When the objective is clear and the character is moving towards it, the reader will stay with the story, at least until they reach a natural break in the narrative.
But ever be reading a book and you find yourself in a section where not much is happening, no great action or set piece, but you can’t stop reading?
You go from one line to the next and it’s like you’re leaning forward as you’re going down a hill and it would almost be more effort to stop than to just keep going.
That’s the power of momentum.
Any time you give a character a specific objective you have the opportunity to create momentum. But if can string all the objectives together, then you can keep the reader perpetually in the flow of the story.
It may feel like it will be obvious that whatever the character does it will be in pursuit of their main objective, so you don’t have to keep mentioning it. But this isn’t about the story making sense or characters behaving in plausible ways, it’s about creating a sense of forward movement that the reader will find hard to escape from.
For example, let’s say our characters are off to a big violent showdown and get in their car. But on the way they decide to stop off at a bakery to get a doughnut. It turns out that this bakery is actually a front for a weapons dealer and our characters are actually going there to get hold of some serious firepower. Only the reader doesn’t know that.
You could quite easily decide that the surprising nature of why they’re going to the bakery will be a cool thing for the reader to discover, so you don’t make it clear why they’re headed there.
If the time between deciding to go to the bakery and revealing the real reason for going there is quite short, you won’t lose much momentum.
If the characters go to the bakery and check out the different cakes and have a long chat with the woman behind the counter before the real reason for going there is revealed, then even though you may be able to recapture the reader’s interest, you will still have lost a lot of the momentum you built up.It's a trade off, and only you can decide if what you gain is worth what you lose.
If you reveal up front what they’re doing—There’s only one place to buy a anti-aircraft missile around here: Ma’s Old Tea Shop—then that will keep the momentum going, although the surprise will be gone.
But the aim here is to provide a connection to the main story, not necessarily explain it. So the important part is to bring up the connection. The above example does that, but you could also do it like this:
“First we need to stop off at Ma’s Old Tea Shop”.
“This is no time to get yourself a doughnut.”
“Oh, Ma sells more than doughnuts.”
Just letting the reader know this is not an arbitrary left turn in the story, even if it’s just a hint, is enough to keep the momentum rolling.
Finding small ways to remind the reader this is all in pursuit of that ultimate goal (whatever that might be in your story) is all it takes to keep things rolling.
Bear in mind, the reason I made it an unusual place to get weapons is because if they went to a gun shop to get tooled up, it would be self-explanatory why they were going there. When the link to the main story is clear, the momentum will automatically be there.
Having said all that, if you write deep enough in the character’s POV, it’s possible to hold the reader’s attention purely by maintaining a strong enough focus on the character’s needs. He’s angry and pissed off with the bad guys, and he’s going to the goddam tea shop. If we know the kind of guy he is, we’ll know there must be more to this tea shop then just cakes and Earl Grey.
But it’s also worth remembering that when you’re in deep POV, we should know what the character knows, and when he does something, we should be aware of why he does it. That won’t make his actions less intriguing, it will only make the bond between character and reader all the stronger.
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