Monday, September 22, 2008

Pacing the Floors, er...Story

Story Pacing. That thing that keeps the reader from getting bored. The most common definition is to keep the plot from meandering. The main character must stay on task, the story shouldn’t introduce unnecessary characters or places, and the scenes and conversations should be relevant and succinct.

That’s great and all, but what does it mean? I’m going to answer that with another question. Is each person or place in your story necessary? If so, how is it necessary? What will fall apart if you remove one of these items? If the answer is nothing, then it may not be necessary. It’s the unnecessary things that bog things down, take the story to irrelevant places, and make it feel too drawn out, even boring. This sounds a lot like creating a strong plot, but plot and pacing go hand in hand. If you have a good, solid plot, chances are you’re going to have good pacing as well. For the big picture, anyway...

But what about the details? Those can have just as much of an effect on pacing as plot can. I’m talking about specific scenes and conversations between characters. Pick a scene and examine the direction it takes. If it took a different direction, what would happen to your story? If nothing, then perhaps it’s not necessary. If you’re not sure you can honestly answer this question, then do this with a published work that you feel has good pacing. Choose a scene, give it a different direction, then see how it would affect the rest of the story. A tightly woven story will always feel the effects of this exercise.

Conversations are a little trickier. The information in a conversation may be necessary to the story. But what about its delivery? Does the conversation feel too long? If so, the answer may not be to simply shorten it. Rather, take a look at what your characters are doing. Aside from talking, that is. Is there emotion? Body language? Gestures? Reactions? Action is what keeps things interesting. It’s also what moves a story forward.

This is partly why backflashes are so troublesome – they stop the story to “tell” the reader an important piece of information, then come back to the story later. It’s really easy to fall into this trap, and you don’t even need a backflash to do it. Telling the reader any important piece of information stops the story. Let’s look at an example:

Mark pointed to the tiny town of Statz on the road map. “See? It’s right here. There aren’t many roads on this map, but I’m sure I’ll find it.”
Jerry laughed. Mark was notorious for getting his directions mixed up. Once, he’d been trying to get to St. Louis and ended up in Chicago. His friends had learned the hard way never to let him navigate on road trips.
“Don’t call me when you run out of gas,” said Jerry.

In this example, the story stops when we’re told about Mark’s lack of navigational skills, then starts again when Jerry speaks. Rather than telling the reader that Mark is terrible at directions, show us.

Mark pointed to the tiny town of Statz on the road map. “See? It’s right here. There aren’t many roads on this map, but I’m sure I’ll find it.”
Jerry laughed. “You couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag, even if you had a flashlight and a pocket knife.”
Mark glared at him. “I have a sixth sense with directions, you know.”
“Oh. Is that how you in Chicago instead of St. Louis?” Jerry cleared his throat, hiding his grin.
“Well – that’s just–” His mouth opened and closed, like a fish. “That could have happened to anyone!”
“Sure,” said Jerry. “Don’t call me when you run out of gas.”

Here, we’re shown how Mark made an enormous navigational error, and Jerry clearly doesn’t believe him capable of anything better. This exchange gives us more insight into the story, the characters, and their personalities than the other version.

The same principles can usually be applied to backflashes. Bring the information out through the characters rather than setting them aside so the reader can find out something important.


PJ Hoover said...

Now when I write and I'm worried about pacing I throw in a good fantastical element to spark things.
Speaking of which, I'm adding a new scene to the WIP, and this will be a great idea!
Nice post, Tabitha!

Jacqui said...

I think the "do you really need it?" question is one of the most important things. It's sometimes hard for me to differentiate between the story needing a bit and me just loving it.

sruble said...

Good post. I especially like questioning what would happen if you took the scen in a different direction.

Carrie Harris said...

Oh yeah. And so many people look at overall pacing and forget to look at the pacing within each individual scene. Very good points here! :)

Marcia said...

Those illustrations are great!

The concept of something being necessary to a story is so important. I have to second Jacqui's comment on that.

Tabitha said...

PJ - I'm a sucker for fantastical elements. :) They're fun and usually unexpected, and keeps me glued to the pages. :)

Jacqui - "need" and "love" are way too hard for me to differentiate. I either need an objective eye, or I need to remove it all together and see what happens to the story. Then I'll know if I really need it. :)

Sruble - thanks! This little exercise has helped me tremendously. Especially on published works. I've found that many of my favorite published works are so tightly plotted and well-paced that making any change to a scene or character affects the story. It was eye-opening, and very useful.

Carrie - yeah, I haven't heard many people talk about individual scenes. But that's just as important, because it's more visible than overall pacing. And it annoys me more than slow pacing overall. :)

Marcia - thanks!! And we all know how great Jacqui is... :)

Anne Spollen said...

You're right, I know that, and I teach writing this way, except...
I LIKE meandering sometimes in a story. Mark Twain does it to some degree, sort of wordy digressions,then BAM, he surprises the reader.

And teenagers TALK this way - all over the place, so it's a toss up sometimes - do I make the speech authentic to high school kids, or do I edit based on the principles of good writing...

Ack, how we suffer...

Gottawrite Girl said...

Jack Bickham's "Scene & Structure" is taking me through this right now - there is the pacing arc for each scene; each chapter; and the work as a whole - and the trick is to keep control, not too slow and not too fast! This is a great post and topic!!

Mary Witzl said...

I have such an awful time staying on track with plot and dialogue; I keep throwing in superfluous details; it's as though I can't help myself. When I rewrite, most of my time is spent removing all the padding that does nothing to forward the plot. You are so right here: the second example you give is clearly the more compelling.

Like Jacqui, I just fall in love with stuff that I then hate to get rid of. I need to go through my last manuscript with a fine tooth comb and try to think seriously about this advice...

Tabitha said...

Sorry, all, for taking so long to respond. With my son going to his new school, my computer time has been cut to a third of what it was. :(

Anne - if meandering adds something to the story or the characters, then I would argue that it's necessary. Especially if it's just the way the teens talk. Then there's the whole break-the-rules-once-you-understand-them stuff. :)

GWG - "control" is an excellent word choice! Even if the story meanders, like Anne says, then you're still in control if it meanders *on purpose*. :)

Mary - if throwing in superfluous details helps you get the words on the page, then go for it! Just have that fine toothed comb ready for later drafts. :)