Ever watched a fight scene that felt like a complete waste of time? That happens because plots need more than excitement; they also have to move. Often referred to as momentum, story movement means that events build on each other to create a feeling of progress toward the story’s conclusion. When characters take their sweet time getting to the next plot point, audiences become impatient and frustrated. Let’s look at some examples of stories that move at crawling speed and how they could have been sped up.
Spoiler Notice: Episode seven of Severance, Magia Record, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
1. A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is a scifi novel known for its cool alien dogs. It’s supposed to be about a galaxy-destroying AI, but let’s forget that boring AI and go hang out with some alien dogs instead. The AI and dogs shouldn’t be competing with one another at all, but they are, because the plot is fragmented.
Plot fragmentation means events are split into separate storylines that have no effect on each other. Each time a book goes from one storyline to another, the chain of causality is broken. A novel with three separate storylines of equal size can, at best, move at one-third of the speed that a nicely consolidated story can. The more separate storylines are added, the worse this gets.
This issue commonly comes with multiple POVs, but many stories manage multiple POVs without fragmenting the plot. An even bigger warning sign is when protagonists are located too far apart to interact easily. That’s the case in A Fire Upon the Deep, in which the two teams of protagonists are about a galaxy apart.
Team Dogs starts with a family that flees an ancient archive where the AI has awakened, unknowingly carrying the secret to defeating that AI. They crash-land on alien-dog planet, and the adults die. The children are separated, and they end up helping rival factions of alien dogs. Meanwhile, Team AI includes a few adventurers who spend their time expositing on how the world works. When they’re done with that, they twiddle their thumbs as the evil AI slowly makes itself known across the galaxy.
Despite the epic-level threat Team AI faces, the alien-dog storyline has much higher tension and novelty. That makes following Team AI feel like a waste of time that could be spent watching alien dogs battle each other. But don’t worry, author Vernor Vinge brings the two storylines together… very, very slowly.
After puttering around for chapters, Team AI finally heads to alien-dog planet to retrieve the lost secret to AI deletion. But, you see, this galaxy has different speed zones. The zones determine both the upper limit of warp speed and how advanced technology can get. Alien-dog planet is in the slow zone, where the evil AI can only reach them through an intermediary. But this also means ships can’t travel there as quickly. Cue scene after scene describing how as the Team-AI ship gets closer to alien-dog planet, it gets slower, and slower, and slower… Are you talking about the ship or your story, Vinge?
Meanwhile, alien-dog planet isn’t doing too hot in the movement department either. The rival factions spend chapters preparing for a fight. When one of them decides to attack the other, it finally looks like their rivalry will come to a head. Instead, the attackers engage in some travel adventures on their way over. Who doesn’t like travel?
As a result of all this, A Fire Upon the Deep moves like molasses. However, it’s not hard to see how Vinge ended up in this position. It appears as though Team AI is who he actually wanted to write about – the golden boy of the group is clearly his favorite character. Vinge sent a MacGuffin to an alien planet for his favorite character to retrieve, and this became a tangent that was more entertaining than the throughline.
How It Could Be Fixed
If Vinge wanted to keep as much material as possible, the best path would be to split this into two different books. Alien-dog-planet book could focus on the children and dog politics, retaining the possibility that the children’s space-faring people might come to bring them home.
The AI book would need some work to raise tension and make conflicts more engaging. Instead of Team AI traveling slowly through space to get to a known destination, they should spend more time solving the mystery of where the MacGuffin has been hidden. That would set better expectations about where the book’s time will be spent. The AI’s minions would pursue the protagonists, leading to a climactic conflict once the MacGuffin is finally reached.
If Vinge cared most about keeping this as one book, the important characters from Team AI and Team Dogs should all be on the ship that crashes. The characters should know they have the secret to defeating the AI, and they could intentionally head to slow space where the AI can’t get them. After crashing, dog politics prevent them from reaching their MacGuffin. That means they have to work with the dogs to get the MacGuffin back and prepare for the AI’s minions to arrive.
In the latter case, getting on alien-dog planet early would be important, because readers need to know the book is about dealing with alien dogs. Otherwise, they could think the dogs will be dealt with in a single chapter, creating another movement problem. The beginning of chapter two is a good time for the protagonists to meet the alien dogs.
2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
This novel by the esteemed N. K. Jemisin is a fascinating case study, because the throughline starts so strong. The story begins when the protagonist, Yeine, is suddenly called to the palace of her estranged grandfather, the ailing ruler of the world. Since her mother (and his daughter) was recently murdered, Yeine is named a potential heir to the throne. But there are already two heirs with powerful connections in the palace, and whoever doesn’t take the throne will die.
The story has a sympathetic protagonist, a tense problem, and an interesting world. What’s more, the throughline gives readers a clear end point for the story to move toward. All I need is for Jemisin to install a hot tub I can soak in while reading, and I’m set.
After Yeine finds out she has to defeat the other heirs or die, she puts her energy into researching her mother’s history. Being the sweet summer child that I am, I assumed that this would give Yeine what she needs to win the throne. While Yeine’s investigation of her mother isn’t directly relevant to her competition with the other heirs, it’s close enough.
Plus, the book has some great conflicts. For instance, one of the rival heirs arranges for several nations to attack Yeine’s home kingdom as a means of extortion. Yeine hatches a plan to protect her kingdom and finds a sneaky way to visit home to warn them about the attack. Later, the same rival holds Yeine’s love interest hostage, and Yeine has to choose whether to let him suffer or give in.
However, as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that these events aren’t adding up to anything. That’s because Jemisin hasn’t provided Yeine with any route to winning the throne. For most of the book, it’s not even clear what the rules of the contest are. Readers are simply told winning is impossible. Of course, we hear this all the time, so it just means winning will be really, really hard, right? Nope. Jemisin means it’s actually impossible, so Yeine might as well do whatever she feels like.
Finally, the contest rules are laid out. One of the three heirs has to play kingmaker, volunteering their life in the process. By then, Yeine has already given up, and the only question is which of the other heirs she’ll choose as ruler. Unsurprisingly, she chooses no one. Then she dies and is resurrected through no doing of her own.
Why did Jemisin do this? For one, she might have simply enjoyed the gloomy mood. Alternately, Jesimin may not have known how to move the story forward given that Yeine isn’t supposed to succeed at the contest.
How It Could Be Fixed
Movement doesn’t have to mean the protagonist gets closer to winning; it can also mean the protagonist gets closer to disaster. In this case, I would fix the movement issue by showing Yeine create a strategy and get closer to success. However, as she’s doing that, her rival will also move forward by learning Yeine’s vulnerabilities, such as who and what Yeine cares about.
In a big twist before the climax, the rival could take the love interest hostage.* Then, Yeine would give up her victory to save him. Given that the love interest is an enslaved god, it wouldn’t be hard for him to initiate Yeine’s resurrection. That way, the climax has a prior-achievement turning point in which Yeine is rewarded for her sacrifice.
3. The Dragonet Prophecy
The Dragonet Prophecy is the first quintology in the middle-grade Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland. It’s about five young dragons (called dragonets) that are prophesied to stop a three-way war embroiling six of the dragon queendoms. To help fulfill the prophecy, the dragonets were taken from their own kind as eggs and raised together. Early in the first book, they escape from their abusive caregivers and set out to find their parents. Or to stop the war. Both, maybe?
Therein lies the biggest plot problem with this series. It feels like Sutherland initially decided that bringing peace was a great lesson for kids, so she planned to make the quintology about that. But she was actually passionate about the struggle of each dragonet to reconcile with their biological families and people. In the afterword of the first book, Sutherland describes how she enjoyed making each dragonet become disillusioned after returning to their origins.
Sometimes, such as in book two, Sutherland successfully multitasks the war plot with the reunion plot of the book. The dragonet featured in book two is a princess. She finds her mother, the queen, and then the princess gets the queen to withdraw from the great war. But making every dragonet secret royalty would get repetitive, so Sutherland can’t simply rinse and repeat. Instead, large swaths of the books are spent getting to know various dragon factions while the war plot is put on pause.
For instance, after book one climaxes, another five chapters are tacked on to cover a dragonet’s reunion with his family. Book three is focused on a reunion with a queendom that isn’t even involved in the war, so the protagonists take a random side trip to give the war plot a quick hello. By the time book five rolls around, the dragonets have only gotten two queens to withdraw, which changes almost nothing about the war. Then half of book five is spent on reunions.
It’s bad enough that the war plot barely budges, but that’s not the only issue. Resolving a three-way war requires a lot of page space. After spending so much time focusing on dragon drama, Sutherland doesn’t have enough pages to finish what’s supposed to be the throughline of the series. So at the end of book five, the war is quickly solved with an unbelievable plan and a deus ex MacGuffin.
Altogether, this is what happens when writers don’t center their darlings. We can’t fight what we’re passionate about; we have to build the plot around it. It’s very likely that Sutherland was told by editors or agents that she needed epic-level stakes, putting pressure on her to write something she wasn’t interested in. But fragmenting the plot like this wasn’t the right solution.
How It Could Be Fixed
If the book’s premise needed to stay the same, it was still possible to do more multitasking. If the five dragonets just came from the queendoms involved in the war, that would help. Currently, one dragonet comes from a queendom that isn’t involved, and another comes from a queendom that is only sorta helping in the background a little. Then there’s two powerful queendoms that none of the dragonets come from.
The Rainwings featured in book three are the big sticking point, because their whole shtick is that they’re peaceful to the point of being complacent. To preserve that, Sutherland needed a way that getting them more involved would bring peace instead of causing more violence. They might get involved as a third-party arbiter or by sheltering an exiled queen who wants her dragons to withdraw from the war.
Finally, a larger variety of dragon governments would allow more multitasking without getting repetitive. Sutherland clearly enjoyed creating different dragon societies. Given that, it seems odd that every society is led by a queen, and all but one have the same rules of succession. With more variety, not every dragonet would need to be a princess for their homecoming to fit in with dragon politics.
4. Magia Record
If you can believe it, the full title of this anime is Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story. I guess it was very important for absolutely everyone to know this is a Madoka Magica spin-off. The main character for this Madoka Magica spin-off (don’t forget it’s a spin-off) is Iroha, a magical girl with gaps in her memory. She doesn’t remember the wish she requested in exchange for becoming a magical girl, and her bedroom furnishings mysteriously stop at the room’s midline. She feels that someone is missing, but she doesn’t know who.
By coincidence, Iroha goes to Kamihama City, where she sees visions showing the person who’s been erased: her little sister, Ui. She remembers that Ui once stayed at the Kamihama hospital with two friends and her wish was to cure Ui’s sickness. Naturally, Iroha sets out to find Ui in Kamihama.
From there, you’d think it’d be easy for Iroha to find Ui’s trail. Instead, her search reaches a sudden dead end. Her only tactics are asking the people she happens to meet if they know Ui and putting up a few flyers. Since Ui’s existence seems to have been erased down to the furniture, of course no one remembers her. When Iroha doesn’t get any results, she mostly stops trying.
Instead, Iroha joins a team of Kamihama magical girls fighting menaces called Uwasa. While Iroha thinks an Uwasa might be responsible for Ui’s disappearance, she doesn’t know that for sure. She also makes no effort to figure out which Uwasa might have grabbed Ui.
Then, it turns out the Uwasa are being created by a magical-girl cult called the Wings of the Magius. Right off, Iroha learns the cult is led by the three Magius. To viewers, it seems pretty likely that the Magius are Ui and her two friends. After all, both friends were clearly masterminds in Iroha’s visions of them. This doesn’t occur to Iroha, which could make viewers frustrated on its own.
But even if we discount the smoking Magius, discovering the cult is an obvious opportunity for Iroha to question them about the Uwasa and her sister. While they’re antagonists, they’re pretty friendly and conversational ones. So does Iroha ask them? Sure – five episodes later. In the meantime, her team doesn’t even try to stop the cult so Uwasa aren’t created in the first place.
After Iroha finally interrogates a cult member about her sister and her sister’s friends, she meets one of the three Magius. The Magius is indeed one of Ui’s friends, but she doesn’t remember anything. So, once again, Iroha has no leads, making the small effort she put in pointless. Then, an entire season passes before viewers get any answers.
To its credit, Magia Record has those episodic Uwasa plots to keep characters busy, but they don’t have the same emotional weight as the search for Ui. The story is designed so viewers will get attached to Iroha and become invested in her search. Between Uwasa episodes, the story also doesn’t have much tension. That means Iroha’s missing sister is essentially the series throughline. Yet it’s dropped time and again, which makes Iroha look bad.
Clearly, the storyteller wanted to save the Ui reveal for the end of the story. If Iroha makes too much progress, it’ll spoil the surprise. This leads to a classic case of storyteller roadblocking, in which everyone’s forced to stand by until it’s reveal o’clock.
How It Could Be Fixed
The key isn’t to speed the middle up but to slow the beginning down. Just like tension, movement can escalate during the course of the story, but it shouldn’t drop. When Iroha suddenly remembers Ui and her friends and even finds the hospital Ui stayed at, it sets high expectations for further movement in that arc. While Iroha’s big realization does motivate her to move to Kamihama City, she could simply start there in the first place.
With a slower start, Iroha could spend a couple episodes just figuring out that someone is missing from her life. Then, she could get a brief glimpse of Ui and only remember Ui’s friends and the hospital stay later. While Iroha would naturally look for any opportunity to find out more about her sister, she won’t move to a whole new city just to search for her. Without that, viewers wouldn’t expect Iroha to act like a detective in the first place.
Plus, if she already lived in Kamihama City, Iroha wouldn’t need to think the Uwasa are connected to Ui’s disappearance right away. That connection could arrive later to move the Ui arc forward a little more. With more careful foreshadowing about the Wings of the Magius, this slower rate of movement could be maintained until the big reveal.
Slowing movement to make it more consistent won’t always work. It’s possible for audiences to simply become impatient if an important arc is crawling. However, Magia Record has the Uwasa threat to provide the show with tension on an episodic basis. On top of that, learning about the Uwasa will also offer movement. So, while the show might feel a little more episodic, engagement should still be fine.
Content Notice: Description of a situation involving attempted suicide.
This hit new show is like Lost but at a corporate workplace, complete with a random room full of goats. The workplace is run by Lumon, a company with a secretive division where all employees have been “severed.” Once someone is severed, their memories are divided up so they can’t recall their working hours while off the clock. Their work selves, called “innies,” can remember nothing but work. Lumon monitors all communication between innies and outies to keep their workplace doings secret.
Severance is counting on its Lost-style mystery to keep viewers engaged for much of the first season, and it’s clearly working. But that isn’t mutually exclusive with movement, which is close to nonexistent until the last episodes. Sometimes, it’s downright frustrating.
Why doesn’t the story move? First, the plot of the show is – can you guess? – severed. Viewers follow the main character Mark, both in and out of work. Mark’s outie is still recovering from the death of his wife. Mark’s innie is struggling to take on a leadership role after the abrupt departure of his best friend and boss. Since Mark’s outie and innie can’t remember each other’s experiences or communicate without obstruction, these arcs are almost entirely independent.
At one point, the writers try to insist otherwise. A trustworthy character tells Mark that he still carries his grief at work – he just doesn’t know what it is. Emotionally connecting the characters is a wonderful idea, if only that was shown to us. For instance, we might see innie Mark reconcile with coworker Helly and start a fun and flirty romance. When Mark leaves that day, his outie gives his sister a call. He isn’t sure why, but he feels great. He even thinks he’s ready to start dating again. Then he goes on a date with his sister’s midwife. If this type of connection is what the writers intended, they were much too subtle.
Even discounting the fragmented plot, the movement in each half is poor. In the outie half, we watch Mark grieve and grieve some more. Then, we take a random detour to watch his sister have a baby. In the innie plot, the characters slowly turn against the company and unite. That’s movement for sure, and I adore how each of the four innies has their own coping mechanism and motivation. But let’s face it: a snail could go faster. Plus, in many episodes, it’s not clear how their actions will change anything for them. Even if those scenes matter later, viewers will get impatient in the meantime.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the show includes big twists that should push the plot forward, only to neutralize them or kick the can down the road. For instance, while Lumon interferes with communication, an outie still notices if they got an injury while working. So you’d think an injury would matter, but each time, the injury is shrugged off. The most glaring example is when Helly attempts suicide. She even times it so she’ll become her outie while she’s dying. Then, she comes back to work as if nothing happened. The only payoff we get is that Mark gives Helly a talk afterward, and she finally stops taking her anger out on him. Any number of less significant events could have caused that.
Then there’s the phone. A former coworker who’s managed to reintegrate his innie and outie leaves his phone with outie Mark before dying. For three episodes, Mark watches the phone ring without answering it. As I’ve explained previously, if you give the hero an obvious path for moving the plot forward and they don’t take it, that’s just taunting the audience.
Then, when the writers are finally ready to heat the plot up in episode seven, they have to rush. Mark meets the phone caller for just a few minutes before he witnesses her murder someone. Then he helps her hide the body. Why would you do that, Mark??? This scene desperately needed more setup, which would have been easy if he’d just answered the damned phone an episode earlier.
Severance finally has some movement and a consolidated plot starting at that point. Even then, it spends all of episode eight just biding time before the climax in episode nine. This is a show that wants to pose lots of questions while hoarding answers. Only time will tell if it disappoints us like Lost did.
Why is Severance so slow? The premise is definitely part of the issue. It’s too fragile. The outies can quit their jobs at any time, so the writers have to tap-dance to keep that from happening. Conversely, Lumon has lots of power to shape the workplace that it could use at any time but doesn’t. If it doesn’t want employees wandering the halls, why are those halls there? The show probably would have worked better as a larger corporate dystopia where the employees were grown in labs. As is, the innies could avoid work and escape punishment just by using passive resistance.
How It Could Be Fixed
Even though the premise is part of the problem, the movement in season one could still have been repaired with lots of little tweaks rather than a premise change.
- First, consolidation of the innie and outie plots would have helped. This could be entirely emotional in nature, as long as it moved the character arcs forward.
- Then, we gotta remove the baby-birthing sequence. The one important thing that happens during it could easily happen elsewhere.
- In the outie plot, Mark should answer that phone more promptly. Then, he could rebel a little before he has to aid a murderer.
- In both the innie and outie plots, the emotional arcs could simply be clearer, and the events could feel more immediately relevant to the character’s emotional journey.
- Finally, the show needs to keep its promises. If an event looks like a twist, it needs to actually be a twist. If a twist has arrived, it shouldn’t stand in the doorway for a while.
Great movement isn’t easy to accomplish. You need to have enough material to cover the length of the story, set the right audience expectations, and make sure every event has enough impact to matter. On the bright side, while movement can stall for many reasons, we also have many ways to make it better.
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