Literary Mechanics: A Look at Plot Acceleration

Literary Mechanics: A look at plot acceleration

Kenneth Burchfiel

Physics and creative writing may appear to lie in hopelessly different realms. From a literal standpoint, this is true; I don’t suggest that a story about a man who can fly will make me sprout wings out of my shoulder. Nevertheless, the fundamental theories of physics can be applied quite fittingly to those of prose and poetry. Take, for example, the idea of acceleration–and how our knowledge of the scientific world can enhance how we go about shaping plots.

What is acceleration, in writers’ terms? It is the point where the plot shifts into fifth gear, the moment in the story where the reader forgets about the restaurant check and can’t take his eyes off the page. We all desire to write a plot with as much gripping power as a black hole, but how? What makes the difference between a stagnant, convoluted story and one that speeds up the reader’s pulse?

The classical physics world had a very definite understanding of acceleration once Newton threw in his two cents. First, for an object to positively accelerate (speed up, not slow down), the force applied had to be in the same direction as the object was already traveling. Secondly, an accelerating object would cover more ground in less time. Thirdly, an object would be going down the exact same path at the exact same speed unless a force was presently acting on it. We’ll be looking at each of those three fundamentals from a writer’s perspective.

Imagine a story with the following plot: a man loses his job after a tough economic period. He starts bleeding money, loses his house, goes homeless–then, all of a sudden, regains his house, wins the lottery and earns back his job.

There’s no doubt that the story was traveling in a definite direction. Event by event, page by page, this man was going closer into economic downfall. Every event accelerated him closer to this fate. Then, all of a sudden, opposite forces began to act on him. (This is where you either begin to groan or read more intently. I plead you to go with the latter if this is going to make any sense to you.) Before plunging into complete financial ruin, however, the man receives a shove in the opposite direction great enough to cancel out the forces steering him towards his demise.

This is what it means for a story to accelerate. These are the steps of catalysis and inhibition that all writers must learn to dance.

More than one writer uses a mix of acceleration and deceleration to create a suspenseful story with legs. The protagonist is on the edge of disaster, with the plot racing towards impending doom, when–just as the last nail sinks into the coffin–some unforeseen event turns the tide. (Had it not been for this technique, James Bond would have been dead long ago.)

Of course, there’s a danger to taking this mechanic to the extreme; moving a plot from zero to sixty in half a page gives the reader a sense of literary whiplash. There have to be enough accelerating events in place to make a story seem natural. The same rule applies for resolutions. It simply doesn’t work for a character to win the lottery and marry her boyfriend the day after her prison sentence ends; such a fast change blows the transmission. (If you’d like to see the physical equivalent of this, try putting your car in reverse when you’re on the highway.) Too many writers forget to apply the brakes before moving their stories in the opposite direction.

On to the second part of acceleration. Galileo, perhaps better known for that telescope fad that he started in Venice, also discovered that accelerating objects cover increasingly greater distances in the same amount of time. It doesn’t take telescopic vision to see the same thing occurring in stories: accelerating plots cover greater spans of the story in the same amount of pages.

The traditional piece of literature begins with an overview of the setting, detailed analysis of the characters and foreshadowing of later conflict. Ten pages into a story like this, and the plot might not even have shifted an inch. Once the tale begins to accelerate, however, less time is spent on every little action and detail. The story begins to skip around, with day-long and week-long gaps in between chapters. Right before the climax, the author may very well be leaping from event to event to get to the story’s core. Quite a chance for a book that started out on tiptoes.

If a ball covers six feet in one second and twenty feet in the next, we can assume it’s accelerating. Likewise, if two consecutive chapters cover ten days and fifteen days, respectively, we can safely assume that the plot is going faster. This makes for a laughably simple means of accelerating the plot: just increase the pace. Have your protagonist cover more ground, talk to more people and take more action than she or he ever did before. It might not intensify the plot directly, but the reader will get the impression that they’re approaching something big.

It’s not difficult to picture plots as these giant, golden machine that suck in events and spurt out storylines. There’s nothing veiled or mysterious about the term; a plot is simply the mechanism that drives a story. If a writer wants their story to get to point Z from point A, they better have a contraption prepared to make the trip.

The beautiful thing (or, perhaps, the ugliest thing) about science is that it can take anything and split it into thousands, if not millions of independent components. Give a scientist your wristwatch, and she’d be glad to dissect it into hundreds of pieces. Give a scientist a plot, and he’d love to open up the book and see how it all comes together.

I don’t claim to be a scientist, though I did take a watch apart when I was about seven. (It remains in pieces today.) What I do claim, though, is that all accelerating plots have their individual parts—meticulous pacing, convergent style and a compressed tone, to name a few. It’s a mere matter of separating one bit from the other, and before you know it, all the things that make up a fast-paced plot are at your fingertips.

Time to get your hands dirty.

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