Writers often ask how to get a story started—but just as important is the question of how to keep one going. There’s quite a distance between the first and final pages of a novel or memoir—and it’s not just the events but the energy of a story that will get your reader there.
Whether you’re just starting a story or are trying to figure out how to keep a project going, here are a few things to consider:
1. Don’t Look Back
You’ve likely heard that the “inciting incident” is the event that propels a story forward; it’s the thing that happens early in a novel or memoir that gets the plot moving. While this is true, the real energy in a story comes not from a chain of events but from how they affect your central character. In order to launch a story well, you need an opening event that alters your protagonist’s life enough that s/he cannot look back. Rather, s/he must look and charge steadfastly ahead.
2. It’s All About the Energy
A story is about energy more than it is about events—but how do you create and maintain that energy? Beyond setting up strong character response to your inciting incident, it’s also important to shape and build tension at the level of both scene and chapter. Momentum (or, forward movement) isn’t just about mounting up energy. Rather, it’s about shaping. You need to know when to ratchet up the tension, and when to release it—and how to balance out these impulses within each section of your book.
3. Making a Scene
Scenes are one of your best tools for building and shaping momentum—but they’re about more than setting the stage for action. Scenes are really about getting your characters interacting—and, more importantly, acting out. That’s not to say that you always want high drama, but if you want energy in your story, you need to have tensions among your characters—and you need to have characters who are willing to “make a scene” whether in visible or subtle ways.
4. Don’t Give it All Away at Once
Another important strategy for maintaining energy in a story is to release information gradually, over time. Curiosity is a powerful motivator, so stagger your information. Let your reader know just what s/he needs to know in that moment—and no more. In order to write an effective and energized story, it’s important to know what information to give, and what to withhold.
5. A Straight Line is Not Always the Best One
Finally, narrative provides us with options, so as you’re considering how best to stagger information, one of the most helpful things to think about is how you will use time and structure in your story. For instance, will your story be linear: “A” leads to “B” leads to “C”? Or, will you shift around the order of events to include switchback time, flashbacks, and suspended moments? When working with stories, you don’t have to “tell it straight”—and sometimes, it’s much better not to.
Whatever the ultimate shape of your story, its success will ultimately be based on the careful way that you manage its energy. If you want to get a better idea of how you can harness your good ideas into a story—whether fiction or memoir—take the class this spring, Jumpstart Your Story, where you can begin—or reenergize!—the story you’ve been wanting to tell.
Susan Meyers earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from the University of Arizona. She currently directs the Creative Writing Program at Seattle University. Her fiction and nonfiction have been supported by grants from the Fulbright foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 4Culture, Artist Trust, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, as well as several artists residencies. Her novel Failing the Trapeze won the Nilsen Award for a First Novel and the Fiction Attic Press Award for a First Novel, and it was a finalist for the New American Fiction Award. Other work has recently appeared in Per Contra, Calyx, Dogwood, The Portland Review, and The Minnesota Review, and it has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.