To all of you who are writing madly for NaNoWriMo, this post will keep! No need to interrupt your headlong rush. But if you do pause, I hope it’s helpful. May you fulfill your ambitions. May the wind be at your back.
Writing Cat Lover’s question below called forth a lot of discussion. I’m including all the comments, because, basically, they’re so good and useful. As you’ll see, Writing Ballerina asked for this post, and I have a little to add but not a whole lot.
On July 22, 2019, Writing Cat Lover wrote: I need help with my pace of my WIP. It’s always either too slow or too fast, and I never can seem to get it just right.
Here’s the discussion:
Future Famous Author: I have left this same comment (the one I am about to write) many times, and every time I sigh and think, “That’s not very helpful!” But it is, because some things just can’t be perfect–actually nothing can be–in the first draft.
So, my advice is to save things like pace for the second, third, or even fifteenth draft (does anyone ever get to the fifteenth draft? ) and fix it then. Are you the one who had the trouble with writing things that had no importance to the plot whatsoever? If not, I told her that it’s okay to write things that don’t need to be written, because they may end up important. And it’s okay to leave out description, because you can add and/or take anything away in later drafts!
Song4myKing: I agree with Future Famous Author that you shouldn’t worry too much in the first draft. But if you’re revising, there might be a few things you can do.
If a section feels too fast, like you’re clipping along, touching only the points of action without a breath, you might want to slow down to increase tension, or to savor the action. Sit back and imagine the whole scene, like a movie. Who all is around? Is it just the ones you’re concerned with at the moment, or are there others in the room? Where is the scene taking place? Indoors, outdoors? Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Will your readers see it? Can you feel it, smell it, hear it? Not just the words people are saying but the other sounds around them. Don’t include everything, of course, but picture it in your mind, so you can show a little of the richness of the scene to your readers. Choose details that will add to the feeling or action of the scene.
If a piece feels too slow, you’ll have to do the opposite. Cut out what isn’t necessary. If it’s a paragraph that’s necessary but slow, check every sentence to see if it’s needed or if it could be shortened. If it’s a chapter that’s slow, check every paragraph. If it’s a bigger section of the story, see if each scene is necessary. If each scene has something important, see if you can take what’s important from several and put all that punch into one scene.
Writing Ballerina: I think all these pacing comments in this and the last post’s comments warrant a post, Mrs. Levine.
Writing Ballerina: BTW, sorry if that sounded rude.
Not rude; helpful.
Erica: Does anyone else have problems changing the “magnification” of a story, so to speak? I tend to either try to show everything or tell everything, but I have trouble switching between the two. Any advice?
I just get tired of writing the story when nothing much is happening, but when I pick it back up, I feel compelled to keep writing about nothing. Neither I nor my readers particularly care about the plot of the (completely made-up) movie my character is watching, and yet I describe it. Time in my stories tends to pass slowly when nothing is happening, and way too fast when things are.
Writing Cat Lover: My story is waaayyy too slow, as in I focus too much on the details and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to get the plot going. Well, with the last paragraph I actually tried to speed things up a bit but now it looks waaayyy too choppy and fast paced so that you can’t really catch whats happening.
Katie W.: Basically, I have the big, important stuff written, but I don’t have anything building up and down from them. It’s boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, boring life, boring life, EXCITING PART, etc. They don’t lurch from disaster to disaster, but there’s really nothing to hold the tension between the major plot points.” Not exactly pacing, but similar. You know those tension graphs teachers use to show the five parts of a plot, with the smooth rise and fall? If I drew one of those for my story, it would look like a comb. Up and down and up and down and up and down instead of that smooth, gradual curve.
Writing Ballerina: I think I’ve mentioned this book before (and maybe this particular section) but STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE by Steven James has a great take on building tension:
“A story isn’t about something ELSE going wrong, it’s about something WORSE going wrong…. We intensify the struggles rather than just compounding them. [There are] three struggles — internal, external, and interpersonal [conflict with other people.] — [they] will all continue to deepen as the story progresses. Typically, they’ll reach their darkest moments right before the climactic encounter with the… forces that are hindering the protagonist from getting what he desires most.”
I like this point: “Since things must continually get worse for the protagonist, characters actually descend through difficulties and pain into transformation. They don’t slowly ascend into change.”
Back to the graph (paraphrasing here), all that stuff about rising action is baloney. At least most of it. Rather than rising ACTION, you need rising TENSION. “Action does not equal tension…. Simply making more things happen doesn’t ensure the readers will be interested, but tightening the tension from unmet desire does….
“Think of the climax of a suspense novel. Flashlight in hand, the detective slowly descends the stairs into the serial killer’s basement lair. Readers know what the detective does not — the killer is lying in wait for him deep in the recessed shadows of the next room. The author milks the scene: Step by step the detective slowly and cautiously makes his way down the stairs as readers’ hearts pound in anticipation of the climactic encounter that’s about to ensue. He angles the narrow flashlight beam into the darkness. Reaches the last step. And begins to search for the killer.
“Is this rising action? Hardly. In fact, a man walking slowly down a set of stairs might be the least amount of action for the last fifty pages — but it can be part of the climactic scene of a book because of escalating tension.”
Before I write the whole book down in this comment (it’s that good — go borrow it from your library!!) I would like to mention another very important and (I think) profound observation he made:
“Repetition undermines escalation.
“Every murder you include decreases the impact that each subsequent murder will have on readers. Every explosion, shootout, [and] argument… means less and less to readers because repetition short-circuits that crucial escalation that moves stories forward. The value something has is directly proportional to the amount of pain it causes when it’s lost.”
I agree with Future Famous Author and Song4MyKing that a lot of our pacing problems can be cleaned up in revision. Throughout, though, whether in revision or in writing our first draft, our guiding principal should be our MC. Everything–everything!–should impact her. Fundamentally, our pacing hangs on this, and, in my opinion, if we keep it in mind, our pacing problems will ease up. Something–major or minor–should always be at stake for her.
She doesn’t have to suffer every second. We can give her breaks, for which our readers will thank us, but the main problem still has to loom.
We may have skipped our MC’s experience in the rush of events. To take the example of the detective descending the stairs to the villain’s lair while she’s blissfully unaware that he’s there. What’s going through her head? She’s relaxed because she thinks she’s safe. Maybe we show her thinking that she needs to buy milk on her way home. Maybe she clunks down the stairs because she believes she can. Maybe she whistles or sings a song her daughter loves. The reader is twisting in agony, mentally screaming, Wake up! Be alert, you fool! We can even throw in a clue about the villain’s presence and have her fail to notice it. These are all extra words, but–Aaa!
As we revise and as we write our first draft, we should be aware of the inner life of our MC. Whether we’re writing in first person or third, even omniscient third, the reader needs to know what our MC is thinking and feeling as events occur–and almost nothing should happen in our story that she doesn’t care about, that doesn’t affect her in some way. If it doesn’t and we’re revising, we have to consider the dustbin.
I don’t mean things can’t happen to secondary characters or that we can’t have subplots, but everything needs to fold back in. The secondary characters have to be important to our MC. Their success or failure will be significant for her.
In the subplot, if she’s absent from the scene, the main secondary will stand in for her, and everything has to affect him–a miniature version of the approach we take to the overarching plot.
If, as we’re revising, we think, Huh, how did she get there? or, Why or how did that happen?, we can assume that we skipped some steps, and we can consider what’s needed to fill in. A critique group or beta readers can help identify these gaps.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a novel that I haven’t cut at least a hundred pages from, more for most. In fact, chopping is what I do most in revision.
We can tighten with tiny changes that have a cumulative effect as we keep going. Need that clause, really? Cut! I’m saying this twice in different ways? One has to go. Cut! Very is a very (hah!) suspect word. If unnecessary, cut! Our adjectives and adverbs should always be scrutinized, especially ones that minimize, like slightly and a little. And we want to use the most powerful verbs we can find. Race is generally better than walk fast. When we snip and snip, our pace will pick up, and, as an added benefit, our prose will become more elegant. We’ll be worshiped by our copy editors. Strunk & White (you should all know Strunk & White!) will smile in their graves.
We ask ourselves if the reader already knows this about this character. If yes, cut! Is this entire plot twist necessary? If no, cut!
I do most of the trimming myself and cut much more than my editor asks me to, but she’s ruthless, too. Fairest in particular would have been a much longer, slower, more meandering book if she hadn’t come in brandishing her butcher’s knife. I don’t mean she did the carving herself, but she wasn’t shy about saying that this chapter and that should go.
Sometimes it hurts to excise bits I love, and in the process I eliminate what took months to write, but the result is a better book, and I have to do it. And I save everything I cut.
Here are three prompts:
∙ I may have used a prompt like this before. You may ardently disagree with me on this, but I’m not a fan of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, because I don’t think Alice is invested enough in what happens to her. She grows. Oh, she thinks, that’s interesting. She shrinks. Interesting, too. She may not like the changes or the things she witnesses, but she never suffers deeply. Nothing threatens her at her core. Let’s change that. Let’s say her beloved older brother disappears. Last seen, he was tying a note to the White Rabbit’s left back leg. Alice is convinced that finding him depends on the contents of that note. She has to reach the White Rabbit. Use events in Alice in Wonderland as plot points in her effort to save her brother. Write a scene or the whole story.
∙ As an experiment, put a movie in your story, as Erica does. If there are no movies in your world, make it a book or a saga in an oral tradition. Describe the plot. Link it very subtly to your plot, a discovery for readers to make or not make. When you finish your current draft, you’ll know whether to toss it, keep it, expand or condense it.
∙ The eensy-weensy spider has it tough, climbing the waterspout. Give him a reason to need to get up there. Make him a thinking and feeling being, and write his story. Introduce other characters, spider or otherwise, including a villain. Make it a cliff–or waterspout–hanger.
Have fun, and save what you write!