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  • Writer's pictureCarol Alwood

Story Momentum: Five Tips to Find the Power Behind Your Story

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Do you finish every book you start?

I don’t.

Why is that? How come certain titles capture readers’ interest on page one and keep it until the end while others disappoint?

It’s a complicated question, but I believe the answer lies mostly in story momentum.

Kathi Macias wrote a book titled Train of Thought Writing Method, in which she urges writers to have a big idea that will serve as the engine of the story. Without the engine, the train can’t power the boxcars all the way to the station.

You can also think of story momentum as a wave. If you’ve ever gone body boarding or surfing, you know how it feels when a wave carries you all the way to shore.

While many writers understand it’s important to have a big idea in their stories, it can often be difficult to find the right idea to carry the weight of the story to the end.

Considering how critical it is you find the big idea behind your story, here are five tips to help you build greater momentum in your work in progress.

Five Tips to Help Amplify the Momentum Behind Your Story

l. Choose a more destructive character flaw.

Character flaws can provide the power a story needs. Consider the character, Lester Nygaard, from the first season of Fargo on Hulu. His character flaw stems from the way he keeps quiet when he experiences abuse. This silence allows anger to build. The reason this character flaw provides momentum for the story is because of what happens when he finally acts out in anger and commits a crime he tries to cover up.

When choosing a more destructive character flaw, think big. For example, if your character is deceptive make your character tell a lie so big, once the lie’s discovered chaos ensues.

2. Create a situation that deeply affects your main character and many more lives.

Consider the following situation. A pastor of a church will lose his position, and the church will have to close its doors. On its own, this sounds unfortunate, but not too interesting.

However, if a nearby apartment complex filled with low-income families struggles to stay fed, and it’s the pastor who uses his position to help these people, the loss will be greater. We don’t want families to go hungry, so we root for the pastor, especially if the author takes the time to help us care about at least one family across the street.

3. Create unique characters with special gifts, or who are bigger than life.

When you create a main character, you probably take the time to consider the personality traits that make them special. You might even give your characters signature items to help the reader remember this person when they step into the scene.

This is great, but what if you delve deeper, and invent a character who’s even bigger?

For example, you can invent a character who’s nice and doesn’t worry too much when a conflict arises. But, what if your character isn’t only nice, but has never experienced conflict one day in their life? Someone has shielded themfrom all the bullies and unkind words in the world but now they must experience reality. Now, this might be a character worth reading about.

One movie that’s a great example of momentum based upon a unique character is Phenomenon, starring John Travolta. In this movie, the main character, George Malley, has an encounter which causes him to be off-the-charts intelligent, need no sleep, and possess the ability to solve complex problems. His special gifts and a love story carries this story to the end.

4. Include time restrictions.

You’ve probably discovered it’s important to have some kind of countdown in your story. Countdowns can be deadlines, due dates, upcoming events, goals, or decisions. When you impose a time restriction on a character’s goal readers keep turning pages to see if they complete tasks before something terrible happens.

Here are great examples of movies that use countdowns as the big push behind their story.

- In the movie Speed a terrorist wires a bus with explosives set to go off if the speed falls below 50 miles per hour. This creates an interesting countdown because they will eventually run out of gas. Then what?

- In the movie Die Hard there is a villain who calls on John McClane to solve riddles and meet his demands, otherwise, he’ll set off explosives around town. McClanefights to meet every deadline.

- In the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a character scrambles to make a human connection before the world ends.

- In the movie Terms of Endearment, the countdown relates to the main character’s desire to reconcile with everyone before she dies. This impending death creates momentum because it makes every interaction matter more.

While your story might not use the countdown as the main momentum for the story, these movies show how it is possible to have the countdown itself be the momentum.

5. Make your character leave someone, or something important, with a plan to return.

When a character walks away from something they love, readers or viewers will want to read or watch to see they get back. You see this kind of momentum in shows like The Walking Dead. When the characters in this show split up, there’s tension related to whether or not they will even find each other again.

One character tells the other character who’s bleeding in the water, “Wait here! I’ll go get help.” The reader, or viewer, can’t stop watching until they see if the person gets to safety or becomes shark bait.

You might make this technique work in stories which aren’t about survival, too. The intrigue in this kind of momentum is in the mystery of how they’ll find each other again. You could try separating friends during an event. A mom might lose her child. A character might drop something valuable off at a pawn shop expecting to buy it back.

So, let’s review. I suggested five ways you might find the big wave behind your story.

1. Choose a more destructive character flaw.

2. Create a situation that deeply affects your main character and many more lives.

3. Create unique characters with special gifts, or who are bigger than life.

4. Include time restrictions.

5. Make your character leave someone, or something important, with a plan to return.

When thinking about the story you’re writing or want to write, would any of these ideas help? I hope so.

In the meantime, happy writing!

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