Mar 7, 2011

Pacing: What to Include. What to Cut.

Weak turning points mean for weak scene goals and languid pacing.

Smooth pacing, with turning points and major events staggered evenly throughout the book, is far more likely to keep readers turning pages than stop-and-go pacing, in which very little happens for many pages and then, 100 pages from the end, everything gets tied up in a bow as the author rushes to meet her page quota.

Whether you’re a plotter or an organic writer, it may be difficult to pace your story smoothly without keeping these things in mind as you write.

One of the most common mistakes writers make in the early stages of their careers is to include “scenes” that serve no useful purpose within the story. The writing may be fine, the descriptions vivid, the use of imagery artful, but there is no compelling reason for the scene to exist.

The author may have conceived the idea and is now unable to let it go. She thought it would be so great to show the hero and heroine having lunch together in the piazza she visited during her recent trip to Europe. She took photographs and conducted research, and now she's dying to set a scene there. But if nothing new happens, no new information is shared with the reader, the relationship between the characters doesn’t change in any meaningful way, the scene may not belong in your story.

Whenever we include something in the story merely to indulge ourselves, we’re in danger of negatively impacting the story. A scene without purpose will bring your pacing to a grinding halt.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it may be helpful to think in terms of firsts. The first meeting, the first real conversation, the first time the teacher calls our YA protagonist to task. The first awkward moment at soccer practice, the first meeting between neighbors. Whenever you begin to repeat information, you risk slowing down the pacing of your story and losing the reader’s attention.

It’s a matter of choosing what to show and what to tell.

Always show the scenes with the greatest emotional impact. (e.g., show the scene where the character learns her father has died, not the scene where she’s thinking about how she found out that he died or the scene where she's telling her best friend how awful it was.)

Beginning writers have a tendency to skip the scenes with real emotional impact and tell us about them later in scenes that have little or no emotional impact. It’s a natural tendency for most of us because writing strong emotion is difficult. Being honest to an emotionally brutal moment isn’t easy. If we’re uncomfortable with the emotion, we may decide it’s more comfortable to just tell about it later. We may not even make the decision to avoid the emotion consciously. But remember that when you write this way, you slow the pacing of your story almost beyond salvation.

Make sure to show the scenes which identify the characters’ patterns for us. Once you’ve shown the characters sharing an intimate Sunday morning breakfast after making love on Saturday night, you can tell us they did it again later.

Within the scene itself, don’t rush. If you’re writing a short book, don't skip on the detail that will make the book feel rich and lush. Instead, be more judicious in your choice of scenes to include, and then summarize the others.

Allow time to set the stage through the point of view character’s emotional filter. Don’t skimp on the sensory texture. You will gain nothing by rushing through this process. Don't drag it out, either. Set the stage, but don't waste time on repetition and lengthy introspection.

Allow time to make sure your character’s motivation is strong enough to carry even the most skeptical reader through the scene. Remember, not everyone will automatically react the same way your character does. You may think that any rational, thinking, reasonably intelligent woman would kick her husband to the curb if she caught him cheating on her, but there are a whole lot of women out there who wouldn’t, and for more reasons than you and I can probably imagine.Allow time to convince your reader that this is the only action your character can make--or at least that she believes it is. Skimping on the motivation will make your pacing sputter and jerk.

Allow sufficient time for the conflict play out. Another common mistake I often see is the tendency to rush past conflict. In the planning stages, the scene appears emotionally intense but when it's written, it turns into nothing special, either because the author is afraid of letting the characters face their conflict or, since the author knows what's going to happen in the scene, she lets the character move to the resolution of the scene too quickly.Skipping the conflict not only makes your story's pace suffer, it short-changes the reader. Approach each scene as if you didn’t know what the eventual outcome will be and let your characters react appropriately. If you can do that honestly, you'll begin to feel when you have enough conflict to fuel the scene.

photo credit: PA050153 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Medo via photopin (license)

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