Increasing Your Book's Momentum, by Editor Laura Carlson

Happy Monday, people! I'm off to Disney with the fam. Because, you know, hosting 14 people for Thanksgiving at my place on Thursday AND celebrating my son's birthday on Friday just wasn't enough excitement for the week. I know, the timing isn't great, especially with all the CRAZY photographic evidence rumors circulating about Angela and what she's really up to this month. But never fear. I've got it covered. I brought in Laura Carlson to babysit everyone and give us a run-down on Momentum in our stories. Please give her a warm welcome and check out her blog, Between the Lines: Edits and Everything Else, where she's offering an awesome Holiday Giveaway: a FREE MANUSCRIPT CRITIQUE. Check out the details here.

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: 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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.

Boring Scenes 
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: 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Exciting Scenes 
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.

The Caveat 
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.

Happy writing!


Stephen Page said...

Very good.

mooderino said...

Beginnings are especially important when people can download the first chapter for free on the e-reader.

Moody Writing

Michelle said...

great post.
My pastor just preached a series on Momentum.. loved reading this after hearing his messages!

JeffO said...

Great post, but something to consider (and touched on just yesterday over at Miss Snark's First Victim) is that opening with 'a bang' is not synonymous with exploding cars, flying bullets, and dangling from a helicopter over a raging volcano. It's really about compelling a reader either with story, character, voice, etc.

Angela Ackerman said...

An excellent post, Laura--thank you so much for coming to the blog and talking about Momentum. I often find that pacing is one of the most difficult aspects to get right, and as you say, to get distance from in our own writing in order to view it without bias. Great advice! I find introspection (thoughts) is always a pace killer. Again, its difficult though to know how much is needed without slowing everything down.

@Jeff, I agree--openings should not drop the reader into something so intense they cannot understand, but rather start them on the cusp of action so they understand and are swept away. Action doesn't have to be explosions or gunfights either--just something with important stakes to the MC.

Happy writing all!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Good advice, thank you. I guess we must challenge ourselves to really read our openings, to stand back and see them as the only words the reader will see. That's not easy to do when you're deeply into your own story, but it's so important.

Owllady said...

Wonderful post, one of those articles that's always timely. Thank you so much.

I do want to make one comment. As a member of an online critique site, the biggest mistake I see regarding description is misplaced description of the main character. Many unpublished writers stop the rising momentum to insert an awkward bit about the heroine's wavy chestnut hair and emerald eyes.

And they do it while using close (intimate) third POV or first person POV. I've been there and done that so I understand the urge to show readers the people you love so much, but so many times it's just not in an appropriate place or format.

I guess whether or not to describe characters could be a blog post by itself, but I think it's worth mentioning that it's an area where another set of eyes is priceless because the biggest blind spot many writers seem to have is describing our characters,

Thanks again for the post. :)

Laura Carlson said...

Thank you all for the wonderful comments and feedback. I love seeing how my article resonated with each one of you. Being an editor is just as much about learning from writers as it is helping them—so I deeply appreciate every one of you taking the time to comment!


Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the great advice Laura. Momentum is so important and thanks for the tips on it. Now that I have more books to read for my blog, I have a 50 page rule and stop reading if I don't feel compelled to continue after the first 50 pages.

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Stina Lindenblatt said...

Thanks for the great post, Laura. The only time I stick with a book with a slow start is if I've heard great things about it.

Adventures in YA Publishing said...

Wonderful post! I love your use of the word momentum, as it encompasses both urgency and pace. Thanks for the tips!

And Becca, you ARE crazy. But have a wonderful time!


Becca Puglisi said...

Thanks so much for posting about this, Laura. People don't talk a whole lot about momentum, but it's definitely something that can make or break a story for me.

Pk Hrezo said...

Great to remember! I think pacing is a huge area where writers tend to fail, yet when they get it right it's so awesome.

Thanks for the excellent tips!

And have fun at Disney, Becca! Perfect weather for it. :)

Susanne Drazic said...

Laura, thank you for sharing this great advice.

fcmalby said...

This is a brilliant post! A must-read for all writers. Momentum is a difficult part of plot development and is really important if you want to hold the reader's attention. I have added A Description Aid For Writers to my blog. Thank for sharing lots of useful information.

jamesfantbooks said...

After reading this timely post I felt like a college student leaving his classroom with a new vigor to conquer the world. While editing my first novel, I whittled the prologue from several pages down to 2/3 of a page because I wanted to get readers to the first line of chapter one. I learned the fine art of giving necessary detail in as little words as possible so I could get to the juicy stuff. But now I want to find new ways to make even the detail juicy. Thanks again for posting.

Laura Carlson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Carlson said...

Thank you Becca and Angela for the guest post, and thank you all for your wonderful words! Happy (early) Thanksgiving!

Melissa Sugar said...

Wonderful guest post. It is full of useful information. I am working on revisions (again) and the suggestions and ideas for increasing momentum is exactly what I needed.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great tips! I've read some books that have toooooooo much description and it's hard to finish them.

I went to a workshop that suggested using different colored markers to identify, setting, action, dialog, and description. You were to draw lines of each color on the side of your manuscript which correlated with your story. Then you can see if you have too much of one thing and where you can add more into it.

Martha Ramirez said...

This is an excellent post! Thank you very much for all the tips!


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