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Building Momentum

October 23rd, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
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This week, I want to talk about a particular issue that dominates a lot of my writing, and along the way, explore some options to avoid the same pitfalls.

Momentum is an aspect of pacing your piece, and we all know pacing is one of the most important aspects of writing (particularly longer fiction). You want to build it subtly. It is as important not to overdo it as it is not to underdo it. Overdoing can result in reader burnout and exhaustion, while underdoing can leave them bored and no longer wanting to continue. Both of these are extremely bad. 

Starting with a Bang

It’s been said before, and it bears mentioning again. It is strongly advisable to start your work with the all important hook. Matt gave me this advice some time back in regards to my prologue. I’d started it calm, just as if a normal day were happening, and it wasn’t until halfway through that the ‘disaster’ struck and things kicked off. 

Guys hurdling

Pace yourself, buddy. Image courtesy of Philo Nordlund on Flickr

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least not to me (I’m not talking about my own writing here either). I am normally very forgiving of a book – I’m not someone who goes into a bookstore, reads the first few lines and make my whole judgement based on that. No, I will often just look at the front of the book, and if it’s got some moody bloke on the front in a swirly robe and some lame title like Mists of Shadow then I’ll avoid it like I avoid those charity people on the street. 

But I digress. No, I will accept a slow opening if it feels it’s building towards something. If there is an undercurrent of tension, if you can tell something is not quite right, then that pulls you in, and gets you to read on. It generates momentum. And once it has, then it is easy to maintain. As long as you don’t throw too much at it and it gets out of control that is. 

The Cold Open

In my earlier years of writing, I would never have considered using this myself. Not that I had a problem with Cold Openings, I just didn’t think it suited my style. Now though, I think about almost all of my work with one of these. 

For those of you who don’t know what a Cold Open is, but who do watch a lot of American TV, then the Cold Open is that bit before the opening credits which gives you a flavour of the episode, but doesn’t necessarily involve any of the main characters. How I think of it in terms of writing is a separate piece, an aside, which gives a flavour of the world you’re writing, but may not be directly related to the main story (at least not right away). A taster if you will. A tease. Something that intrigues.

I’ve done this with my current project – Introducing a secondary character and the incident which kicks off the main storyline, but is unrelated to my protagonist. I am strongly leaning towards this for my other main project too, though that’s becoming riddled with Cold Opens. 

Time Compression

This is a problem I face in quite a few of my bigger projects. Mainly the ones that involve a lot of different characters, in separate storylines. I’d like to think I build momentum with each of the different arcs, but when it comes time for those arcs to interact, there is so much momentum in each one, I face the dilemma of everything needing to happen at once. 


This timely image is by blue2likeyou on Flickr

My other main project is a classic example. What I would class as the act one closing comes about with three major arcs colliding together, and too much needs to happen in too short a space of time. This can be a momentum killer, because a lot of information needs to be relayed to the reader, which can drag the section out. Basically, I need to find a way to pace the whole thing better. It has come about by having too much breathing room in some areas, and too little in others.

As of yet, I haven’t found a solution to this problem, which is why the other project is on the back burner, while I work on my main project. 

But here not everything is rosy. 

I had a chapter which – in retrospect – didn’t have any point. It was a flashback chapter (that’s how the project is structured) and explained a significant event in the protagonist’s back-story, tangentially related to the main story. 

The problem is it stopped the story dead. I found myself in a similar situation to Lost. The main story has built up a momentum, but then that gets stalled by this flashback. At the time I wrote it, I felt it was necessary, especially since it leads into a flashback which is more energised, and introduces characters that become important later, as well as THE BIG SECRET. 

Well, I had no choice but to cut said chapter. I’ll admit, it hurt, but I feel the flow is much stronger. I still have that other flashback, but it is more energised and dynamic. Now, instead of a slow ponderous affair, the flashback drops you right in the middle of the action. It maintains the momentum, and also introduces a new mystery – what exactly is THE BIG SECRET? So there is (hopefully) more impetus for the reader to, y’know, keep reading. 

I still have to iron some kinks out, but altogether, I feel it is much better paced. The momentum is maintained. Now all I have to do is figure out how to tone down the ending…

So over to you folks. What methods do you use to not only build momentum, but also to maintain it, without overdoing it and heading into freefall? As ever, leave your comments below.

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  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    THE BIG SECRET? Hmm, what you have there my friend is a McGuffin. The problem I guess with having a big secret as a mcguffin is that it’s intriguing. People are going to want to know what that thing is, and you will have a hard time trying to convince them to forget about it by the end of the story.

    So it had better be something satisfying in other words! Now even I want ot know what it is!