The Beat Goes On

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!

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!

Tempo!

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!