Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 23, 2016

How to Build Dramatic Momentum in Fiction

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Hello writers!  If you have read my guest posts on WITS before, you know I love talking about Crossing Emotional Barriers and Crossing Physical Barriers in Fiction.  Today I will be diving into another very important element of story craft that you should be paying close attention to.

Dramatic momentum.

Dramatic momentum from the first chapter to the last.

The momentum of scenes leading up to a romantic climax, seems like a no-brainer. A who-done-it mystery of scenes domino-falling until the big finish, seems like common sense. So what kind of dramatic momentum am I talking about?

The kind of dramatic momentum that is usually overlooked.

From the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next. No, I am not talking about the one-line gimmick to shock you into turning the page. I want writers to push themselves beyond the mere end-of-chapter gimmick. I am talking about writing with purpose throughout the entire chapter to make it easy for a reader’s mind to imagine turning the page before they actually do it because they have to know what happens next.

How do you build this dramatic momentum?

Build an End of Chapter Button.

A what?

TLI end chapter buttonA button. The phrase “button a scene” comes from Theatre. You, know that old school way of showing live action fiction? Its original use was not: “A TV writing term referring to a witty line that "tops off" a scene.” As it is so simply stated in a few screenwriting texts and glossary indexes.

Button is a term some folks misunderstand to mean close the scene with a button, as in shut it down or make a complete ending.


A Chapter Button is more of a tool to leave the audience (reader) in a state of want, and also at the same time a feeling of satisfaction. 

What elements of story craft makes up a Chapter Button?

Action. Thought. Active emotion. One, two, or usually a mix of all three.  It is almost like stringing out a trip wire towards the end of a chapter or scene for the readers to read and then be forced forward from the explosion (big or small) from whatever nugget of greatness you left for them at the end. I have heard it described as "progressing but not closing anything off.” Or, an ignition switch that finishes one thing and starts another.  Modern comedians actually use them to finish one joke and take the momentum from that one joke to move into another more in depth storyline.

Something that would leave the reader with something new to think about (as well as the characters.)

My twist on the button is that you writers cannot simply think about this button as being one tiny round thing you push at the end of a chapter. There are many pieces of writing craft that you must use to build the Chapter Button.

Let us step a little further out of the box for a second and hmmmm…oh, heck, why not?! Let’s talk about fiction by using a scientific analogy. My thought process is all thanks to the many reruns of The Big Bang Theory on during dinner time.TLI Fiction Axon

To help us realize what elements make up and work to create a Chapter or Scene Button, think of the components of a chapter like the components of a nerve axon.

An axon, or nerve fiber, is a long slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron, that conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron's cell body or soma. An Axon is made up of several parts.

**I have attempted to draw few diagrams for better understanding…or for your entertainment. **

TLI Chapter breakFiction Translation: The story makes up the electrical impulses moving from one chapter (cell) to the next.

The cell body encapsulates the nucleus. For those a few years out of school, here is a definition of the nucleus according to Google: the central and most important part of an object, movement, or group, forming the basis for its activity and growth. And the nucleus is a structure that contains the cell's hereditary information and controls the cell's growth and reproduction.

Fiction translation: This nucleus is everything your reader knows about your story and characters spanning from the first time they heard about your book to reading the blurb to then reading the first chapter to whichever chapter they are on now. This is your story’s DNA and memory and future.

Dendrites are the branch-like structures of neurons that extend from the cell body (Soma). The dendrites receive neural impulses (electrical and chemical signals) from the axons of other neurons. The signal always travels in the same direction.

Fiction translation: These are your receivers. They make up the first line, paragraph, page of your next chapter. Yes, I am talking chapter and scene transitions. Writers have to take the energy and information from the last chapter, absorb into the nucleus of the new cell (chapter) and reconfigure into fresh story (electric impulses) and ZAP! Start a new Chapter built with even more energy than the last.

Axons make contact with other cells—usually other neurons but sometimes muscle or gland cells—at junctions called synapses. At a synapse, the membrane of the axon closely adjoins the membrane of the target cell, and special molecular structures serve to transmit electrical or electrochemical signals across the gap. These are called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are any one of a number of chemicals that are used to transmit nerve signals across a synapse.

Fiction translation: The synaptic gap or synaptic junction is not only the white page or half page between chapters. That gap is mental just as much as it is physical. Within that gap are HUGE amounts of thoughts (neurotransmitters) going through a readers mind. Thoughts that have been created by YOUR story.

But what if our axons (chapters) had synaptic vesicles with dead neurotransmitters inside?  The synapse would fail, right? If your story is stale and isn’t creating a charge within you reader’s head or heart, then they won’t get very far in your book.

TLI layers to dramatic momentumThe Myelin Sheath comes in to play here. The Myelin Sheath is part of the Axon and is described as being a protective layered coating surrounding your neurons made up of fat and proteins.  Neurons are the roads in, around and out of your brain that information travels along in your body.  Myelin sheath is the tunnel around those roads that protects and helps transmit the information.

Fiction translation: I like to think of the Myelin Sheath’s fat and proteins as helping to feed the story and make it stronger/faster. The Myelin Sheath is the KEY TO DRAMATIC MOMENTUM. The different layers are the yummy bits of :

  • Subtext shown through thought and action.
  • Character deepening details shown through thought and action.
  • Non-cliché, intricate character relationships shown through thought and action.
  • Real and active emotion shown through visceral and physical and mental action.
  • Reader questions built by how and what and when you show story details through thought and action.

These layers will better secure your Chapter Button. These threads make the Chapter Button stronger. Without it, all you have is flat and slow information moving at glacial speed towards the end of a chapter and when your reader gets there, they just might put your book down and go do something more interesting with their time. EEK!

Note that without the Myelin Sheath being present, being healthy, or having all of the layers involved, the nervous system fails to function properly. This is what causes muscles not to listen to the brain, sharp and jittery movements, no control over movements, and then the nerves (your story) dies.

As you are writing, think about all of these electrical elements as they make smooth and energetic transition after transition after transition, moving your reader deeper and deeper into your character’s world. You are building a story as a whole to get fat and wide and deep with many layers, but it also needs to take us on a journey and each and every section should shoot the reader forward like we are taking rides through a complex nervous system.

Wooownelly, did I take the analogy too far? Maybe. But did it make you think? I hope so.

Did seeing how all of these components work together to create dramatic momentum make you realize you cannot skimp on story craft? I hope so!

Want to see a fantastic example of an author wielding strong dramatic momentum from cell to cell and chapter to chapter with pristine use of the FICTION AXON –click a sample of Sophie Jordan’s Uninvited into your Kindle. A story described on Goodreads.com as: The Scarlet Letter meets Minority Report in bestselling author Sophie Jordan's chilling new novel about a teenage girl who is ostracized when her genetic test proves she's destined to become a murderer. I wish I could have opened up the entire chapter for this blog and shown every story nerve element Sophie Jordan utilizes, but ten-plus pages of dramatic dissection is probably best saved for in-class lectures.

Thank you so much for going on this Big Bang Theory style journey. Next month I will leave the analogies in my head and get back to Crossing Emotional Barriers with digging into big ways to show little emotion and little ways to show big emotion.

Drop me line in the comments - What authors pop into your head when you think of stellar chapter transitions and strong Chapter Buttons?   Have any books you have read, broken the barrier on how fast you have read them?  Did you look back and wonder how they did it? I’d love to hear about them!

I will put EVERY COMMENTER’S name into random.org to spit out a winner to win one of my online courses I teach at Lawson Writers Academy. Writing Action and Emotion and Scene Writing, oh my!


About Tiffany


Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit. As a freelance editor, she provides deep story critique, content editing, and line editing.

Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs, classes, contests, and lecture packets.She teaches Action and Fighting, Madness to Method: high intensity emotion, Triple Threat Scene Writing, Writing Humor For Every Genre, and Short Story Workshops for Lawson Writer’s Academy online. She presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars this year.


30 comments on “How to Build Dramatic Momentum in Fiction”

  1. Wow, Tiffany, I guess I have to start watching Big Bang Theory. As a biology nerd, this really resonated with me. Off to put it to work!

    1. Laura. I was hesitant to submit this blog because it was a little OUT THERE, but it is such a fun way to think about it. Big Bang Theory shows Sheldon Cooper moving through life and filtering all of his thoughts through his science nerd brain. So one night my brain moved in that direction too. This is the "fruit" of those thoughts. LOL!

    1. Lisa, I opened a few websites on cells and electric impulses to revisit the axon diagram and I was immediately transported back to college. I was and am always so fascinated with the intricacies and all of the functions of things we can't see with our naked eye. I love biology class! But since everything in life is connected, I decided we could take it a little further into our land of fiction. Glad you stopped over to read today. 🙂

  2. Wow I loved the scientific analogy. The pictures were great, too! You always have awesome posts.

  3. Love your creative take on teaching a tough concept. One of those writers' skills that's hard to translate onto the page. And easy to make sound false.

    1. Amber,

      Thank you. The trick is to train the brain to remember that every part of fiction is connected and working towards the same goal. I think some writers compartmentalize so much for each part of writing craft that when it is all put together the writing and the story feels choppy and a little like Frankenstein's monster. It is a tough concept!

  4. The physiology of fiction -- I love it! 🙂 And thank you for NOT promoting the 'last line cliff-hanger' approach, which (for me at least) wears thin in a hurry.

    1. Thank you, Rebecca. And YES the end line helps...but it is just so so so so much more than that. You have to believe that the rest of your writing is working towards the ends of chapters too, not just that one line. 🙂

  5. Oh my goodness, I wish I could draw like this! I think you should do a workshop on this and call it something like "The Big Bang Theory of Writing." (See? Those little fun marketing-like things are where my brain gets all juicy.)

    I love this post and I'm going to read it through a few times...gotta see if I can develop some BUTTONS. Booyah!

  6. Clever analogy! I found this post fascinating, Tiffany. Well done! I'd never heard of the chapter button before so thanks for that, too! 🙂

  7. Wow, I am late reading this, but it was so very much fun to read. Indeed I loved cellular analogy. Wonderful. I am a musician as well as a writer and also at times, an actress and script writer, and you engaged each of my so various and scattered pieces with this. I am also a Big Bang Theory fan.

  8. Great and timely post. I feel like my WIP needs a little more bang. No. It needs a Big Bang. And Amy would totally love your brain science analogy. She did write that time travel romance.

  9. I hope I'm not too late...I just got this. Action & Emotion & scenes, my favorite things!

  10. I have Uninvited by Sophie Jordan on my bookshelf. I think I know what I'm reading next! This made complete sense to me and helps me tell my husband once again, "Yes, I really AM using the knowledge from my psychology degree in my current writing endeavors." Great stuff, Tiffany!

  11. Thanks for this. Very interesting. Um, just wondering, do you think you'll have a chance to do the edit on the 'fight scenes' from your last post? It's just it would be really useful to me if you did. But I know you're busy, so I understand if you don't get a chance.

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