29 August 2013

A New Angle on Narrative Momentum

A few days ago, author Gail Gauthier raised the topic of “momentum” as it applies to narrative on her Facebook page. In physics, an object’s momentum is defined as its mass times its velocity. Velocity, in turn, is defined as distance traveled over time.

During the discussion, I realized that all those physics concepts can be metaphorically applied to narrative.
  • “Distance” is a measure of change in a particular direction. Not just random activity or events, but action along a particular vector, usually defined by characters’ desires and plans.
  • “Time” relates to narratives in two ways: the passage of time experienced by the characters and, probably more important, that experienced by readers.
  • “Mass” is a good equivalent for the significance of events, determined mostly by the stakes for the main characters.
Thus, narrative momentum is the product of significant stakes and change in a particular direction, both as sensed by readers. When readers see more change happening along the main narrative vector, they sense more momentum. When readers can read those scenes faster, they sense more momentum. And when the stakes are higher, they sense more momentum.


Gail Gauthier said...

My limited knowledge of physics comes from having married into an engineering family. I knew two generations of them, and after a couple of decades with these people, I began to see engineering connections all around me.

J. L. Bell said...

Those folks might actually be right about how the world works. Scary, isn't it?