Story Stoppers

Paragraphs that block momentum

A good story moves forward. Every sentence, paragraph, and scene has one mission: move this story forward. Together, they comprise a dynamo of story relationships and revelations that create pace, rhythm, tempo and vibrancy, the heartbeats of a strong story on the move.

Unfocused paragraphs impede forward movement. A  certain few can stop it altogether. Like pythons in a story’s crib, if we don’t watch for them, we could end up with a strangled story.

Let’s revisit Lily in the stagecoach:

The air in the stagecoach was stuffy and Lily struggled with the strap on the window, breaking a nail when its rusted clasp refused to budge. She was too impatient to count to ten. She picked at it with the point of her knife and it reluctantly moved. When the canvas swung open she was hit not by a pleasant prairie breeze but by a blast of hot air that carried with it all the odors that hung over the shacks of Sandy Creek. She slammed the canvas down. She had to get out of there.

This paragraph, up to its last two lines, advances the story rather nicely. It places the highly agitated Lily in the stagecoach with a knife and a short-term goal, get some fresh air. It dramatizes story world and character. The line, “hit by a blast of hot air that carried with it all the odors that hung over the shacks of Sandy Creek,” moves the story forward, from the stagecoach to the town, and, better yet, from a minor conflict with an airless stagecoach, to a larger one waiting in the hot and malodorous Sandy Creek.

The story advances until stopped by the finality of “She slammed the canvas down,” and the introduction of the new short-term goal, “She had to get out of there.”

Not only should stories move forward, they should also move to increasing levels of conflict, complexity and intensity. This paragraph’s last line not only blocked the forward movement into Sandy Creek, but blocked it with a same-level goal, escape the stuffy stagecoach.

Another lovely example of cold clocking a story, literally stopping its clock, is this wonderful piece of nostalgia by another excellent wordsmith.

Claiming its educational value, Daddy hurried our first television into the house through the backdoor one Saturday afternoon in the mid-‘50 when Mama was at her bridge club, thus providing him three hours of knob-turning and rabbit-ear adjusting. For a couple of years, until Greenville built its own station, Father Knows Best, Superman, and The Lone Ranger wavered in and out of horizontal and vertical hold as the modern signal attempted the seventy-five-mile leap from Raleigh down to rural eastern North Carolina, mostly failing.

This story is moving along at a clip with Daddy hurrying the first television into the house before mother comes home. This paragraph has everything, characterization, goal, potential conflict, urgency, but stops the forward momentum cold with the move from dramatization to exposition, a move from the present to the past when the narrator goes off topic to tell us about television reception in the time before Greenville built its own station.

Another way to look at these two paragraphs is to note how they leaned forward, noses into the wind, heading up story road, until their ///// was hit by \\\\\.

In the heat of the stagecoach and the moment, in the arms of memory and recall, in the spell of our characters’ immediate thoughts and desires, we must not halt the story’s movement. Only when all has been said and done, may we type those two sweet and longed-for words, The End.