The importance of momentum . . .

What John Irving told an interviewer at Boston University about the most important quality in novels surely applies to memoirs too.

If you’re going to write novels, you need to establish momentum. The longer the novel, the more that momentum is essential. A novel must be more compelling, more urgent, to the reader on page 400 than it was on page 40. Two elements give you this necessary momentum. You must be able to develop characters; the characters must grow, and the reader must be growingly involved in what’s going to happen to these characters. You have to make the reader care about your characters. The second element is connected to the characters; the story must hold the reader’s attention—first, by inviting the reader to anticipate what’s going to happen; later, by having kept something a secret from the reader. You must allow a reader to guess what’s going to happen, but the reader has to be a little wrong. Note that I’ve said “going to happen” three times in this paragraph. That is where the momentum lies: always ahead of where the reader is in the book.

Of course, Irving said he isn’t interested in memoirs:

Most memoirs don’t interest me; I have no interest in writing one. When I do use things that have happened to me in my fiction (and not much of interest has happened to me), I always change it; I’m a fiction writer—I can improve on almost any so-called “true” story; sometimes making a story better in fiction means making it far worse.



Filed under fiction, memoir, NOTED

8 responses to “The importance of momentum . . .

  1. theexile

    Momentum is hard to achieve in any form, and hard to maintain, especially when writing first drafts. Keeping the flow going, especially when real life happens. Irving does it very well.

  2. So serendipitous that you should be quoting Irving today and on this subject. My grandson’s name is Owen, and I am caring for him during the day. When I put him down for a nap, I always say a little blessing prayer for him. Yesterday I thought, “I need to read A Prayer for Owen Meany, finally.”

    In my writing life, I am struggling to think about character and narrative arc in ways shorter memoir essays did not require.

    So thanks. Twice!

  3. How often I think, “I couldn’t make that up if I tried.” Real life, after all, is where the best fiction comes from. And the best memoir is no bland recitation of facts, but gives the reader that swept away feeling of momentum, and the unexpected events that make it pop, that make us wonder at the astonishing range of human experience.

    I’m thinking of the riveting, thrilling, surprise appearance of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on the floor of the U.S. Congress a few days ago, there to cast her vote on raising the current debt ceiling. Who could have invented that magnificent plot twist?

  4. Olga Khotiashova

    To establish momentum is definitely a key for success, but is that what differs a “fill-up-spare-time” book from a “never-boring-companion” book? How many times will you read a novel however captivating it is? Not more than twice, I bet. And we may return to some poems or non-fiction books dozens of times always getting allured and fascinated.

    I can’t help quoting one paragraph from Edward Abbey’s “Author’s Introduction” to his Desert Solitaire:

    “This is not primarily a book about the desert. In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth in simple fact. But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea. Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite. If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but that one particular juniper tree which grows from a ledge of naked sand stone near the old entrance to Arches National Monument. What I have tried to do then is something a bit different. Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as a medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal.”

    Although the piece is too long for a comment, I was not able to skip a single sentence (remember your post about reviewing and cutting!). It also shows the perfect balance between exposition and reflection (another recent post!). And finally, this obviously static piece is surprisingly tense and luring.

    I’m your grateful student, Richard. Each post implies a lot of thinking and helps analyze and understand better what I read. Thank you!

    • Great quote and thoughts, Olga. As it happens, I am kind of bogged down in Irving’s new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, and have decided to skim. It is long, with lots of long, fat sentences, and wants me to cozy up and immerse for some time in its world. I have done this in the past with his novels, most recently A Prayer for Owen Meanie, which I admired, but whether it’s this book or me at this time—kind of frantic with my own book—I am resisting what it asks.

      I find it fascinating what you say about returning to nonfiction vs. fiction. I do return to Annie Dillard’s nonfiction, and to some fiction, about fifty fifty with me, so I wonder if this reflects more personal taste than that great nonfiction calls us back more compellingly?

      • Olga Khotiashova

        I don’t know, Richard, if it is a matter of taste or a peculiarity of personality but for me, rereading novels, great novels, feels like watching remakes – most likely disappointing except the case when I underestimated the book at first reading. As a rule, I return to my favorite books once in 20 years when I get changed enough to take a fresh look, so to speak.

        Nonfiction is different. It somehow manages to preserve vitality. It is like watching the nature or walking into the river – it is always the same and different at every next moment, never boring, unpredictable.

        Speaking in terms of this post, it seems fiction loses momentum when you turn the last page, while nonfiction stays alive keeping some secrets and waiting for the next encounter with you.

        Anyway, no wonder weird thoughts come to mind in this 100⁰ Houston heat.