I know stating emphatically that at least 80% of the work should progress the story will get a lot of pearls clutched to nervous dispositions. Fiction is this magical thing where every part of the journey and the destination create a gestalt that is larger than the sum of it. There is no room for anything that isn’t building to something bigger than what is currently happening to the characters.
But If tension is the breath of the piece, then the reader must be allowed to breathe out at some points. Even those moments can be used to escalate different sources of tension within the story. Writing speculative romance was extremely easy for this. Between the interpersonal narrative, the big bad of the book, and the continual power struggle that the world takes place in, something always went worse in one sphere of the character’s life even if something goes right in the other two.
Driving the tension is a lot like shifting up through the gears of a motorcycle or a manual car. The clutch is the relief of the tension, but the intention of using it isn’t to lower the rpm of the story. Writers should learn how to let off the tension to let it accelerate again.
To do so, however, they have to realize the difference between something they have learned themselves and something they have been taught. Something a learner has learned themselves is ironclad and true. If their method creates reproducible results they can trust, they know what they know.
But a learner who has been taught something has to practice it over and over again until they can use it to produce reproducible results as well. Until they’re able to use what they know, they only know the concept of it.
In every creative field, it doesn’t matter if the learner has learned colour theory themselves by realizing certain colours outside of their colour family can either look really good or really bad together or it was something they were taught. As long as the learner sees for themselves that each time, every time, some colour combinations draw the eye while others repel it, they can use it to create bigger things than colour swatches on paper.
Theoretical knowledge cannot produce reproducible results unless it is tested enough to be trusted by the user. But in creative writing, the average learner has been taught that to “know the rules before you break them” means: “be able to quote the title of the rule and foundational structures aren’t necessary, so don’t even bother learning how to use them.”
Every time an underpublished writer sells a work under this ideology, it convinces them even more that their methodology works. All the work that fails to move readers is unable to convince them otherwise.
Knowing how to use rules and knowing how to quote them are different, non-sequential steps in Bloom’s Taxonomy. But without teaching learners to even recognize errors in other people’s work, learners learn like clockwork there is nothing to learn. When “conflict is important” is taught as one of those breakable rules, writers will eventually agree that conflict is important but not enough to use.
It may sound harsh to say that every part of the work needs to move the story forward when art can exist without rules. But the point of a chess game isn’t to make the pieces move around the board through beautiful, legal chess moves. The goal of commercial fiction as a chess game is to capture the reader’s attention and leave them with a (positive) impression of your work that they will never forget, or at least forget last.
With that as the objective, each move has a purpose, tension, and cost. It is not how the knight moves that matters; it’s how it can challenge a bishop and a queen at the same time. The fact that the opponent can only save one is the drama of the move.
Moments of relaxation or release in work are not lateral movements to the progression. A character able to regroup and rest is far more awake, aware, and dangerous after surviving a great deal of tension while sleep-deprived. A lateral movement would be after a good night’s rest and a calm morning of doing nothing, the protagonists go have a relaxing day at the mall instead of realizing the sun has gone black and a face is emerging from it.
Lateral movements add nothing to the story because they aren’t written to. By learning draftwork, the writer can make lateral movements story progression and story progression more meaningful.