Great writing is all about generating motion and change — and every bit of motion needs a motivation. You can track these cycles by creating a motion map.
Great writing pulls you into a new world. What is this whirlpool effect that helps authors suck readers into their stories?
There are many contributing factors, but great writing always has flow. Flow is about exciting, compelling, surprising, intriguing, inexplicable, and inevitable motion.
Physical and psychological motion
There are two sources of motion in storytelling: physical and mental. The first is about what is done. The second is about what is thought. Both are about change.
Physical motion is often easier for new authors. Action is the basis of plot and comes from external sources: a volcano explodes, a house falls, a character rides a rollercoaster, she cuts her hair or slams a door.
Psychological motion is often harder to imagine. It is the why of things from a character’s point of view. It is the inner lives of characters. It is cogitation and feelings. It’s everything from rationalizing and realizing to the dilemma of weighing up options and making decisions in preparing to take action.
Different types of books have different ratios of the two types of motion. Page-turners rely more on physical motion. Literary fiction digs deep into the minds of characters.
Each bit of motion needs a motivation, or a “why.” It also needs to trigger further motion. This is how we get cascades of motion that propel stories.
Imagine if a character gets flowers on the street from a stranger. She’ll experience the physical motion of the gift, but she’ll also change her opinion of that person considerably towards the positive — or think them very strange. How odd is the stranger and did they thrust over the flowers threateningly? Depending on the actions of the stranger, our heroine will have different reactions.
What does she think and why? How does she react? What are the consequences? This can be the start of a cascade of motion that goes into new and unexpected places.
Or, imagine a character in flight through a jungle. He decides to risk crossing an ancient wood-and-rope bridge high above a river gorge. His pursuers take no prisoners and it’s his only choice. He runs and the rickety bridge snaps. How will he save himself hanging 300 feet up the stony side of a river gorge? This is just one turn of what could be a long chase scene mixing mental and physical motion to build tension. How clever is your hero at escaping? How clever are his attackers? Who wins and why?
The best cascades build up momentum and culminate in shockingly great climaxes that wow readers.
Momentum and escalation
Intriguing motion can be small and subtle or in-your-face and epic. Getting the right kind of motion in the right place keeps up the momentum.
A great cascade escalates.
Building momentum takes effort and good judgement because it’s all about judging the intensity and frequency of motion.
If something too big happens too early, it might sit funny with readers. If something too small happens too late, it will fall flat and seem out of place, or even lazy.
Avoiding a standstill
Except for the final wrap-up of the denouement, you don’t want a standstill of motion anywhere in your story.
Yes, great books have periods of motion followed by periods that allow readers to catch their breath. These lulls are justified because they provide variety, are often filled with psychological motion, and help set up the next wave of motion.
This “action and reaction” cycle is core to great storytelling. Make sure not to skip revealing how your characters react to events. Put these reactions on the page for readers. This makes for rich characterization, develops motivations that underpin future actions, and pulls the reader into the story.
Back up all motion with a motivation. Often, decisions or actions will feel “wrong” or random or inexplicable or unbelievable if there isn’t sufficient motivation from other motions. The lack of motivation will cause a break in the flow and readers will ask, “Why did that happen?” Or worse, say, “I don’t believe that would happen.”
Don’t let the setting fail to move either. If you have a character in the same place for too long, change it up. Get your characters physically moving to new locations.
Always keep up an appropriate level of motion, just never let it get confusing or awkward.
The motion map of your book
To see how you are doing with your flow and whether you are building dramatic cascades that make sense and pull along readers, make a motion map of your book. This can be a physical map of the locations visited in the story, but what you are really looking for are shifts where one thing stops and another starts. It might be a decision or a period of night that then becomes day and gives a character hope. It could be the start of a rainfall that sweeps away evidence or the “Eureka!” moment of your great detective. All your creative leaps count as motion.
Go through the text from beginning to end and mark each type of motion — physical and psychological. What patterns do you see? Do you tend toward writing physical or mental motion? How well do you forge causal connections?
How tight are your actions and reactions? Do you have enough of these cycles? Are you missing any reactions? Or could you use more action?
Can you see the motivation for each bout of motion and is it in keeping with the story? Is it believable? Do you have enough momentum? Are you building great cascades that escalate and culminate in emotional scenes?
Like the end of a fireworks display, your motion must build to your climax. After the climax, the final puzzle pieces fall into place. In the denouement, all the motion of the story is resolved.
Great motion begets emotion
Great writing is all about great motion. Motion brings novelty and meaning, comfort and crisis, and imbues characters with agency. But most important, motion produces emotion.
The quality criterion for judging the value of any motion in your story is how evocative it is. Readers read for emotion, whether it’s thrill-seeking or to laugh, cry, fear, love or experience something that moves them.
Readers want to see characters go through changes, be challenged, overcome, and triumph. They want to know how all this happens and what it feels like. They want to experience change.
Hone your motion map to build and flavor your critical emotional map. Crafting great motion that begets emotion is a huge step towards great writing.
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