the dungeon, they discover one of the guards slipped a secret message in their shackles.
  • If you do want your hero to face despair, don’t let it last for more than a scene without giving the audience some sign that movement is coming. Maybe your hero prays to their god and comes away with some insight on their situation. Perhaps in their despair they resolve to take more extreme measures.
  • Avoid ending chapters, or perhaps even scenes, during a moment where it looks like the hero can’t do anything. Just as you might put a high-tension hook at the end of a chapter to keep readers going, consider giving your audience a little preview of action to come.

Otherwise, just give your hero agency and let them earn the clues they need to solve the problems they’re facing.

2. The Story Takes Side Trips or Tangents

Elrond, Saruman, Gandalf, and Galadriel meet around a table at Rivendell

The Hobbit movie series is notorious for padding the story to make more money. One of the many tangents involves an added plot arc in which Gandalf discovers that Sauron may be returning. While it’s technically prequel material for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, everyone’s already seen the plot of those movies resolve. More importantly, it has nothing to do with the throughline of the current story: whether the dwarves manage to take back their ancestral home from a dragon. This makes it feel like a waste of time.

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While movie studios sometimes stretch out stories, novelists have the most trouble resisting the temptation to abandon the story at hand and do something else for a while. This might come in the form of the dreaded interlude, a switch to a different viewpoint character who’s not involved in the same plot, or a hero that gets amnesia and lives a completely different life for a while before remembering what they were supposed to be doing.

No matter how exciting your opening story hook is, it will only create interest in the arcs it represents. So if your story begins with an attack by human-eating snowmen, your audience will probably be interested in watching your hero’s collision course with these snowmen. But this won’t make the audience interested in watching the hero romance their neighbor. If you spend the next three scenes with the neighbor and don’t bring up the snowmen, they might even resent the romance for halting movement in the snowmen plot.

On the plus side, audiences know that these tangents won’t last forever. However, they sorely test audience patience and, frankly, take them for granted. In these cases, readers are likely to get bored and stop reading.

How to Fix It

This is where consolidation, and more specifically multitasking, comes in handy. You can add new elements to your story; you just have to keep the most compelling arcs moving while you do so. In my snowmen example, maybe the hero and their neighbor find a creepy snowman behind their apartment building and start investigating together. A new viewpoint character could be a reporter investigating the strange stories about snowmen that have been circulating.

Of course, this has limits; a single story simply can’t be about everything. If you love your interludes, give them their own story. Your audience will have a better experience if they aren’t interrupting something that’s unrelated.

3. The Hero Is Ignoring the Plot

Rike, Wesley, an engineer, and an alien called the Traveler site around a console in Engineering

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Where No One Has Gone Before,” an arrogant warp specialist and his assistant come on board the ship to optimize the warp drive. Instead of making the ship go a bit faster, the Enterprise is thrown into another galaxy. The specialist can’t explain this, but a young character on the ship, Wesley, knows that it’s actually his assistant who moved the ship. He tries to tell this to Commander Riker multiple times, but Riker dismisses him without listening for just 30 seconds. Wesley never tries to tell someone else.

While audiences will quickly become impatient with long detours that don’t advance the story’s throughline, that doesn’t mean they need every scene to be a pivotal plot moment. However, it’s a bad idea to test their tolerance by waving tempting plot hooks or obvious solutions in front of them only to make the hero run in the other direction. That’s what happens when there’s an obvious action the hero could take to move the story forward, but instead, the hero works on a less important subplot or just doesn’t do anything.

Plot hooks the hero shouldn’t ignore include:

  • An invitation to dine with an antagonist or attend a plot-relevant event
  • A call to join the defense team or another group that’s trying to solve the big problem of the story
  • A clue that requires follow up
  • A problem that is more urgent than whatever the hero is doing
  • A character that’s trying to tell the hero something but keeps getting interrupted

Sometimes this happens because the hero is reluctant. Sure, maybe they’ve been chosen to defeat the Butterfly Lord, but they’d rather stay home and tend to their garden. Other times, it can happen because the storyteller is trying to keep an arc present in the story but isn’t ready to advance it yet. They might think that a character getting interrupted before saying something important is good foreshadowing or that it explains why characters aren’t communicating better.

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Seeing how an arc could advance and then being forced to wait is a frustrating experience. The audience should enjoy whatever is happening in the story and not get distracted yelling at the hero to do the thing already.

How to Fix It

If your hero is reluctant, you have two options. First, you can make their reluctance brief enough that it doesn’t delay the plot. Let someone convince them in the next scene. Second, you can bring the plot to them and force them to respond. In my example of a chosen one who wants to tend their garden, maybe the Butterfly Lord sends minions to infiltrate the garden and capture the hero.

If you want to keep an urgent plot arc in the background, look for reasons the hero must wait before moving forward. Instead of having them ignore a clue, let them follow up by contacting someone who needs several days to do research and get back to them. Alternately, maybe the hero plans to confront someone at an event that’s a week away. If you make the waiting period too long, the audience will still get bored, but a short wait usually works.

Even if it’s obviously a bad idea for the hero to accept the villain’s invitation to dinner, they shouldn’t just ignore it. If you can’t find a believable reason for them to say yes, have them respond in a different way. Maybe they send someone in their place or suggest a new location to lure the villain into a trap. Otherwise, it’s better to cut the invitation from the story.

4. The Hero Goes Back to Square One

Harry and Hermione in a snowy graveyard, looking at the grave of Harry's parents

Many readers are familiar with the frustrating camping scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It starts when Rowling doesn’t give her heroes any clues to work with, leaving them with no options for moving the story forward. Then Harry and Hermione go to Godric’s Hollow, the town where Harry’s parents lived and died. There, they confront Voldemort’s disguised snake and break Harry’s wand while escaping. What does this mean for the story going forward? Almost nothing. They are right back where they started, with nothing to go on. The tiny clues they get only become marginally useful later.

For movement to occur, an event must be essential in bringing about the story’s end. You can think of this as a chain of dominoes; if you remove a domino from the chain, the rest should stand still instead of falling over. Any events you can cut while leaving everything else intact are essentially tangents. While the audience may not know this at first, when they find out, they’ll be sorely disappointed.

For instance, maybe your hero is investigating a crime and ends up chasing down a suspect. Once they catch the suspect, they discover this person was running for an entirely different reason and wasn’t their suspect after all. By default, this sequence won’t have any impact on the mystery plot. The audience will go from thinking the plot was making exciting progress to realizing that it hasn’t budged. Now the hero must retread steps the audience thought they already covered. That’s not fun.

How bad this problem is depends on the size of the sequence that is superfluous. If it’s a brief moment taking a scene or less, it might be okay to wait and reveal the sequence mattered later. Maybe toward the end of this mystery plot, it turns out that non-suspect the hero chased was up to no good after all. However, this won’t do with a bigger sequence such as an entire chapter. The audience will need to know why those events mattered.

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How to Fix It

Most superfluous sequences can be fixed by giving the hero something to take away from the encounter. Often, they can gain information that’s useful going forward. Think of the last Groundhog Day-style time loop story you watched. In these sequences, the protagonist is the only character to remember previous time loops. This way, they can use their knowledge of what did and didn’t work to aid their next attempt at solving the problem and breaking the loop. Otherwise, the story wouldn’t go anywhere.

Meeting new characters can also keep red herrings and failed efforts from feeling pointless. Maybe after the hero chases down the false suspect, they strike up a conversation with this new person. Then the new character offers assistance in finding the real criminal.

Alternately, plot events can create movement in a way that’s not beneficial for the hero. After the hero makes a scene by chasing down the wrong suspect, everyone knows they’re trying to solve the mystery. Now the real culprit is onto them, and the hero has to fight off assassination attempts.

5. The Narration Is Long-Winded

Covers of the first paperback editor of Lord of the Rings, showing a colorful fantasy landscape

While The Lord of the Rings has its tangents, most of the plot sticks to covering the heroes’ efforts to defeat Sauron and destroy the One Ring. Despite that, it’s so slow that many people quit. Tolkien can’t resist putting twelve verses from a song here and a couple of pages describing trees there. His world is deep and feels real, but that’s partly because he spends so many pages describing the world, its history, and the people in it.

Stories are full of details that don’t move the plot forward but serve other purposes such as setting the scene, filling in the background, or fleshing out the world. When used in moderation, these details increase immersion and investment, providing a better experience. When used to excess, the audience gets tired of waiting for something significant to happen and starts skimming instead of paying attention.

Many, if not most, readers have encountered this before and can easily list off the typical culprits: page-long sections of description, endless exposition dumps with every irrelevant detail about the world, or detailed timelines of every character’s life from birth. Even if the plot moves forward in every scene, if each scene has two pages of plot-relevant action and twenty pages of exposition, the overall movement and pacing will be too slow.

How to Fix It

When it comes to narration, nothing beats thinking through why you’re putting something on the page. Is that paragraph there to make surroundings feel real, create emotional investment, or build tension? This is important for exposition in particular. Every story needs exposition; the trick is to only use enough exposition to create a better experience and leave out anything that goes beyond that.

For description, understanding both the limits of the audience’s imagination as well as their patience helps. While you could describe every detail of the breathtaking landscape the hero sees, pretty soon readers will lose track of all that. It’s better to choose what stands out by prioritizing your description and keeping the length down. If you need to, you can set a hard limit on description, and after you write it all out, trim it down to that size. Personally, I rarely find that more than one paragraph is called for.

Writing efficiently also helps. If you learn to cut down your clutter and keep your prose tight, not only will you be able to express more in a smaller space, but readers won’t get bored as fast. Prose that’s efficient is also more interesting.

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