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!

  1. I like your advice when you say to write different kinds of scenes. That's helpful and when I think about it, namy of my scenes are too similar, in what kind they are, if that makes sense. Also, does anyone have tips on making your character likeable but showing off their (very large!) flaws that impact everyone around them?

  2. @bluekiwii- Thank you so much for your advive about voice! It was very helpful and it gave me ideas… Thanks so much! I will try it asap, when i write later today and I'm more confident about it now… Your advice to not think about me and what i think I'm writing was also… insightful into the way I write.:)LOL hope that wasn't to gushy!
    @Gail- I am also thinking about your new puppy a lot! Keep us updated and best wishes!

  3. I am definitely trying prompt 2. Any excuse to write drama.

    @ Welliwalks – I think the point is to show off their likable aspects as well. For me, frankly, it always turns me on when I see that a character has someone else who loves them. As in, I read the preparation for a battle, and I get a mention of Sir X's little sister waiting back home for him…and suddenly, Sir X can do just about anything, and I'm still interested – even if only to see how a sister can possibly deal with an idiot like him.

  4. Another amazing post.

    I love both prompts.

    I do think that since I am so eager to get to the next big part, I rush through the less important ones and usually emitt them later. I wonder if there is a way for my minor scenes to be just as good as the big ones.

    This was a big help!

  5. Oh this is so helpful! I was feeling like I was dragging my readers through mud every time I did a slow scene and then sticking them on a rollercoaster for the fast ones. Thanks for the help, it's great to know I'm not the only one struggling with it!

  6. This is extremely helpful; thank you! I've been questioning myself over and over on my latest manuscript. I keep worrying that the lulls between all the action points are going to be too many, or not done in the right way. This bit of yours was just the reminder I needed: "If a story is constant crisis, it plateaus and the high points don’t stand out."

    Good luck with your current book! Starting over from scratch is something I've had to do before and it can be so rough.

  7. And now the world is clearer! Thanks Ms. Levine, you have so many wisdom pebbles on your blog, truly.
    I have been working on a story for a long time and I can't just put it right. Now that I read this post, I'm guessing the guilty culprit is the lack of action in it, since I don't know what kind of tension I am able to let go.
    But I have a bigger issue, and I was wondering if you could help me with it: My POV is through first person on the MC, and until now it has been wonderful for the plot. But there is this part where I'm stucked and I can't figure out how to move on to the next setting without making it a boring good-bye.
    Also, there is a part on the future where Luna (secondary character) escapes from her castle, far away from Melisa (MC) for her to talk about it. Yet, the part of Luna is important.
    So, I'm unable to narrate that part because of my POV. I've tried to change it to 3rd, but it just don't seem quite right.
    Any sugggestions?
    Sorry for the big comment.

    Thanks for everything.
    Ms Levine, thank God for your life.


  8. @Tisserande d'encre/Romy

    Sometimes when we get stuck because we don't know what to do next, or are afraid of how awful/boring it's going to be, the best thing to do is just write through it. Let it be boring or poorly written. You can always go back and fix it later.

    As for how the reader knows about Luna's escape when it's all written in Melisa's POV? Someone else can find out about Luna and tell Melisa, or Melisa can find a secret message about it, or she can see Luna running when she looks out the window. Or maybe Melisa just won't know until much, much later when Luna is able to tell her how she escaped. Just try writing and see what happens. You can always go back and insert the information later if it doesn't work itself out.

  9. I just found out about your new puppy! We got one last year a couple of months after our 14 year old dog passed away, and I'll just say that when I ran across our Christmas letter which included our old dog's puppy antics – like she dug a hole into the next yard so she could go over and visit her doggy friend – it gave me hope! 🙂

    This week my youngest found one of your Neverland books in the library (never mind that her sister has it on her shelf at home) and she is keeping me up to date on the crisis with Mother Dove, her egg, the depleted fairy dust, and Peter Pan loosing his first tooth! 🙂 I like how you got that tooth part in there. I've been surprised at how big a deal loosing teeth is for kids. (I had most of mine pulled early and I just don't remember even other kids loosing teeth being such a big event.)

    And I *love* the new covers too!

  10. Wow, I can use the tips in this comment . . . my writing needs it! I'll admit, I was drawn to the second prompt (gotta love the drama!), but it is the first one that I should be working with . . . those are the kind of scenes that need help in my writing. I try not to worry about it too much though while I'm writing. I figure I'll fix any problems later on, in future drafts.

    @Tisserande d'encre – POV is hard! Sometimes I find myself switching back and forth from third person to first person in a first draft. It becomes clear which one fits best. I'd suggest trying to brainstorm possible scenarios through which Melisa could find out about Luna's escape. If it is a fantasy world where magic is common, you could try something like a dream, a prophecy, or a vision. There are often mirrors, spells, pools, and other magical means of communication in stories. And I agree with what April said – dialogue is great too.

    @ Welliewalks – I love flawed characters! They make them real, and more lifelike. In one of my stories, on of the MCs is rather mischievous. He jokes, he teases, and he's altogether annoying. He drives another MC crazy. But I love him anyway, and the people who've read the story or part of the story love him, too. He's fun, and he lightens things up a little. Give your characters traits that a reader will like or relate too. Or think of people you know who annoy you but you still like, and try to mimick some traits from them.

    By the way, I have a quick question. I'm working on editing a story I wrote right now, and I'm adding a lot of characters, events, and storyline twists. One of my characters has very powerful but untrained magical abilities, and in the end the villain offers him to come and join her side as her ally. She has a lot to offer him, including information about his mysterious past. In my original draft, he refuses. He's eventually the one who kills the villain, but would I be utterly crazy to make him temporarily decide to side with her?

  11. @April- I have tried to do what you suggest about just write it through, it helped a little bit but not as much as I wished. It helped clearing some details that I may need to explain in another chapter, as well as defining Luna's character. I think that at the moment of my revising I will change it again, but by that time I would have built the pilars of the brigde…
    And the POV is just a pain. But I will try a dialogue, though. Thanks!

    @Jenna Royal- It is a fantastic world wth magic and charms and creatures.
    I'm starting to think I could combine both your ideas and April's for it: Ant the very moment I could use the magic item to just show a glimpse of the scene, and then, when Melisa and Luna meet, have a dialogue.
    But! . . .
    I commented this problem with a friend and reminded me of other scenes I have where Melisa is not involved, and she urged me to change it to a 3rd POV so I don't have to use the same "approaching technique" over and over. She thinks it would be better for the story to have a 3rd POV, following Melisa most of the time and sometimes, tell the same scene from two characters POV. (Just like in InkHeart 🙂 one of my favorite books!)

    I'm still dealing with this and I'll try all the options.

    P.D. @Jenna Royal- InkHeart is one of my fav books, and despite the fact that Meggie forgets about Farid, in some parts it is implied that she was getting jealous for his attention to Dustfinger, and in Doria she finds a boy who is always there for her. Think so, that's my point of view.
    And speaking of POVs, I have changed a lot, too. So, I know what you mean…

    Thank you!


  12. Overall I found the entry to be very helpful. Everytime I write, I haven't thought about what kind of scene I wanted to make or what effect I wanted to create. But all these ideas–on changing setting of the scenes and alternating which scenes have the MC interacting with other characters are all great ideas.

    So I have a question. I tend not to write a story in order, as in from the beginning to the end. I jump around, writing random scenes just to see how my characters interact with each other. I always have trouble linking them together, how they apply to bigger picture, to the overall story's plot. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    @ jenny royal.
    I don't think it crazy for your main character to be an ally to the villain at first and then be the one to kill her later, *as long as* the main character acts in character and his reasoning for allying her and then killing her are sound ones. Overall the idea sounds like a great story twist. Why do you have any misgivings?

    I'm glad my suggestions helped a bit. For characters with huge flaws, it helps if their flaws are funny or amusing to observe in the story. Like with sailor moon, she is so clumsy and does poorly in school, yet the way these flaws are portrayed make her flaws seem funny, human, and likable (one reason she was so popular…).

  13. @ Jenna Royal – I think that would be an excellent thing for the character. He could side with the villain at first because he wants to use his power, know about his past; and he doesn't know any better, maybe, either. But then later he could choose to kill the villain either for selfish reasons (the deal didn't turn out as good as he thought), or for unselfish reasons (he's realized how villainous she is).

    PS: this is Rose from earlier, just I got a blog and things switched a little.

  14. How confused do you think readers are willing to be in the very beginning of a story? Most of the time the reason I quit on a book it is because I can only handle so much confusion on the first page. I like to be ambiguous in my stories to keep readers interested but I am afraid to do that at the beginning. Any thoughts?

    -Jill but on grandpa's computer 🙂

  15. @Tisserande d'encre- I suggest to just skip the part you're having trouble with and write what happens afterward. You can come back to it later and you may have a clearer idea of how to write it.
    @Jenna Royal- NO, you would not be crazy to do that. I actually think it'd be the smart thing to do (depending on the piece though I can guess which one it is 🙂 ). I think you should think about the characters- does she have something that he wants? In other words, is there something to tempt him enough? If he's human, remember that. Humans have flaws and one flaw that all humans have is that they can be selfish.
    @Bluekiwii- Try saving all the scenes in a document and titling them like 'Minnie and Katie have a fight' for ex. The scenes don't have to all go into your story- they can be just for getting to know them. If you want a scene in which Minnie and Katie fight, go look for one titled like that and decide if it's right.
    Thank you for all your help! It's really helpful!

  16. @Bluekiwi, Rina and Welliewalks – Thank you for your advice. I think it might work, an it adds a nice twist to the plot. My stories have a lot of them. :)There is definitely reason for the character to want to side with the villain. She holds the keys to his past and she can offer him all the things he wants. My biggest concern is the over-complication of the readers emotions. I want my endings to have a sense of closure, and I want a reader to be mostly satisfied with it. And the ending I have in mind is very complicated and not exactly satisfying. To attempt to put it simply, there are three MCs who are all together in a confrontation of the villain. As I said before, the one MC sides with the villain temporarily before killing her. But before he changes his mind, the villain kills his friend, another MC. Now, the third MC is in love with the MC who dies, and it's not in her nature to forgive easily. And I want a bittersweet sort of ending where the remaining characters have bonded. I liked making the one character's indecision because the story is partly about making decisions. So I'm having a tough time deciding. Any suggestions?

    @Tisserande d'encre/Romy – I was twelve when I read the books, and I was very caught up in the romance. I thought Farid was nice to Meggie in the secondbook, so I was disappointed when she left for Doria in the third book, even though he was a better person. If I were to read the book again (which I intend to do) my opinions would probably be different.

  17. @Jenna Royal- I think you should have some others read it and ask them if they get muddled (I didn't). Honestly, if you make sure the story is clear, go for it and don't worry too much about it. I also think you should have the MC side with her for a bit- if his reasons work and is she offers him something he really (really) wants. It has to make sense. (and then again, that's what i'd do but obviously, I'm not the one writing the story and I don't know what's going on right now!)

  18. I really must weigh in on the Doria/Farid question. It hangs on with much persistence! 😉

    My opinion is – Farid was so wrapped up with Dustfinger that he never really seemed to be able to attach to anyone else. He was very emotionally dependent on other people. If Meggie had stayed with him, he would have started being emotionally dependent on _her_ – and she's enough of a strong person that that would have annoyed her eventually.

    My two cents. If Farid reads this blog and gets annoyed, well, he can make his own comment, but that's what I think of him. 🙂

  19. @april
    Thanks for your the link to the blog entry. But…I think I phrased the question wrong. I don't have problem with linking a few scenes together, but instead, have a problem with how the scenes fit in the grand scheme of things–in the overall storyline. I would have no problem linking two scenes together, but linking 4 or more scenes together that are very different from each other to form a cohesive story–an overall theme–is far more difficult. Still the entry gave me some food for thought. Should writers have a clear picture of what the story will be about or should you flesh out each scene, edit them to form a cohesive whole, and think of possibilities as it goes along? Personally, I want to have a good picture of what type of story I want to create, instead of spontaneously making random scenes with the same characters.
    Titling the scenes like that is an interesting idea. Yet it makes me nervous that in the end I wrote so much, just for it to have no meaning in the story itself. While I'm all for knowing the characters, I do want to get to the heart of the story…somehow.

  20. @Phillip/Jill
    This is a hard question to answer mainly because there is no magic number. Having only one ambiguous thing at a time keeps the reader's attention and heighten tension. If there's more than one, it would help if the reader can surmise a reason for so many ambiguous things (that there is some kind of link between all the ambiguous events or that it foreshadows a certain type of conflict)…I dunno, its a tough question. It will be interesting to see Mrs. Levine handle this one.

    @jenny royal
    Personally, I have found that bittersweet endings are the best ones because it causes more emotional impact and gives a sense of realism to the story. With Titanic what I found sad was re-seeing the people who died in the Titanic, but this time in Rose's dream. It was shocking to realize–that most or all of the people in the dream died that day–that little girl died, the captain died, even Leonardo's friend died. Also, by having Rose marry further in the future and continue to live her life happily despite her loss, gave the movie a sense of realism. I dont think I would have liked Titanic if they made a satisfying, happy ending. Overall that ending is great just the way it is.

    However, the thing that Titanic such a satisfying movie is that I knew from the very beginning that the story wont have a happy ending. The fact that your story has many twists and keeps the reader guessing, would clue the reader in that the ending would be far from the conventional happy one and thus will feel a sense of satisfaction with the story because they at least got that part right. However, it will also help if you foreshadow the ending lots of times in the story (things that at first doesn't make sense, but looking back it does).

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