Momentum

William H. Coles


By tradition, literary fiction tends to be serious—and static. A valuable area of improvement for literary writers is making their writing vibrant with motion—full of energy that is transferred from page to reader. Action! And all of this action in writing comes from word choice, well-constructed sentences and paragraphs, and from clear transfer of ideas that avoid obscurity. Then, a story has action in all of its elements and momentum.

Overall, everything should move forward in a story. A story is a tidal wave that carries water fowl, trees and plants, and man-made elements, broken and mangled; and when it encounters obstacles it engulfs them and dislodges them inexorably. Stories cannot be stagnant puddles waiting for an occasional shower to maintain their existence. It is the author’s challenge, if not duty, to create a tidal wave. It is a quest not accomplished in a few sittings before a computer screen. Learning to write with story momentum is a lifelong dedication, better learned by some than others.

Choose the right words

Words can have action or be inert, often with aspects of both. Authors, for the sake of the reader, need to seek action words, but only when the new word improves meaning and effectiveness of the writing.

  1. Most important—verbs.

    Look for different degrees of action in the following: (Note how action is related to specificity.)

    • ate–swallowed
    • moved–walked
    • understood—discovered
    • told–described
    • told—elaborated
    • went—drove
    • lay—reclined
    • cooked—fried
    • cooked—poached
    • killed—bludgeoned to death
    • began—ignited

    NOTE: Use of certain verbs may convey a degree of action or a type of action that does not suit the scene or the narration. (Example: “His humor ignited her admiration” should not, in most circumstances, replace, “She smiled at his joke.”) Authors need tasteful and accurate verb choices to develop pleasing writing styles.

  2. Nouns.

    It is particularly useful in description of settings, or any narrative in a story, to choose nouns that have energy. When possible, image nouns should be concrete (hawk) rather than abstract (object). At times, no choice may be available, but when it is, make the choice contribute to story imagery and momentum. Here are nouns that have different energies.

    • rock–hawk
    • telephone pole–computer
    • road–river
    • shadow–glitter

    What story would you choose, a story about rocks, telephone poles and a road in shadow, or a story about hawks, computers, and a river that glitters. The right word associations can make good writing better.

  3. Adjectives.

    Adjectives restrict a noun, or a verb form, and this can be desirable or undesirable. Compare adjectival forms and their effectiveness for lively writing.

    motionless steamroller. waiting steamroller. tilted steamroller. rusted steamroller. dead acrobat. breathless acrobat. plunging acrobat. immortalized acrobat. revered acrobat. decaying acrobat. perspiring acrobat.

    Note: Adjectives are not equal in effect in a specific context, each has a different energy relationship to its noun. Authors must make the right adjective choices or their writing dies. Sometimes no adjective is best. “ . . . hear the crow,” may be better than “. . . hear the cawing crow,” for example, because cawing is redundant—it is what a crow does if we hear it. On the other hand, certain adjectives are an absolutely necessity for clarity. White whale means more than whale without an adjective. Authors improve by making better decisions about adjective, and other modifier, choices.

  4. Adverbs.

    Examples: Talked–-incessantly, often, irritatingly, lovingly, uncontrollably, loudly, softly.

    Note that every one of these adverbs could be replaced by a construction that showed rather than told. Example: For ”loudly,” an author might use, “When he shouted, little Jennie winced and covered her ears.” Probably too many words for too little effect. In this instance, maybe the adverb is better: “Jake spoke loudly to her.”

    In essence, adverbs can be valuable, brief sources of information. Still, authors must be in control of adverb choice and usage. Adverbs too often flag an author’s unwillingness to seek the right verb. She “yelled loudly,” could be “screamed.” “Moved rapidly,” could be “jumped” or “ran” or “scurried.”

    Another disadvantage is that adverbs often confuse point of view (and narration) in story telling. “He saw the enemy soldier unwillingly aim his rifle.” The use of “unwillingly aim,” briefly places the point of view on the soldier and outside the “He” subject of the sentence. Remove unwillingly and there is no point of view shift.

  5. Concrete vs. abstract words.

    Concrete and abstract words have different effects on a reader. For action writing, concrete are almost always better.

    Examples: (concrete – abstract)

    • tuberculosis–disease
    • Joe–population
    • Atlantic–ocean
    • March 22–future
    • tarragon–spice
    • violin–instrument
    • G note–sound
    • triplet–rhythm

    As a writer, look for abstract words that need revision. Are there better, more concrete, alternatives? Readers prefer a concrete word such as “violin” rather than the word “instrument”–or even “musical instrument.” Repeated abstractions cumulatively destroy good creative writing while carefully chosen concrete words build pleasure to the reading and momentum to the story.

    But, a word of caution; fiddling with words alone cannot make writing great. Good writing has too many more important elements. Too often writers spend revision time with words when structure needs change.

  6. Avoid obscurity

    When a reader reads an author with muddled thinking, the reading slows, the reader’s interest wanes, and the story is not successful. Action, so necessary in writing, is directly proportional to clear thinking.

    Nothing stagnates a story more than obscurity. Paradoxically, some authors believe obscure writing is clever and stimulating—but those are pseudo-intellectual ideas. In general, obscurity and vibrant writing do not mix in fictional prose.

    A writer has an idea. It could be concept or image. The writer uses words and the arrangement of words to transmit an idea to a reader. It is not simple. Every human is different with an individual way of thinking, unique past experience, memory capacity, and learning. We assume we think as most others, and they assume the same of us, but there is wide variability. Authors need to learn to think clearly and logically to improve understanding of their ideas by others, especially those who may not have the same thought processes. Above all, do not cling to mediocre ideas and obscure them in the belief that obscurity will make them seem better than they are.

    Authors transmit clear thinking by: Accurate word association; careful attention to modifiers and antecedents; concrete rather than abstract ideas; and for many, the mental image clarified before described. Authors must fine-tune their thinking so writing becomes effective in transferring ideas. The reward is not only good writing, but a sense of action.

  7. Use proper constructions

    Authors write to be read; authors must avoid constructions or unclear associations that cause reading to be difficult.

  8. Sentences.

    Choose best sentence types for the prose of the story-moment.

    Examples:

    • Periodic sentence (subject and verb at end of compound sentence). “With his body trembling, his breath trapped in his lungs when he failed to breath, he jumped from the plane pulling the ripcord.”
    • Loose sentence (subject and verb at the beginning of compound sentence). “He jumped from the plane pulling the ripcord with his body trembling, his breath trapped in his lungs when he forgot to breathe.” The emphasis and effect are different. Both are valuable when used in an appropriate, receptive, creative-writing context. Sentence length and sound, as well as structure, should also be varied with attention to rhythms and tension of the story-moment.
    • Don’t use a pronoun where the antecedent is not clear.
    • Don’t present subordinate ideas when the relationship to the main idea is not clear.
  9. Avoid poetics

    In general, avoid poetics in fictional prose.  For example, resist the oxymoron, especially those overwritten and not related to story purpose.  An oxymoron (figure of speech with contradictory terms: example—falsely true) can be an effective poetic technique but is rarely, if ever, useful in fiction.  Oxymoron, by definition, is opaque, if not obscure.  It is language in love with itself, and in literary-fiction prose it stops the action.

    Alliteration, repetitive sounds at the beginning of words (tiny tinsel-like tots teetering together), also stops a reader of prose fiction.  Although useful in poetics when tastefully constructed, it is amateurish in fiction.

    Metaphor is the muscle that enlivens the skeleton of fiction and illuminates new understanding.  But clear metaphors are needed in fiction, less so in poetry.  In fiction, don’t keep the reader guessing with obscure connections between the comparisons.  Present clear metaphoric associations.  A simile, a type of metaphor, is an example.  In fiction, it is essential that the comparison in a simile is perfect in logic (and accepted by the reader).  A is like B in a way that makes the reader understand A better.  A’s comparison to B has to depend on differences between the two.  If there is no difference, there is no effect.  A rose is like a rose.  No effect.  The rose is not clarified for us.  If there is too much difference, so the comparison is unbelievable or not understandable, there is also no effect.  A rose is like a locomotive.  Let’s try some closer comparison with a beauty connection.  A rose is like a sunrise on the first day of spring.  Not great, but a little closer to a successful simile.
    (Note:  A metaphor does not use like or as.  A metaphor would be:  A rose is the first sunrise in spring.)

    Also, in fiction, make antecedents clear. Avoid constructions such as: He would never use that to do this again. Even if the context provides some clues as to meaning, these vague pronouns frustrate a reader. Here is a possible improvement: John would never use a spoon to dig a grave again.

  10. Make imagery dynamic

    As authors, we rarely think about momentum in imagery. But images in writing have useful characteristics to provide story momentum, unlike a photograph, which is a frozen instant, and static. Strange that many authors write descriptive scenes as if recreating a photograph.

    Movement in images is a privilege that fiction gives to authors. In writing, the reader’s mind is active in creating and forming images. Basically, authors don’t create still-life images, they paint portraits that intrigue and engage the reader with scenes that live on the page. There was a bird on a limb. Static. The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action. The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of action. (Over done but you should see the principle.)

    Consider: The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked though the valley. Any motion perceived is really implied. Now with action: The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn.

  11. Adhere to in scene action

    Example: narrative statement—static, no action.

    Janie adored animals. She went to the shelter and adopted a dog named Firefly that she loved at first sight.

    Example: same information developed in scene—with action.

    Janie opened the steel door to the animal shelter on First Street. No one was behind the wooden table that served as a reception barrier. She walked back thorough a doorless opening into the converted two car garage. She stopped. Stacked cages lined each side of the passage. She held her breath at the foul smell. Barks and meows filled the air and she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She walked forward until she saw a white dog on its haunches, quiet except for a tail slowly moving back and forth stirring up the sawdust at the cage bottom. The eyes looked directly at her unfaltering. On the cage door was a tag that read “Firefly. 6/14.”

    In the back the attendant was hosing down cages on a driveway.

    “That dog, Firefly. I want to adopt him.”

    “Sorry, I think he’s spoken for.”

    NOTE: In-scene action requires more reader time than narrative telling. Therefore, because it takes up precious storytelling time, in-scene action must have a legitimate purpose with significant reason for inclusion to energize the story. Does it develop the character? Does it enhance motivation? Does it contribute to physical movement through story time that is directly plot related? Does it allow imagery and setting to be established subtly, without cumbersome self-importance? Does it contribute to voice? Is it related to theme and meaning? If action doesn’t do a lot, then a short narrative bridge may be best for story.

  12. Avoid backstory

    Back-story (anything that happened before story start), by its time relation to a story, affects, and often stops story-present momentum. The basic rule? backstory must advance front story. To check, always ask what a particular backstory does for the front story. Answers might include: it provides needed characterization, is necessary for exposition, explains motivation, it helps move the plot, it clarifies motive for plot action, and others. But in the good story, there is almost always a better–and more effective–way to provide for the reader than using backstory that stops story momentum.

    Another problem with backstory is the awkwardness of in-scene development at a time other than story-present. Therefore, most backstory is in narrative description of the past. Unfortunately, excessive narrative description of past events kills the overall effect of movement in an otherwise well-written literary story.

  13. Make dialogue active

    Dialogue needs to have action. This is accomplished primarily by word choice and ideation. It is also helpful not to have questions in dialogue directly answered. Here are examples:

    Example: (Failed dialogue.)

    “Is that a bear?” Joe asked.

    “Where?” Sam said.

    “Over there.”

    “Damn. I think it is a bear.”

    “What are we going to do?”

    “I don’t know.”

    Example: (Dialogue with elements of surprise and action.)

    The bear reared back on its hind legs, roaring.

    “Don’t move!” said Joe.

    “I’m going to throw up.” Sam said.

    “He’s seen us.”

    “I dropped my rifle.”

    “Start making noise. Maybe we can scare him.”


Read other essays on writing by William H. Coles


2 comments on “Momentum

  • Reply
    Kelly Goodfellow

    I think that, done subtly, poetic language is one of the most enjoyable elements of literary fiction, and your blanket recommendation against it is an oversimplification. Take alliteration: of course the phrase “tiny tinsel-like tots teetering together” is straining for effect and thus an annoying intrusion, but less obvious repeated sounds are an important part of the music of prose. And oxymoron is so commonly used in day-to-day speech that it rarely requires a noticeable cognitive leap to understand it. Usually, we choose the logical sense of each word automatically. Finally, it actually is acceptable to occasionally pause in the action of a story to elaborate on an apparently nonsensical simile or metaphor. (Sometimes the explanation is even part of the action, not a pause from it.) All of this is just based on my own reading preferences, and I am admittedly a language freak, so feel free to disregard it.

    Reply

    Thanks for your comment and you are absolutely right–poetics and lyrical language are enjoyable elements of literary fiction. And I share your thoughts about language (and your love of language) that you have stated so well. My comments about specific elements of poetics are too strong for my point:I appreciate your pointing it out, and I will make changes in the post. The point about poetics, however, is important in the aspect of great stories told in prose. The clarity and focus of prose on story presentation, rather than on the beauty of the language as the prime goal, is essential for the the reader’s enjoyment of, and engagement in, the story. For the literary fictional story to reach maximum effect, the language must be clear and with a purpose–mostly to develop character and advance logical story line with meaning. By its nature, poetics (and lyrical language) is enjoyable for the quality of the language itself (there is a wonderful, and deserved, admiration for the words and their positioning that produces enjoyment and awe in the reader) but when the poetics detracts from the purpose of creating a story effect on the reader, the author must face a selfless control in her or his use of language that calls attention to itself in a self-conscious way.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts.

    WHC

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