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pathways to publishing > writers' tips > narrative momentum

Narrative Momentum

When I worked for a literary agent in Sydney back in the 1980s, I spent many long hours reading manuscripts. I read both the solicited and unsolicited work that came to the agency – manuscripts by established writers such as Helen Garner, Susan Varga and Drusilla Modjeska, through to stories from people who had a long way to go in developing their work. I learnt a lot about writing and a lot about reading. And I learnt that the secret to a good story is no secret at all: a good story is one where you want to keep turning the pages.

Sounds simple. Sounds obvious. But creating narrative momentum, like many other aspects of good writing, is not necessarily intuitive or instinctive for everyone who sets out to write a book-length manuscript. It is a learned skill, part of the writing craft. Many would-be authors are unsure about what narrative momentum is or how to create it.

Put simply, narrative momentum is that pull that keeps the reader wanting to continue on with the story. Yes, it is about keeping the action moving along at a good pace but more importantly it is about engaging the reader deeply in the story so that they are compelled to keep turning the pages, even if the writing style is unhurried. And narrative momentum is just as important in what is called 'narrative non-fiction' (memoir, travel, biography, etc.) as it is in fiction.

I usually work with complete manuscripts and often the opening chapters are the weakest; it is not unusual to find a writer spending a chapter or two or three working out where to start. But in the competitive world of publishing, writers are doing themselves a disservice if they aren't able to captivate a professional reader (agent, publisher, commissioning editor) in the first three chapters (about 15–20,000 words).

BEGINNINGS

Beginnings are crucial. If the beginning of a story is weak, chances are no one will ever get to the middle, let alone the end. If you are struggling to stay engaged in the first few chapters of a book, you are unlikely to get much further. You don't have to grab readers by the throat to engage them (although that works), you can gently seduce them or charm them with a beguiling voice; you can incite their curiosity; you can paint a captivating picture; you can raise a question to which the reader wants to find an answer.

There is no one right way to begin a story, but there are some important things that need to happen in the opening pages and chapters of your work to create narrative momentum. These are: having an engaging opening sentence, paragraph or page; introducing key character/s; setting the scene in terms of time, place and atmosphere; presenting the hook and/or a dramatic incident that raises a question, a mystery to be solved; and evoking the readers' trust to follow you by allowing them imaginative space to enter the story.

The most common problems I see in opening chapters are too much backstory, too much detail and too much exposition (description/explanation). Good beginnings can often be obtained simply by amputating the first paragraphs or pages – sometimes called 'throat clearing' by editors. I have been known on more than one occasion to suggest to a writer that the story would best be served by beginning at chapter three!

JUMPING STRAIGHT IN

You need to jump straight into the action and begin at the latest possible moment. Think about your experience as a reader. When you open a book, you want to know why you are being shown something and when something is going to happen. Cate Kennedy says, 'When the lights come up on an empty stage, how long do you think an audience will sit patiently waiting for something to actually happen? Scarily, the answer is seven seconds. Something of this kind happens in prose, too.'

As a former 'slush pile' reader, you'll be pleased to know that professional readers will give you longer than 7 seconds to engage... but not much longer!