I’m posting early because I’m traveling tomorrow.
Oops! Erin Edwards, you commented on Jenna Royal’s question from last week when she asked it in February, and I intended to include your comment along with my own response, but I didn’t look far enough down my list to see it. I agreed entirely, so here it is: @ Jenna Royal – while you’re waiting for Ms. Levine’s post on pacing, you might find it interesting to try to read Inkheart again and figure out *why* the romance change didn’t work for you. What little insights could have made it easier for you to believe? Like did you need a little hint that she was starting to get dissatisfied before she dumped the first boyfriend and how many times does that need to be mentioned and how early?
And I had promised a post on pacing and didn’t get to it. I am getting to it now in response to this from Caitlin Flowers on March 4, 2011: I have trouble pacing my stories. I’d enjoy writing action or an important moment for the characters more than writing the necessary slower scenes to give the reader a chance to keep up. Do you have any suggestions?
Seems to me there’s more than one question here, if I’m understanding right. There’s balancing high-action scenes and low-action scenes, and there’s fitting information in that the reader needs to know. I’ve written some about the latter in my post on flashbacks on May 5, 2010, so you may want to take a look.
But here’s some more. I’ve said this before too. We don’t want Millie to say to her brother Noah, “Remember the day Mom and Dad split up and we had to come here to live?” She wouldn’t say this unless Noah has amnesia and she’s checking to see if his memory has come back. Of course he remembers, but the reader doesn’t know. The dialogue is artificial; it’s manufactured solely to clue the reader in.
However, there’s nothing wrong with conveying information in direct narration. Say Noah is making dinner for his younger sister, which he’s had to do since the separation, whether they’re staying with their mom or their dad. He can think something like, I was trying my hand at frittatas. I never even made toast when Mom and Dad were together. I felt lousy when they split up, but cooking was cool. The narration can stop there or continue on to, I wished we still had the island from our old kitchen. Mom’s whole apartment wasn’t much bigger than that island. Dad’s wasn’t a lot larger, and his kitchen was just a wall at one end of the living room. The reader gains an impression of the setting and learns that both parents have less money now.
You don’t need a whole scene to convey information; you can just tuck it in here and there in narration in whatever POV you’re using.
Onto pacing. I’ve been having a pacing problem in my new mystery. Without giving much away, night is coming. Elodie can spend it in a cottage with her parents or in the stable with her employer, the dragon Meenore, and there has to be some discussion about which it will be. I had a stomachache over how boring the conversation was going to be, a malady I’ve been experiencing often in writing this book. It got so bad that I sent my manuscript so far to my editor for her feedback.
I’ve never ever before sent in a partial manuscript. Ordinarily I like my editor to come fresh to the entire thing. This was an act of desperation. You may have read on the blog that I’ve started this book over four times, and each time an alarm has gone off in my mind that it wasn’t right. My editor wrote back that she thinks the trouble sinking the book is that the danger hanging over the story is too abstract and not nearly immediate enough to engage the reader. Wonderful editor that she is, she suggested a solution that may do the trick.
Naturally, I’m going to have to go back to the beginning again.
Of course I’m lucky. Because I’m published and my editor has edited several of my books, I can avail myself of her help. If you’re just getting started, you’ll have to rely for manuscript first aid on critique buddies, teachers, librarians, and the good readers in your lives.
Caitlin Flowers and others with pacing issues, you may have the same problem I do. The action and the big character scenes bring the story temporarily to life, but the in-between segments fall flat because there isn’t enough overall for the reader to worry about.
I got it right in Ella Enchanted. As long as Ella is under the curse of obedience, the reader is going to stay engaged. I can get away with a relaxed scene here and there, like the scene with the elves. Nothing earthshattering happens, but the reader meets these charming creatures and gets a break from the tension. Such relief heightens the scenes that are full of action or feeling. If a story is constant crisis, it plateaus and the high points don’t stand out. It’s like listening to loud music; there can never be a crescendo. You may know someone who gets upset over the smallest thing. When genuine trouble comes along, he lacks emotional range.
A variety of kinds of scenes livens up a story. Unless the tale demands it, move your characters to different locations. If Noah and Millie, for example, have been in the kitchen for a few pages, move them into the backyard or, better yet, to school. After they’ve been alone together for a while, separate them or bring in another character. End a scene and start the next one in a different place or at a later time. If you’re writing from an omniscient third person POV, switch over to entirely different characters for the next scene.
If you can, also alternate the kinds of scene. In Ella Enchanted again, there are romantic scenes with Char and conflict-filled scenes with Hattie and Olive and scary scenes with ogres and I-don’t-know-what-kind of scenes with Mandy.
Most important of all, the reader has to care about the main character. By now I know a lot of writing tricks (which I’m sharing as they come up), but nothing works if the reader doesn’t care. Take Noah. He may be misguided and may be handling his parents’ separation badly. We may groan at his idiotic attempts to repair his family and himself. We’ll even endure when he hurts his sister Millie as long as he isn’t callous, as long as we can connect with his humanity and see our own flawed selves in him. We’ll put up with a slow scene or two (since no book is perfect), if Noah has a firm grip on our feelings and our imaginations.
Here are two prompts:
• Noah is in the kitchen with his sister, Millie, while their mother is on her first date since the breakup. Sister and brother are reacting according to their separate natures. Mix dialogue with action in writing the scene. Be sensitive to your own intuition about when the situation is starting to drag. Change something to wake the story up again – the location, the characters. The phone can ring or one of them can get a text message. Some cooking catastrophe can occur. Whatever. If you like, keep writing.
• This is a battle scene. A troop of elves is holding their mountain keep against an attack of trolls. In the midst of action-action-action, work in a soft, feeling moment between two characters. Then return to the action.
Have fun and save what you write!