Momentum: Getting Your Story up and Running
Because many of you are currently writing or editing manuscripts, I wanted to discuss an aspect of your book that you may not be concentrating on: momentum. Perhaps you’ve had someone read your book and tell you it was a bit slow. Once you managed to get past the devastating blow to your pride, you told them that they just needed to keep reading; they’d get to it soon enough. Right?
We live in a world where we get upset if a webpage does not load within ten seconds. We have social networks to update our statuses instantly, and we can access our global village from any place in the world. We are not patient.
Perhaps a few decades ago this was different, but since the Internet, the world’s collective attention span has atrophied. Writers cannot expect their readers to patiently wait for their book to start. No, you must begin your story with a bang or chance losing reader interest.
So today I will discuss what momentum is, where it is important, what slows down and speeds up a book’s momentum, how to identify areas of fast and slow momentum, and ultimately, how you can fix these problems.
What is “Momentum”?
I define momentum as the aspects of your book that generate reader excitement. Throughout a story the momentum fluctuates, but the most momentum occurs in areas of high tension and exciting conflict. These are areas where readers cannot set aside the book—they must find out what happens.
Where in the Book is Momentum Important?
Technically, momentum is important everywhere in your story, but there are a few key places where momentum is absolutely vital.
Hands down the most important area is the very beginning of your book. Why? Readers often read the first few pages of a book before committing to it. And because huge booksellers like Amazon allow readers to preview the first few pages of a book for free, many times committing to a book is synonymous to buying it. The stakes are high; if you cannot pique your readers’ interest here, then you risk losing readers, and ultimately, money.
I cannot speak for agents and editors, but my guess is that they are usually also looking for books with strong beginnings. If the book does not begin with a bang, then they’ll pass. After all, they’re investing in you. They want to reduce their risk by making sure your product sells instantly. I cannot stress enough how important it is to hook readers in these pages.
Another area where momentum is important is the end of each chapter. This is so well known that we have a name for it: “cliffhangers.” Chapters mark convenient stopping points for the reader, but if you can end a chapter with a cliffhanger, chances are they won’t be able to put the book down.
What Increases and Decreases the Momentum?
When editing your own book, it’s difficult to gauge where the momentum picks up and slows down. This is one of those pesky blind spots a great many writers have. However, below are some general rules that can help you discern where the momentum of your book is slow and where it is fast.
Things that Decrease Momentum:
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Long-winded monologues will scare off interested readers. Anywhere in your book where these occur you should seriously consider thinning them out. However, at the beginning of your book, these should occur in clusters of a few sentences at most. Anything more and the reader might fear that this is the tone of the book and quickly abandon it.
Perhaps the most tempting and most lethal way to begin a story is to include a lot of description. It’s a quick kiss of death for books because most industry insiders consider lengthy descriptions to be a sign of an amateur writer.
It’s also a waste of your time because most readers are more impressed by plot twists and character development than they are your description of a pretty sunset. Every person has his or her own idea of what a beautiful sunset looks like. You’ll save face and a lot of time if you give readers only enough description for them to fill in with their own ideas.
This is a hard reality to swallow. Most writers enjoy much of what they write, so they often believe that every scene is exciting in some way. Please take a step back and look closely at your beginning scenes. If you are introducing Ma and Pa’s little farm, and a warm conversation your main character has with them, this is boring. Readers thrive on conflict. Inserting conflict in place of cooperation will do wonders for your book’s momentum.
Things that Increase Momentum:
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In opposition to boring scenes, exciting scenes jumpstart a book’s momentum. Exciting scenes are not necessarily shootouts, but they do involve conflict and/or intrigue. These are especially great at the beginning of your book because they can conveniently introduce the book’s main conflict, and they pique reader interest.
Exciting scenes are also great fodder for cliffhangers for the same reason—they introduce conflict and intrigue. Readers are curious; if a scene ends uncertainly, or poses a question that requires an answer, the reader will want to read on. Some of the best books exploit this chapter after chapter. I’m sure you know the type of book I’m talking about; these are the books that require us to stay up late to finish.
Where description can lose reader interest, dialogue often increases reader interest. This is because when there is dialogue, things are happening; events are unfolding. The character is sleuthing, asking questions, confronting the antagonist, discussing the problem, and deciding on solutions. When paired with conflict and exciting scenes, dialogue can be an incredibly powerful tool used to reel readers in.
How to Identify where the Momentum is Slow
Take a look at the length of your paragraphs. Are they thin, or full of information? It might surprise you, but usually smaller paragraphs indicate more momentum because events are unfolding so quickly the main character does not have time to stop and describe or think deeply about a problem.
How to fix Momentum?
Ideally, you want to begin your story at the moment there is one. Don’t wait fifty pages for your story to begin. Start immediately. This means that you’ll want to insert dialogue and exciting scenes as soon as possible. Save the lengthy explanations and description for later. Remember, readers like conflict and questions. Start here and they won’t be disappointed.
While momentum is important, you must not completely remove thoughts and description. During exciting scenes, it’s important to include some details and some of the main character’s thoughts. After all, the latter is considered voice, and lots of readers like characters with voice. In addition, once an exciting scene is finished, readers want to know how the main character feels about the new developments in the story. Ideally you want a balance between thoughts, description, dialogue and action.
Momentum is vital to increasing readership and ultimately marketing your book. It is most important at the beginning of your manuscript and at the end of each chapter. Thoughts, description, and boring scenes can slow down a book’s momentum, while dialogue and exciting scenes can speed it up. You can identify areas of fast and slow momentum by looking at the paragraph length. But remember, while thoughts and description can slow down a book’s momentum, they are also necessary. If you can increase your book’s overall momentum, you’ll likely increase your readers’ excitement—and excitement is crucial in this industry.