This month, I’ve written about how to stay on track with your drafts, revisions, queries, and using self-care because after all, you can’t keep writing if you’re burned out.
Today, however, I want to talk about craft. How do we keep our stories on track?
The short answer?
Your story’s trajectory is the third rail of your story. The thing that keeps your story chugging along through Inciting Incident, MidPoint, and Climax stations. The driving force of your narrative. The secret sauce that keeps readers turning pages long after they should have turned their lights out for sleep.
But what do I mean by trajectory?
The dictionary of Google defines trajectory as: the path followed by a projectile flying or an object moving under the action of given forces.
In your story, your protagonist is your projectile, your story obstacles are the given forces, and the path your protagonist takes as a result will be determined by the choices they make in the story.
Let’s take it one step further. Earth is on a trajectory around the sun, right? It orbits on the same path, in perpetuity, until and unless something comes to change that direction. Otherwise, same boring orbit over and over and over and over and…you get the point.
Our protagonist starts a story in ordinary orbit, following the path they always have until–WHAM! An asteroid, known as our inciting incident, forces our main character to look around and decide what to do next. With a strong inciting incident, going back to regular orbit isn’t an option. Time to find a new path. And this new path may look like a free fall for a while as our character tries new things, but eventually, all the choices and actions our character’s make leads to a moment of change and a settling into a new orbit. At least until the next asteroid makes an appearance (Hello, sequel!).
You’ll notice I’ve bolded some words.
Your protagonist is reacting to each new obstacle they face which results in consequences and new obstacles and new decisions and new consequences.
Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of space junk hitting a very sad character free floating without a means of saving themselves. We want to see protagonist’s doing something. Even, and sometimes especially, when it’s the wrong thing.
So how do we know if our stories have a strong trajectory that will inevitably lead our protagonist’s to their new orbits?
Or as easy as anything about this writing gig can be.
Think about your story and how scenes connect to each other. If you were to say summarize your story, would it read like this:
“This happened and then this happened and then this happened and then the end.”
Or a more specific example: “When Mark Whatney was left behind on Mars, presumed dead, he goes into the hatch and waits for someone to come find him while his food runs low.”
Or, does it read like this:
“When Mark Whatney was left behind on Mars, presumed dead, he goes back into the hatch and because he is a botany expert, makes a plan to grow food to survive until the next mission is set to return in a few years. He figures out a system to water his new potato plants, but he nearly blows himself up in the process. He tries again and succeeds. With a supply of food, he turns to the next problem, communicating with NASA and sets off on a month-long mission to retrieve Pathfinder. Now he can communicate with Earth but a complication with the airlock exposes his potato plants to the harsh environment and kills them. Because of that, NASA initiates a mission requiring Whatney to travel for 90 sols to a vehicle that can reunite him with his crew, but it’s too heavy and needs modifications, therefore…”
Do you see the difference? In story 1, your protagonist isn’t doing anything. It seems extreme in this premise, but it’s the same thing if your main character is a woman whose husband is cheating and she continues to just wait for him to change or a man is in a dead end job and meandering through his life while bad things happen to him without attempting to change them at all.
In story 2 (a very generalized summary of The Martian*) things are happening that the protagonist reacts to which results in a consequence or an obstacle that then requires a new action or decision which will then have its own consequence. This action/consequence trajectory drives your reader through the story. I remember staying up entirely too late into the wee hours reading The Martian to its conclusion just to see what Mark would do next.
For another explanation of story trajectory, check out this short video of the creators of South Park (seriously, trust me):
In short: Actions lead to a consequence or obstacle which requires a new action which causes a new consequence or obstacle, and so on and so on and so on.
There is an old writing adage that you get a character up a tree in act 1, throw rocks at them in act 2, and get them down in act 3. It’s a very simplified version of story structure, but the danger is in the throwing of the rocks. If you’re reading a story where a bunch of bad stuff just keeps happening to the main character, it gets painful–both for the protagonist and the reader. Readers want to see characters making choices. Bad choices, good choices, doesn’t matter. We want to see them react and get themselves into deeper trouble and we want to see them get themselves out. We want them to earn that lesson they are learning through this story. So sure, throw a rock at your protagonist, but what if he catches it and throws it back? What if he climbs higher and gets a splinter? What if he becomes allies with the squirrels and launch an acorn counter-attack?
You can now use this knowledge to analyze your story whether you are stuck at the beginning, in the murky middle, or in a revision.
- If you are just starting a draft: Outline your major plot points and think about what will connect those beats. Be sure your character has agency in creating their own story chaos. If you are a plotter, make sure your outline is free of and thens and full of but/therefore/because of that. When you aren’t sure what’s next as you’re writing forward, remember to look to your character and see what different choices she can make, consider various consequences, then have her take a new course of action. In other words, don’t just throw another rock at them.
- If you are stuck in the middle: Take a look back at what you’ve written so far. Are your but/therefore/because of that connections present? If not, what tweaks can you make and does that change where your character ends up in the middle? What action can your character take NOW that will have a consequence as you move the story forward?
- If you are revising: Outline your story as it stands and then analyze where it has and then versus but/therefore/because of that connections. Make sure your trajectory is strong before you make any other changes in your manuscript. If you’re querying and getting rejections on your pages, it might be time to take a look at that trajectory, too, to ensure it’s as strong as it can be.
Bottom Line: Your story trajectory is the backbone of your story. Whether you are writing an action packed space adventure or a more quiet journey of self-discovery, make sure your story trajectory is strong and compelling. Look for actions and decisions from your characters and avoid and then connections between scenes and chapters.
Featured photo above by Gribgrab on Unsplash
*This is an affiliate link which means if you make a purchase, I receive a small commission.
Want an in-depth analysis of your manuscript or outline story trajectory? I can help. Let’s chat on a free discovery call — click the button below to get started!
Characters lacking agency in their stories is one of the 5 Common Manuscript Mistakes I cover in this free guide for writers. Get your copy here!