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4. Narrative Momentum


Here’s a rule of thumb for ordering what-happens-next in stories: have the bigger event unfold out of the smaller. Similarly when ordering revelations in mystery-stories: start with the smaller and work up to the bigger.

I wish I had some measure for smaller and bigger. It doesn’t help much to say, proceed from the less interesting to the more interesting, from the less remarkable to the more remarkable. I don’t think there are any general criteria. In one novel, the resolution of a relationship involving two people can top the resolution of a battle involving millions; vice versa in another.

My only advice is, rely on your own sense of what’s more or less interesting. And my only other advice is, check with sample readers and see how they feel.

It’s a rule of thumb, so it needs to be applied most of the time rather than all of the time, with qualifications. Other things being equal, build up from the smaller to the bigger. And even then, you’ll want to vary the pattern locally, occasionally.

On the other hand, you risk anti-climax if you disregard it on the scale of the novel as a whole. If the most interesting revelation occurs half way through, with only a lesser revelation at the climax, then you’ve got a problem. Likewise if the reader is expecting an even more remarkable event to unfold out of previous events, and you only produce something flat and predictable—problem again!

Anti-climax is what you get when a build up fails to go up.

Locally, smaller-before-bigger is a good rule to bear in mind, rather than to apply inflexibly. Harking back to my example of local action in ACTION (ii), (iii), (v) and (vi)—in a duel with rapiers, you’d aim to have the less desperate moments occurring before the more desperate moments.

So, early on, the hero avoids his opponent’s blade by a hairsbreadth; later on, he has his rapier twisted out of his hand and has to go scrabbling for it as his opponent nearly delivers the coup de grace.

Or, harking back to my example of local creeping revelation in CHARACTER POINT OF VIEW (ii)—if Tam and Nina start by believing the ruined monastery deserted and end up by discovering it’s inhabited, you’d tend to put the less obvious clues before the more obvious clues.

Thus, early on, a faint smell of smokiness in the air (could be from many causes other than a fire for cooking); later on, a footprint (human, but could be a passing hunter, and not recent); later again, the sound of a door handle turning (only one interpretation now!)

Ordering events or revelations is an exercise I do in creative writing workshops. It combines well with ‘chunking’ (ACTION (vi)).



(iii) TWISTS




Other Story Topics


2. Middles

3. Climax & After

5. Pacing




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Richard Harland.