You don’t notice it when it’s working, but you’re painfully aware when it’s missing. You find yourself asking “Is this going anywhere?” and “What was the point of that?” But what is it? Movement, of course! The feeling that the story is making progress toward some kind of endpoint. We tried to talk about movement before, but its flashier cousin tension stole the show. So this episode is all movement all the time.
Generously transcribed by Anna. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris and with me is:
Chris: Now in episode 333, we covered movement and pacing, but the movement was so slow, we only had a few minutes for movement at the end. Since then, the podcast has moved forward by 80 episodes.
Oren: So much movement in this podcast! [Wes laughs]
Chris: So now we return to movement, like some kind of annoying flashback, which has got to be frustrating for our listeners because they were obviously expecting us to get closer to the podcast’s dramatic conclusion, that is definitely coming!
Oren: Yeah, I guess if you think about it, this podcast doesn’t have much movement because we don’t have a goal or an end point, we’re just going to keep making episodes forever. You can’t stop us.
Wes: We’re Supernatural. [Wes and Chris laugh]
Chris: Oh, wow.
Oren: Someone’s feisty today.
Wes: Yeah, let’s do this!
Chris: Yeah, we’re covering movement, which we’ve just done more coverage on lately, so we have more to say about it. It’s basically the feeling that the story is making progress towards the conclusion, whether that means the hero is getting closer to solving their problems or things are just coming to a head and disaster is getting closer and closer. So it can go in a positive direction or a negative direction, the point is that you feel that climax on its way.
Oren: Movement is similar to things like background music or cinematography in that most of the time you only notice it if something is wrong. There are exceptions, sometimes you will notice when the movement is particularly good in the same way that you might notice that there is very good cinematography or that there is very good background music. But usually it will seamlessly fold into the greater story unless it’s not there, and then suddenly you will notice.
Wes: But the experience of that is very much just you’re engaged, you’re focused, it’s engaging. That’s kind of what we want from our entertainment.
Chris: People do generally like it when movement jumps forward, where if the story makes more progress than they expect. You can get into weird issues where it’s like, “Okay, this is what I thought was the conclusion of the story, but it’s not over yet.” But in general, if movement is faster than expected, that’s usually a positive experience. So it’s also, I should mention, referred to commonly as momentum. You’ll hear that a lot, and the reason why people call it momentum is because it comes with the sense that events are building on each other. That’s kind of like one of the basic requirements is that you have to feel like every event matters and causes the next event to occur like dominoes falling. People kind of think of that sense of causation to be momentum. In a literal sense, movement is a little bit closer to what’s actually happening.
Oren: You imagine my surprise when I found out that playing dominoes does not refer to lining them up and then pushing one over. It’s like, an actual game, you play with dominoes? I was so confused when I learned that. [Chris laughs]
Wes: Yeah, but does anyone know how to actually play dominoes, Oren?
Chris: I’ve played it before, actually.
Wes: Do you match numbers? Is that what you do?
Chris: You line them up on the ground or on the surface or whatever in different configurations so that you try to get the end of one domino with the numbers on it matched to the end of a different domino with the same number.
Oren: And when do you line them up and then knock them over? Is that like the victory celebration at the end of the game? [laughter]
So more seriously, one of the most common reasons that there is no movement is that there is nothing to move toward. For a story to have movement, it has to have some kind of theoretical endpoint. And sometimes this is just straight up stated. In Lord of the Rings, they have an in-character goal, which is to reach Mount Doom. That’s the hypothetical endpoint. And we know that they’re getting closer to it because they are physically getting closer to it. [Wes and Chris laugh]
Chris: Very simple!
Wes: Very helpful.
Oren: But it’s not always that straightforward. You can have something like Archive 81, which has the implication that the endpoint will be once we figure out what’s going on with these weird tapes. But that’s not necessarily the character’s goal at the beginning of the story. He has his own thing. He’s being drawn into this world of magic VHS tapes that he wasn’t necessarily interested in. You can have different levels, right, it doesn’t always have to be as straightforward as like, this is your quest. Go do the quest. Although that is also perfectly legitimate.
Chris: Right, I mean if you do have a character goal that happens to line up with the throughline of the problem and solution, that is probably more obvious just because character goals are usually more obvious than a problem that’s kind of like building that you can feel. So for instance, Archive 81, in one sense he is sent to do this job at a creepy house. Okay, well the ending is when he’s completed that job. But the house is creepy and bad things are happening there. And that could easily come to a head much sooner than he’s actually going to finish doing the job. Really the movement is towards things escalating at the house where either he is taken or whatever threat you have, taken or killed or whatever it is, or he, for instance, escapes.
Oren: That show would not be very good if he went to the mysterious cabin to work on these magic VHS tapes and he saw a bunch of weird stuff and then he finished and got paid and left. [laughter] He succeeded in his character goal, that’s what he was trying to do! God, I would riot if that happened, I would be very upset.
Chris: That’s why if anybody ever tells you that a story is a character goal and that you need to get a character goal, just ask them how it’s supposed to end. Because they can’t tell you, because it’s not actually correlated with a character goal, it’s about tension. It’s about a character goal but then that character goal can change and it ends someplace. Once again it’s good to just clarify the difference between movement and tension, or movement and pacing. Because tension or pacing is about if things are exciting. But things can be exciting, but still frustrate readers because they feel like things are pointless. It’s like yeah, technically this is an exciting action scene but are we there yet? Which is what happens when you have tension but not movement.
Oren: Yeah, and although it can be difficult to tell sometimes, right? Spoilers for Severance. Severance is a show where it is sometimes hard to tell if the problem is that there’s no movement because it doesn’t feel like these scenes are going anywhere. Or if the problem is that there’s no tension because it doesn’t feel like anything really bad is going to happen.
Chris: And the answer is both?
Oren: Yeah, sometimes it’s both. Especially in the middle of the first season when the characters are exploring the building and they’re not technically supposed to and they might get sent to the break room. But we’ve established that the break room is meaningless, they act sad after going there and then they’re completely fine. There’s very little tension because there are no meaningful consequences if they get caught. But there’s also very little movement, because it doesn’t feel like anything they find matters or builds to anything, right?
Chris: I mean basically the two requirements of movement are causality, which is the sense that events build on each other, but also relevancy, and that’s the sense that events actually matter to the throughline. You could have movement issues in any arc, right? It’s not necessarily just the throughline. Twelve Kingdoms has a movement issue (this is an anime), some of the character growth, where we have a character who needs to accept that she is the Chosen One monarch. We just spend too many episodes with her being like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll accept it.” It’s like, okay, but if you don’t accept it, you’re gonna die and your magical creature is gonna die, so I don’t really feel like this is a choice. It goes on for several episodes and it feels repetitive. That’s a movement problem in a character arc.
The other thing to keep in mind is it’s about movement relative to audience expectations. If the answer to something seems super obvious, in that case I’m like, why aren’t you just saying yes to being a monarch because if you don’t you’ll die? Like at that point I’m expecting the turnaround to be very quick and I’m not even sure why she’s agonizing over this choice. And so that expectation means that I expect this to be an arc that ends quickly, not one that takes a long time. And that creates movement problems. And you can do that with any arc. Like if there’s a big mystery where the answer seems obvious. Some people I’ve talked to have this issue with Encanto. This is obviously the problem that is causing the family’s magic to go away, why haven’t you found the answer already? When that happens it feels excruciating when the characters do their whole mystery solving because you’re expecting it to be faster. With travel sequences, a lot of times what happens is the writer focuses too much on the destination and then people think that destination is like chapter two. When actually no, the characters are going to spend the whole book traveling, that’s the end of the book. In that case, their expectations for movement versus what happens is what makes it so excruciating and what makes the movement feel so slow. Having those expectations the right way and having problems feel the right level of difficulty can make a big difference.
Oren: In new manuscripts that I look at, the two most common ways for movement to stall are, you introduce a new character, a new POV character or some stories don’t have POVs, you know just goes off and does their own thing for a while. Or you have the existing character go off and do something that’s not related to what the audience wants to see. That is super frustrating. This also shows where the character goal model of storytelling can start to break down. The book Authority, which is the second Southern Reach book, the main character, his goal is to put the Southern Reach Agency in order and figure out its personnel staffing problems and what have you. But as the reader we’re like, “What’s going on with Area X? Tell us about Area X!” A weird scientist approaches the main character and is like, “Hey do you want to know about Area X? Come meet me out behind the sheds” and he’s like “Obviously I’m not doing that” and we’re like, “No go meet him I want to know about Area X!” [laughter]
Chris: It’s always a very very bad idea to like, taunt the audience by having an obvious step that the character could take to move the plot forward and have the character just not do it. That is just an inherently frustrating experience. In Severance, Mark has this phone.
Oren: Oh my god, the phone, ugh.
Chris: It’s a serious phone and he spends like weeks just like, letting the phone ring and we see it over and over again. The phone rings. He’s still like, this is the fifth time he still hasn’t picked up that phone.
Oren: Three episodes of this phone ringing. Jesus. [Wes laughs]
When it comes to moving the plot forward or character consistency, I will pick moving the plot forward every time. Even if it bothers me a little bit. Another Severance episode, Mark goes and meets this doctor who then straight up murders a guy in front of him. In character, it makes no sense for him to go along with her at that point. That is absolutely not something Mark would do in that situation, but I want him to anyway because I want this storyline to move forward. And so when he does I’m like “Yeah okay whatever, sure it’s fine.”
Chris: I didn’t like it. I was like, “No, what are you doing Mark? That is absolutely not a thing you would do!” There has to be some other way to put movement in here.
Oren: There is, there absolutely is, but in my brain it feels like a binary and I will take the one that moves the plot forward.
Chris: The primary way for them to not rush that, was to start movement earlier so they didn’t have to squeeze it all in the end. I think again it’s worth a reminder we talked about high and low tension arcs recently. High tension arcs do draw the most audience attention and so that is where they will expect movement the most generally, and get the most frustrating if it is not there.
Which leads us to The Mandalorian which is actually a pretty interesting case study in movement. Because when I watched through The Mandalorian, I was not expecting it to focus on what is essentially a throughline. Because a lot of shows have a more episodic structure and The Mandalorian has episodes in the middle that are just, “We’re doing bounty hunting with Mando and baby Yoda.” Or Grogu if you want to be very technical about it. And we’re just kind of getting by, on the run, and that’s kind of what I expected. When you looked at reviews we noticed there were a lot of people who were unhappy about these filler episodes. And at first I wondered, is the issue that it’s only like an eight episode season as opposed to like, Buffy, which was originally over 20 episodes a season. It’s a really big season if expectations were different. But then looking at it, for instance when you have a Buffy villain, the villain kind of shows up but they’re not an urgent problem. So their arc isn’t actually high tension in the beginning and that’s what allows you to have those episodic arcs. With The Mandalorian, the issue is that we have a pretty high tension arc that’s still ongoing. Because Grogu is actively being hunted by an entire guild worth of bounty hunters. We start with that and it’s still high tension when we get into the more episodic episodes. And so people expected that throughline to move forward, felt like those more episodic bits were very filler-y. If it had been lower tension in the beginning then that wouldn’t have been an issue.
Oren: [jokingly] Well, actually, Chris I think you’ll find he’s called “The Child” at that point? [laughter]
Wes: Come on Oren! [laughs]
Oren: You can also lack movement I’ve discovered, if you feel like the story is going nowhere, there’s a good chance that it’s because the throughline is either weak or missing. Definitely manifests as a lack of movement. A novel I read recently that had this problem is called The Atlas Six. The main characters are recruited into this super cool magic library and that’s the plot. They’re in this library now. Eventually they learn that like, “Oh one of you has to be murdered at the end.” That could in theory become a plot, but the book doesn’t really treat it as one. It’s just sort of the characters all just kind of accept that “Okay I guess someone’s gonna be murdered at the end. I hope it’s not me.” They just spend the whole book messing around in this library until we have an incredibly rushed final sequence. And it’s like this whole story has no movement and the reason is that it doesn’t have a throughline. Because hanging out in a library is not a throughline. [all laugh] Like you would think that in this situation the throughline might be their relationships? But it’s not, their relationships barely advance throughout something like 30 hours of audiobook.
Chris: You can create movement just by having a deadline and showing time tick down. The issue with that is it doesn’t fulfill satisfaction requirements that you might otherwise be fulfilling if you have movement in other ways. That doesn’t provide character agency, it doesn’t make events feel like they matter. And so it’ll provide movement, but if the character is just like, twiddling their thumbs as the clock ticks down, you’re gonna have a satisfaction problem even though technically you are moving forward.
Oren: Gotta remember your ABS. Your Always Be Solving Problems.
Chris: We have an acronym for that now.
Oren: It’s not something everyone gets. Since I dinged Authority earlier I feel like it’s only fair to mention that Annihilation, the first book, has pretty good movement. Its ending is a little bit of a mess but the actual book has a very clear implied end point of “Will we survive the Area X? Will any of us live through this?” That’s what the story moves towards as they encounter more dangers and weird stuff starts happening. And there’s also of course another potential end point of “will we find out what’s going on with Area X?” which is not solved in the first book.
Wes: I think that one also does a good job of using locations to help with momentum. There’s the tower and the lighthouse. Knowing that those are gonna be things that are gonna be explored I think helps.
Oren: [jokingly] Excuse me Wes, I think you’ll find it’s a tunnel? [all laugh]
Wes: Oh sorry. [laughter] Wait actually, everybody else calls it a tower right? But the narrator thinks of it as a tunnel?
Oren: Which of us is the narrator?
Wes: I’m not a protagonist. I’m not a protagonist. Tragic. [laughs] I’m not Wes. I’ve already been cloned.
Chris: It goes into the ground. I think she thinks it’s a tower and it goes downwards. It’s a vertical shaft.
Oren: It’s a hole is what it is. [laughter] They can’t call it The Hole. That would be very intimidating.
Wes: But I think that’s good because we brought up Lord of the Rings at the start where it’s like, we know they need to go to this place to do this thing. But Annihilation is: we’re in this weird place and those are weird things. We don’t know what we’re gonna really do in there, but maybe we’ll learn something? That mystery helps maintain momentum as well.
Oren: And remember, your story is a fractal. You can have movement within smaller parts of your story as well, and Area X definitely does that with the different locations like you said, where they first they’re like, we’re gonna investigate. This lighthouse. This tower. Slash tunnel. Slash hole. Weird stuff happens when we do that. So there’s movement in those individual fractal parts of the plot that builds towards the conclusion of “Will any of us survive?” Spoilers. No. [all laugh]
Chris: In a survival story just seeing conditions get worse which is what we see in Annihilation is the characters are slowly kind of taken over by Area X. That gives it a sense of movement. And with that story of course we also have them actively finding clues as to what could be going on that also gives it a sense of movement. In many stories if it’s a survival story, things just getting harder, it’s a form of movement. You do need agency.
Oren: If you don’t have agency, then you might have movement, but it’ll be unsatisfying. You’ll be frustrated. You’ll be like, “Why is this story about this character?” Another thing that can cause a lack of movement is a disagreement between the audience and the author about what is related to the throughline. Because sometimes the author thinks something is related to the throughline but has not sufficiently made that case. And more sharp eyed readers among you may notice that this doesn’t actually move the story forward.
One example of that is the novel Ships of Air. In theory, the plot is that there are these bad guys, Gardier I think they’re called, and they’re invading and they have all these super advanced airships and stuff and they’re real bad guys. So in theory, the plot is trying to defeat the Gardier. But we spend a huge portion of this book dealing with the little local politics of this group of people who are in one of the worlds they hop to. And these people cannot help against the Gardier. Their technology is like, medieval. They have no magic. They are useless. When we go and spend a whole plot line, we need to go negotiate with these guys. And it’s like, do we? [Chris and Wes laugh] And I’m pretty sure in the author’s mind, negotiating with these people will help somehow. Like I wouldn’t be surprised if in the third book, there’s like a, “Oh these people come and help us in some way we couldn’t have expected.” Or it’ll reveal later that we really just needed more personnel and now we’ve got more warm bodies. But in the moment it’s like, what are these people going to help us with exactly? There’s no answer so you’re just kind of left with, [shrugs].
Chris: I had somewhat of the opposite experience with a portion of Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. We have this character, she’s one of three heirs, she’s trying to compete to get the actual throne because anybody who doesn’t get the throne dies. She’s royalty because of her mother who is dead and she spends the beginning just like investigating her mother’s history. Well I can totally see how this could be relevant to her getting the throne somehow. Like there’s no “Oh if I investigate my mother I will get this and then end up with this solution.” But at the same time I could see how it could be fruitful. She wasn’t even trying, she just felt like investigating her mother’s history and it doesn’t go anywhere! [laughs]
Oren: Yeah, some stories like, will make it seem like this is progressing the plot, and then you’ll reveal actually no it’s not. And it’s like, well that was a waste of time couldn’t we have just skipped to the end?
Chris: I’m not sure Jemisin was even trying to progress the plot. I think it just wanted to go into the character’s experiences and she didn’t really want to focus on the plot. And I just happened to think that that was gonna pan out somehow. I’m not sure that she was intending that.
Oren: Right, it’s like there’s so many ways this could apply and it turns out the answer was none of them.
Chris: One of the most excruciating stories as far as movement that I’ve come upon is Fire Upon the Deep. [Oren laughs] Okay so the idea is there’s like fast and slow portions of the galaxy where in the fast portions the warp drive can go faster. And in the slow portions you can’t go as fast. And so we have characters that are traveling from the high warp area to the low warp area. Not only is the travel much longer than you would expect, but like, there’s scene after scene where they describe how the ship keeps moving slower and slower.
Wes: [laughs] Oh no.
Chris: Oh I just feel like it’s mocking me now.
Oren: Yeah Chris, it’s called the slow zone, not the narration moves at a good clip zone. Come on. [Chris laughs]
Oh I wanted to mention something that we briefly touched on but that I found extremely useful once I figured it out. When you’re looking at the relationship between movement and tension, since your story needs both, you need to move your hero closer to a resolution while also making the resolution more difficult.
Chris: When you move your hero closer to solving the problem, it will seem less difficult because they are closer. And so the reason why you need to make it more difficult is to just restore that sense of uncertainty and difficulty that you had before they made progress.
Oren: And this can be real tricky if you have a more character goal oriented story. To defeat the great archdemon, first I have to unlock the Sword of French Fries. (Maybe a modern story, I’m hungry.) [laughter] And that will move the story forward but also that might make it seem easier now that you have the Sword of French Fries. So you have to do a bunch of different things to make sure that it’s still, even though you’re now closer to resolving this archdemon problem, one way or the other it doesn’t seem like you’re closer to resolving it in a positive way because then the tension will drop and you don’t want that.
Wes: But I think the solution is whatever skills and abilities you acquired at the earlier challenges, you just forget that you have them. [all three laugh]
Oren: Yeah that’ll solve it. Good job, we fixed it! It’s like, hey we had this magic sword and then we never used it again.
Wes: Never used it again! That sword already had its moment, Oren.
Oren: We resolved the problem with these destroyer droids with force speed and we probably don’t ever need to use that again. It’s over now.
Chris: One thing I want to mention before we conclude is the switcheroo. If your requirement is to make sure that every event feels relevant to the end, the obvious question is how do we do twists and surprises? Maybe things turn out to be more or less useful. Maybe we do something we think is productive and it turns out that’s the wrong direction, we’ve followed a red herring. Or vice versa, we thought that something wasn’t going to pan out but then it turns out it does. We want to have those twists in our stories. The trick is that you do want the audience to always feel like they’re moving forward in every moment but you can switch the reason why. If they’re chasing a red herring and that doesn’t pan out, you need to make it productive in a different way. “Well I guess this wasn’t the suspect that we were looking for but this person still has information to give us.” It still advanced the plot just not in the way that we were expecting.
An example that I like is when Luke is on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back, he meets a strange creature who is totally not Yoda. We don’t know if it’s Yoda yet. Later we find out, oh he was with Yoda the whole time. We keep the viewers thinking that it’s relevant by suggesting that this creature could lead him to Yoda. So it appears to have relevance and then it turns out no, it’s actually Yoda. That actually makes movement jump forward which people generally like. It’s like, oh, I thought we were going to have to find Yoda but this is Yoda. Great!
Oren: Chris, I ask you, can your theory account for an 11-year-old watching this movie for the first time and then having their friend lean over and say, “Hey, that’s Yoda!” when he first appears and then being really annoyed for the entire scene, asking for a friend! [laughter]
Alright, well, with that particularly odd anecdote, I think we will call this episode to a close.
Chris: If you enjoyed this episode, please support us on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/mythcreants.
Oren: And while our podcast series as a whole may not have a conclusion or movement, this episode does. To allow us to keep doing that, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First we have Callie Macleod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next there’s Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally there’s Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?