Writer walks, reader gallops

Last week I received an email through my website about an essay contest from as organization called AddictionResource.com. There seems to be no fee to enter, and the first prize is $2,000 toward college tuition. The email asked me to spread the word. I googled the organization and the scholarship, which is listed on a couple of college financial aid websites, so it’s legit as far as I can tell, but you should check it out, too, if you’re interested. Here’s the link: https://addictionresource.com/scholarship/.

On October 5, 2016, Martina wrote, My current WiP is supposed to be a novella, but I find the plot hurrying on too quickly. Any ideas on how to make the story progress more slowly?

Also, what do you think a stereotypical “author” looks like? I’d like to dress up as one for my high school’s Halloween party, but I don’t think many people would recognize what I was in costume as (or not in costume… I don’t know). Any and all ideas are welcome!

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think pacing is very individualized, and something you have to develop a sense of. Personally I use chapters to control my pacing. I read somewhere that a chapter is like a miniature story, with a build-up to a climax, while ending on some kind of hook. I try to vary the climaxes so that some of them are plot based (Keita and her friends escaped the noblewoman’s house) and some are character based (Carli decided to help the abandoned kids). The best ones are both (Keita defeated the feral dog and then realized she’d been wrong to be angry at her friends). I also try to mix up whether they are cliffhangers (the boulder slammed shut over the tunnel, locking Keita’s friends inside), or ending on a poignant image (the lizard that had been petrified because the enemy thought it might be the main character sank into the sand). The rest of the chapter leads up to the climax in some way or another.

Interesting! I’d never thought of chapters as controlling pace.

Oddly, if done right, slowing a story makes it more tense.

Imagine cell phones haven’t been invented yet. We’re on a train (as I happen to be right now). Someone is waiting for us at our destination with news, which will be wonderful or awful. Our futures hang in the balance. The train stops between stations. Minutes pass. Do we relax or grow more tense?

We grow more tense–even if a second before the train stops we were wishing the trip would go on forever, with knowledge endlessly delayed.

Detail slows things down. For example, suppose we’re writing the train trip rather than living it. We know nothing important plot-wise is going to happen until Shirley, our MC, arrives at her station, but we want to make the journey work for us. Lanie, our MC’s sister, takes Shirley to the station and presses something into her hands. Shirley finds her seat. She’s early, so the next seat is unoccupied. If it stays unoccupied, she thinks, that will be more comfortable but will be a bad omen. Let someone come. If it’s an old man, that will also be bad. She looks out the window to see her sister’s comforting form, but Lanie has gone. Why didn’t she know to wait? Or had she known but something befell her? Shirley looks down at whatever Lanie gave her, a palm-size something wrapped in newspaper and tied with cord.

And so on. We can’t go on forever, making the written train trip take longer than an actual ride on the Orient Express, but we can spin it out and heighten the tension thereby.

In this example, I’ve slowed the story mostly with Shirley’s thoughts. So thoughts are one tool.

Setting is another, especially if we make it serve our story. The train groans and wheezes as it leaves the station. Shirley (thoughts again) wonders if it’s going to break down. She goes to the dining car, which smells exactly as her mother’s pot roast used to. And so on. The windows may be grimy, so she won’t be able to recognize landmarks. The seats are soft, slumber-inducing–but she doesn’t want to sleep!

Dialogue can slow our story down, too. A nosy man sits next to Shirley. They talk. She tells him her story, or she lies. If he doesn’t know it already, the reader gets the backstory of the train trip. Or the reader gets the lie, and, depending what we do, knows or doesn’t know it’s a lie.

It may be helpful to ask a friend or a fellow writer to read our story and point out any places that seem rushed and any spots that he or she didn’t understand. Sometimes the moments that are unclear are the ones that need expanding.

And sometimes, occasionally, once in a while, a story is straightforward. We think we’re writing a novella, but it’s really a short story. We’ve done everything right. There just aren’t many twists and turns. Nothing wrong with that.

As for an author costume, though it’s way past Halloween, I think it’s all in behavior not in what you wear. Hang a sign around your neck. It can say “Author” and then you sit alone and stare out a window, occasionally talking softly to yourself. Or it can says “Brilliant Author,” in which case you move from group to group and hold forth about character development and plot devices and the good sentence. Martina, if you’re reading this, please say what you did wear.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Theseus’s father waits on the shore for his son’s ship to return. If Theseus is alive, the sail will be white; if he’s dead, it will be black. Using plenty of detail, write the scene of the father’s sojourn. Make his wait exciting. Write at least three pages. Include thoughts, dialogue, and setting.

∙ This probably has nothing to do with slowing things down, but can you believe Theseus? He forgets to change the sail and lets his father think him dead–which has tragic consequences in the myth. Write a story that explains Theseus’s forgetfulness, if that’s what it really is.

∙ Fairy tales in their original form are pure telling. In lots of them, a loving mother dies. Alas, she doesn’t get much of a sendoff, maybe five words: The queen sickened and died. In old western movies and TV shows, sometimes a character would be shot, then stagger several steps, collapse, rise up on one elbow, gasp out a few words, and finally die. Write the queen’s death scene. Spin it out. Have her revive a few times. Show what her death means to the people around her.

∙ Make up Shirley’s reason for riding the train. Write the trip and make the news at the end be a surprise.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. The bed was empty. Rose looked at the rumpled sheets, then peered back into the hall. “Where’s mother?”

    “In bed.”

    “No, she isn’t.”

    For a second she heard nothing. Then came the creak of a chair as her father leapt to his feet. He ran down the hallway, crying Mother’s name.

    Rose took a step nearer the bed. Only then did she notice the faintest sound, a groaning, rasping, whispering sound. With her insides frozen she walked across the room. The bed was pushed flat against the wall, but it left a bit of a gap. The sound she thought she had heard came from there. Rose knelt on the bed and began digging past blankets and pillows.

    And there she was. Gray skin that had once been pink with life. She did not respond to Rose’s cry. Did not move when Rose heaved her back onto the mattress. Dangled. Floppy. People weren’t supposed to move that way. Rose loosened her collar, rubbed at her chest, anything she could think of, but the skin that had seemed warm at first was quickly turning cold.

    Hours would pass. Physicians would visit. She had known all along. It was too long. She was too still. Yet she waited, long enough to decide how she might have been at fault, and then the final word came. “I’m sorry. Your mother is dead.”

  2. Shirley sat on the train, heart pounding. She thought about the object in her hand. It was light weight, and round, fitting well in her palm well. She wondered if she should open it. She turned away, looking out the window. It was too much work. too tiring. She didn’t want to do anything. Ever. She only wanted the train to start moving. Only wanted to get it all over with.
    Why couldn’t she have been eighteen when Mother died, not sixteen? Lanie was eighteen, and free to go. She didn’t need to go back to Dad. Didn’t need to see him again after he left his family, his dying wife, and two daughters. He said he needed to get away from memories. Needed to get away from the place where he had learned his only son had died. What about her? What about Lanie and Mother? Why was Theseus so special?
    “I always wanted a son.” He used to say. Every time Theseus did anything good, he was always the precious one. Never her or Lanie.
    Then he went and joined the Navy. Just like Dad wanted him to.
    Theseus was always perfect.
    Shirley looked back at the object in her hand, through angry tiers, finally deciding to open it. Carefully she untied the string, and pulled of the newspaper. She caught her breath seeing what was in her hand.
    The train started to roll down the tracks.
    She hadn’t noticed they weren’t moving already, through her angered tiers and the grimy windows.
    In her hand, lay her Mother’s lucky charm. She’d always called it that. Shirley couldn’t remember it being off her mother’s neck. It was a choker, of woven hemp. The charm is a silver bird, and tied to the bird’s left wing is a small four leaf clover.
    “I found the clover the same day I met your father.” She would say, “It was a chilly Halloween night, we were at a party. I was a sister’s friend’s sister who had tagged along. He was a best friend, who was always getting into trouble.” At this point in the story she would smile sadly, eyes drifting to some object in the room as if she was still there, that night.
    The pain hit Shirley. Hard. Harder then it had since she had died. The memories of that night came back, all at once.
    She had lain on her bed, eyes distant, the way they had been when she told her stories. Lanie and Shirley sat on each side of the bed. Both held one of their mother’s hands. Lanie had just finished telling a story, one of the old fairy tales that they all loved so much, about the ugly prince and the beautiful maid.
    “I’m not going anywhere.” Their mother rasped, through cracked lips.
    Shirley tightened her grip on her Mother’s hand.
    “We know Mother.” Lanie said in a tight voice.
    Mother smiled, faintly. “Good. Now let me sleep.”
    Lanie stood, kissing Mother’s cheek gently she walked to the door and waited for Shirley.
    Shirley stood also, and hugged Mother tight. “I love you Mama.” She whispered into her ear.
    “I love you girls too.” Mother said nodding weakly.
    Shirley and Lanie left, closing the door behind them softly.
    Tiers rolled down Shirley’s cheeks and she tired to see out the grimy window. The next morning had been agonizing. People had come in and out all day. Speaking softly to the two girls. Arrangements had been made so that Shirley could get shipped off to her Father’s home, which she had never seen. Lanie would sell the house, and much of the old furniture, she would hold her share of the money and their father would hold Shirley’s until she came of age, as Mother had made out her will.
    Shirley couldn’t think about any of it. It was too painful. Every memory ripped at her heart, tearing a piece of it out and taking it away.
    Lanie had told her it would happen soon. But it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. None of it. Theseus was supposed to come home, Dad would still be living with them…and Mother would be alive.
    Shirley laid her head back, letting her mind wonder in her daydream. Theseus wasn’t always all bad. He might be nice once in a while. Dad would still take her up to bed when he was in a good mood, and make sure there were no monsters in the closet. And Mother would still tell her stories.
    The train lurched to a halt, Shirley’s heart stopped. Where they there already? She didn’t want the train to stop. Didn’t want her dream to end, forever. Didn’t want to see her father again.
    But there wasn’t anything she could do.
    A faint smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. No. There was one thing. Nothing big, but something. She looked at the choker still in her hand, and pulled it around her neck and fastened it. It fit snugly against her skin. She stood as the conductor called for the passengers to gather their belongings. She pulled her suitcase off the rack above her head, and holding her head high, walked to meet her Father at the station.
    Two years. Then she’d be free.

  3. Theseus prowled his ship’s cabin like an angry tiger as he turned the morning’s events over and over again in his mind.
    “I was victorious,” he thought, “I had slain the minotar that had killed so many innocent people. And I had a woman to love. Oh, Ariadne! I can still feel your soft brown hair. Your deep-set eyes remain ever with me. Your determination, courage, and intelligence saved me, as well as the seven maidens and the sixth youths that came with me to be sacrificed to the minotar. You loved me as I loved you, and we were to be married in splendor and joy when we came to Athens.
    “And then…Dionysus came to me in my sleep. ‘I have been quite taken with Ariadne’s beauty and strength of character,’ he said, ‘Therefore, at the next island you reach on your journey home, you must leave Ariadne behind so I may take her to Olympus as my wife.’
    “I pleaded with him, Ariadne. I offered him treasure, worship, sacrifices of wine and the finest bulls. But he said nothing would make him happy except your hand and heart. I, who had killed the minotar with my bare hands, was powerless to deny the god’s wishes. I had to leave you….”
    Theseus could think no more about Ariadne. Instead, he battled the rage in his heart. He would give all the treasure in Athens, all his glory, to be able to call down curses upon Dionysus’s head. But he could not. For the rest of his life, he would be forced to lock all his anger deep inside, forced to offer sacrifices to the very god who had taken what was rightfully his.
    There was a timid knock on Theseus’s door. “Enter,” he growled. No one could make him feel any worse than he already was. A young man named Chero stepped inside the cabin, looking warily at Theseus…and at the splinters of wood that littered the room. All day, Chero and the other Athenians had heard the bangs and crashes from the hero’s room as he took out his anger on all the cabin furniture. No one wished to disturb him. “Your Highness…We have arrived at Athens. Your father King Aegeus will surely be waiting for you,” said Chero.
    At the mention of his father, the heart of Theseus, once blazing, was quenched by alarm. The black sails of mourning! He pushed past Chero and rushed out onto the deck. The black sails were billowing out in the wind. In his fury and heartbreak at losing Ariadne, he had completely forgotten to hoist the white sail of victory. “Quickly!” he yelled at Chero, “hoist the white sails, lest my father be even more heartbroken than I am now!”
    But as Theseus and the other sailors got ready to lift the sails, one of the Athenian maidens on board screamed. Theseus turned his head to see a man’s body, plunging down from the cliffs and into the sea.
    “Father?….No…FATHER!!!” It was too late. Before Theseus’s very eyes, his father drowned.
    Theseus made a great leap and would’ve made it into the water. Chero and all the Athenian youths caught hold of him, trying to keep him on the ship.
    Theseus struggled as mightily as he did with the Minotar. “LET ME GO!! I MUST JOIN HIM! I DON’T WANT TO LIVE ANYMORE!! IT’S….MY….FAULT…HE’S…..”
    “Listen to me!!” cried Chero. “Your father wouldn’t want this…”
    “It’s because of your death that King Aegeus killed himself!” shouted Chero.Theseus stopped struggling at once and kneeled on the deck, tears streaming down his face.
    Chero went on. “He wanted you to live, not die! Even in the Underworld, he’ll know that you’re alive. If you live, you can take care of his people…your people. And it will please your father.”
    Through his tears, Theseus looked up at Athens, now his kingdom. “Father….” he whispered,
    “my negligence destroyed you. As penance, I will live for your kingdom alone. The sea in which you died will evermore be known as the Aegean Sea.”
    With these words, he gave orders to dock the ship. When that was done, he stepped onto the shore of his kingdom to begin his new life as king.

  4. My “stereotypical author costume” would be to wear the “Be careful, or I’ll put you in my novel” T-shirt that my sisters gave me, carry a pen and paper, and interrupt my conversations with “‘Scuse me, gotta write this down. Story idea!”
    And then cart around the ever-growing stack of unfinished ideas… 🙂

  5. I just got proof of how great Gail’s “Save what you write!” advice is. While cleaning out the attic with my mom + dad a few months ago, I found a story that I must’ve written in High School or college. (about..eep!…25-30 years ago.) It was full of truly awful dialogue, but the basic idea seemed sound, so I rewrote it. And a professional-level market just bought it!

  6. I’m giving a presentation at my school’s English Symposium on fairy tales in modern media. I’ll be giving this blog a shout out because it’s a great resource.

  7. Anyone have ideas for a chapter name? It includes a betrayal, most of the main characters getting captured, a fall off a cliff… lots of exciting stuff, but just about every chapter name I think of would give something away.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I thought of the line from HAMLET: “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…” Smile and Smile might be a suggestive title.

    • Failed Villain says:

      I’m not sure if this matches, but what about something like “masks” or “faces?” (I got “faces” from a Star Trek episode, hehe.) But it makes me think of the façade a double-crosser might put on. I guess “façade” works too, but that’s a little more obvious.

  8. Failed Villain says:

    Also, going off the original blog topic, I’d like to share one of Emma Coats’ 22 Rules for Storytelling:

    Rule #5:
    “Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.”

    Side Note- these rules are all very helpful, check them out!

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