Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Objectives Provide Story Momentum

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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Melissa Bradley said...

This is a great reminder. I have to rewrite many passages to always keep my momentum going. I love the example you chose. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like that example - it's a subtle hint that doesn't give away too much.

Al Diaz said...

I think I've just found a flaw on my writing and probably losing those momentums. Will have to check.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

If the scene doesn't seem to relate, readers will often stop. They'll usually pick it later, but we want the momentum to carry into the late night hours.

Janeal Falor said...

Great example. It is often a hard balance of deciding what needs to be a surprise and what/how much needs told. I also like how you use the example to do it subtly. I love when writers through little things in that keep my interest with out giving me all the details.

mooderino said...

@Melissa - I usually need a nudge from a reader.

@Alex - just a hint is enough.

@Al Diaz - can be helpful to leave it a while and come back to it.

@Diane - Keeping the reader turning pages against their will is the goal!

@Janeal - if you can do it without being obvious it can seem like magic, makes it hard to pick up when you're learning.

Patricia Lynne said...

Great post, as always.

He’s angry and pissed off with the bad guys, and he’s going to the goddam tea shop. << Quote of the day!

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I love those touches of foreshadowing. You're skimming along and all of a sudden your eye stutters on that "Oh, Ma sells more than doughnuts.” line and you gotta turn the page.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Patricia - thanks!

@C. Lee - it's great when you find yourself immersed in a story like that.

LD Masterson said...

I think this is one (of many) of you posts that I'll hang on to for my editing check lists. Thanks, Mood.

Sarah Allen said...

This reminds me of an acting class I took in college. We talked about objectives a lot. Every movement you make and every line you deliver must have a clear objective or your character becomes vastly uninteresting. I think the same is true in writing.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Hunter Emkay said...

Nice example. But now I really want a doughnut. I'm glad you visited so that I could find you here. I've become a follower.

Empty Nest Insider said...

Great points about building momentum. It is always best to not give away too much of the story.


Lynda R Young said...

I do love a story that carries me along purely based on its momentum. It doesn't have to have constant action or revelations to keep me going.

mooderino said...

@LD - I'm sure the picture of scones also helped.

@Sarah - it's the easiest way to bring a character into focus.

@Hunter - great to have you here!

@Julie - Thanks.

@Lynda - It's a great feeling to be lost in a story.

Adriana Dascalu said...

the first 3 paragraphs explained better then ever what I need to focus on in my writing! Thank you! new follower here!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent advice! I'll definitely remember it!

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

Great article moody. I'm off to tweet it.

mooderino said...

@Adriana - WELCOME! Followed you back.

@Elizabeth - Glad to be of help.

@Michael - cheers.

Anonymous said...

You're talking about sub plot and sub text and when to leave info in and when to leave it out. None of which are easy to do

nutschell said...

okay now im curious. What other interesting trinkets does Ma sell? :D Moody, you never cease to amaze me. You always come up with useful and super helpful posts!

mooderino said...

@sassy - true, but being aware of what you need is the fist step to finding a way to put it in there.

@nutschell - cheers, glad you found it useful.

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