M is for Movement

Today’s post is about movement, namely how a character might move through a scene (from one location to another), and how a scene might move to a new location within a chapter. It will also cover the montage technique, which is commonly used in screenplays but can work in fiction too.

As a developmental editor, one of the things I like to do is find an author’s favourite words and phrases (crutch words). Once they come to my attention, the rest of them might just as well have been writing in neon, flashing ink (or print), as they tend to jump out at me as I read.

Every author should maintain their own list of overused words and phrases, and check for them as part of their self-editing process. Words I tend to overuse are: look, eyes, but, all, that, and head. As part of my editing process, I check for these, and where necessary, rewrite the sentence to remove them. I am not suggesting you remove all of them, but if you have 995 variations of ‘look’ in a 30k novel, and 1,000 ‘eyes’, there is a danger of the reader noticing and being jarred from the flow of the story.

I have seen writers advise other writers to stick to using the everyday language they (and readers) are familiar with and to avoid pulling obscure words out of a thesaurus. I agree with this to a point, although I see no harm in checking a thesaurus to find an alternative to a word we have a tendency to use every few paragraphs. There is, of course, the danger of discarding one crutch word only to adopt another (thus the need for an author to keep their overused word lists up to date).

These are the (often repeated) words I see variations of when describing character movement:

  • Move
  • Head
  • Walk
  • Step


Movement within a single location

I have read many a book where a character’s movements are described in almost step by step detail, which raises the question of just how much the reader needs to know. If we have established there is a coffee table (with a plate of cookies on it) in the centre of the room and the character is standing by the door, do we need to tell the reader they walked to the table to get a cookie or can we just write that they helped themselves to a cookie? Does the reader need to know where in a room a character is or is it enough just to identify which room they are in?

The answer to these questions depends on the scene itself. If, for example, there is a lot of paragraphed dialogue from one character, then you might want to use the movement to provide a break from Character A’s long-winded explanation about a key plot point. If it’s a quick moving, less intense scene, having the character snatch the cookie from the plate (and trusting the reader to figure out he walked across the room to do so) might be all it needs.

What is important, however, is to describe movements that you want the reader to be aware of. We don’t need to know that this character ‘walked/moved/headed’ to the coffee table to get a cookie, but if in the next sentence you’ve got them observing something through the window, we’ll need to know they’ve positioned themselves there. The reader would figure this out, of course, but there would (possibly) be a moment of confusion if you didn’t mention it.


Movement between multiple locations

A change in location is usually signified by either a scene or chapter break. Moving from one location to another falls under the ‘action’ umbrella (as the character is physically moving around) for which, the guidance given above can be adopted.


Movement in time

As with changes in location, a jump forward (or backwards) in time are usually signified by a scene or chapter break, but there might be a cause to narrate the passing of time. You might, for example, wish to fast-forward a couple of months or years, and starting a new chapter at this new point would confuse confusion.

There is a technique in screenwriting known as a montage. We’ve all seen them – a collection of short scenes, shown one after the other, to show the progression of time:

  • A child’s progression into adulthood
  • A series of shots portraying the different stages of an ongoing journey
  • A snapshot of a training routine in preparation for a big fight
  • The building of a spaceship from the first sketch to the finished model

In fiction, you can move time at a quicker pace by using a character’s stream of consciousness (flow of thoughts) or internal monologue, or via a summary provided by the narrator.

Let’s bring Bob back into the equation. He came to life in C is for Crafting your story, had his setting improved (slightly) in D is for Describing through action, and was last seen in F is for Foreshadowing. Let’s assume he’s spent an entire day trying to fix the communications between the space station and Earth, but I don’t want to bore the reader with a lot of detail. My aim for this scene is just to show the clock ticking (to ramp up the pressure he’s under). I might write something like:

Bob tried the main console first. After several hours of failing to find the problem, he moved down to the engine room. By the time his stomach signalled that it was dinner time, he was no further along in the task.

Not my best writing, but you get the idea (hopefully).

If I wanted to show the movement of time passing over a longer period (a week or so), I might write something like:

Every morning, dead on nine AM, Bob checked the reception between the station and Earth, and every morning for the past seven days, he had been greeted with static.

In this example, the reader begins this new section with the knowledge that an entire week has passed (avoiding any confusion with the quick jump forward), before picking up with currents events.

Jumping time forward isn’t a technique I would use often, but it does have its uses. I prefer starting a new chapter to denote a movement forward, but it depends on the story I’m writing. Sometimes there is a call for it, sometimes not.

I’ll end this post by sharing a great blog post I found on the subject of using a montage in fiction (the author goes into it in far more detail than I have):

Using a Montage to Handle Time in Fiction