Keeping the Momentum

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Following on from Jim’s great post yesterday, I thought I would write about ‘momentum’ in a novel. Having just finished the revised draft of my latest WIP (just sent it through cyberspace to my beta readers for input yesterday!), I have been looking closely at the issue of momentum as part of the editing process.  

By ‘momentum’ I mean the way in which the novel moves and progresses so that a reader desperately wants to keep turning the pages. It requires a balance between conflict and suspense, exposition and relationship development (and these are by no means mutually exclusive). The reason momentum has been on my mind of late is that I have recently read  three YA books that lost steam about half to three-quarters of the way through and I couldn’t understand why. They were all the kind of books that gripped me from the start and had me turning pages enthusiastically until…I wasn’t anymore. 

And it was more than just ‘mid book sag’ it was a total loss of momentum and it had me puzzled – how, when the authors clearly had great conflict and suspense and terrific pacing for the first half the book did the they manage to lose that initial head of steam. 

It started me thinking – what went wrong? 

I came to the conclusion that there were three critical issues:

1. Predictability 

About half way through these books the threads started to come together and suddenly the way forward became predictable. As a reader I started to guess how it was going to progress from hereon and thus, the conflict and suspense factor faltered and never recovered. This demonstrates that when it comes to pacing an author must keep ratcheting up the stakes and keep things unpredictable. A surprised/shocked reader is going to read on – one that has guessed the ending is not.

2. The conflict/tension between the main characters was resolved too early 

Although the books I was reading were all YA this applies equally to mysteries and thrillers (in fact any novel!). All the authors I read did a fabulous job establishing initial conflict between the characters. The characters developed were complex and believable and above all, the tension and set up was really compelling. However, about half way through the book instead of this tension escalating or changing it merely morphed into immediate attraction and/or friendship and this meant the book started to fizzle rather than sizzle. When editing my own WIP, I kept this firmly in mind, so that no matter the growing attraction between the main characters that level of tension and conflict continued to increase (from both external and internal factors) so that a reader couldn’t really be sure how it was all going to resolve. 

3. The authors wanted to resolve everything neatly and it showed  

I think this issue was more a question of mechanics and (as all three were debut novels) experience but about half way through the book I felt that the framework of the plot began to show through – devices were more evident and coincidence suddenly took the place of real suspense. It felt as though the authors, knowing the destination they were trying to reach, had put up road signs for the reader which meant the thrill of the ride was gone (to use a cliche!).

Having realized these three pitfalls, I found myself focusing on momentum as I edited my own work (trying not to fall into the same trap, which can be difficult I know). Given the book I was writing was a YA, I also closely studied books I felt really succeeded when it came to momentum (such as The Hunger Games) and tried to pinpoint what it was that kept me turning the pages. It all really came down to what Jim discussed yesterday – conflict & suspense. 

So what about you – how do you keep an eye on momentum in your own work? Where do you think authors fall down when a book loses its fizz?

12 thoughts on “Keeping the Momentum

  1. I see knowing where you are going as important. Whatever resolution the story comes to, we should know that that resolution happens at the end. If we see that resolution occur before that, then the resolution is out of place. I find it helpful to write, or at least plot, the story backwards.

  2. Clare, the middle of any book is a dangerous, dark swamp. It’s so easy to sink into the quicksand and lose the reader. One technique I try to use to maintain momentum is to let the reader anticipate what happens next but is compelled to guess wrong.

  3. Clare, thanks for another great post. Re: maintaining momentum…what Joe said. There are some excellent examples of such technique in Val McDermid’s new novel, THE RETRIBUTION.

  4. Well I just finished reading The Hunger Games so now I’ll go back and look at it to analyze these things.

    Predictability is a tough one to work through. So many stories are quite predictable. But there are predictable stories that I still enjoyed–I think in those cases the characters are so strong and vivid, you forgive the “I already know how this will go” aspect of the story.

  5. Clare, you hit on two big points: predictability and resolution.

    So the answer is like the answer you get when you go to the doctor and say, “It’s hurts when I do that.”

    “Then don’t do that,” he says.

    So…don’t be predictable (as Joe M. points out). I stop frequently and make a short list: what would the reader expect to happen next? Then I don’t do those things.

    And I raise questions then fight not to answer them for as long as possible.

  6. Touching on my biggest fears in this post! Your point on predictability is a good one. How does a writer steer a story toward a plausible resolution without making it totally obvious?

    You mention the “tension / attraction” in your second point. Did all three of these YA stories feature romances? Romance in itself can be a tricky story; I think we’re more sensitive to the tropes of a love story than we are to other genres.

  7. KillZone Masters –
    Thank you for the recent thoughtful posts addressing “how-to” aspects of writing.
    These are the posts that drive my daily visit to the Zone.

  8. I do think predictability is very tricky as it’s a fine line with surprising and challenging a reader and making them think “huh?!” You have to be careful not to irritate a reader too…that being said I think you can still pull off a supposedly predictable story with amazing character conflict and the suspense can be in how the resolution is achieved even though the reader can guess how it all might end. Most of us know, for example, that the main character will not die at the end and the villain will get his or her comeuppance but still there is plenty of ways to keep a reader doubting that!

  9. It’s weird, Clare…
    As a beginner I find myself wanting to resolve issues for the characters, but I think it was Sol Stein who said something along the lines of “As a writer your job is to make the reader worry. Reader wants to worry. Be kind to reader and give them what they want.”

    I like Jim’s point in “Conflict and Suspense” of not answering questions directly – that builds suspense.

    And, Joe’s right too, the middle is dangerous ground to bog down with this.

    Thanks Clare for pointing out that a great story isn’t so tidy.

  10. Hey, what a great post, Clare! Perfectly timed too, as I’m mid-novel – my second attempt after coming close last year. The ‘tricky middle’ is where I hit plot-block. I have two half-finished novels because of this and have overcome it only once, which was probably because an agent was breathing down my neck!

    ‘Make the reader worry’ is paramount, as is not being predictable. ‘The reveal’ often poses problems too; that delicate balance of the drip-feed to the reader… the only answer I have is that practice makes perfect-ish!

    Some great nuggets of wisdom here, I’m glad I found you all – will be sharing this around for sure.


  11. I’ve trunked two because I painted myself into a corner and died of boredome trying to get out.

    Request to TKZ! Would someone, perhaps Ms. Dane since she is writing YA, discuss tense, in the context of the new craze in YA for present tense.

    Yes, I loved Hunger Games. Yet, something bothered me all the way through it. I had to be told it was written in present tense. I refused to believe it until I went back and verified it.

    I didn’t feel any “immediacy,” the darling buzzword of writers. It felt stilted. The towering brilliance of the premise carried me through and I honestly believe I translated it into past tense in my head.

    I seek insight because I am doing a difficult crit right now on a present tense YA. I dislike the tense structure so much I am having trouble honing in on the real issues.

    Humble request from the peanut gallery! Terri

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