Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 7 - Pacing, fast and slow

If you write page turners, people will seek out your work. An important factor in accomplishing this is managing the story’s pacing. For many writers, this comes naturally. The events of the story just emerge as appropriate for their storytelling style. But, especially for longer works like novels, it may be necessary to consciously adjust the pacing.

The ideal? Everything in the story gets the time that it needs. And there aren't any hard and fast rules as to how long you should dwell on different portions, because much of this depends upon getting the balance between emotion and verisimilitude correct. But it’s obvious when writers get this wrong. Emotional scenes go by too fast with too little impact. Events jumbled together in ways that make them less clear. Descriptions seem to last forever and readers end up skipping past them to get to the dialogue.

So let's review some ways to hit the gas pedal and some ways to put on the brakes.

Too Fast
To get the most out of scenes that capture the heart or make readers laugh, set them up properly. Take the emotional moments you've written, and look to see what's before it. Mostly, readers need to have some indication that the main character of the sea is anticipating something. Springing on a motion on a reader is a little like stepping out from behind a curtain and shouting "boo"! In general, the bigger the emotional payoff, the more the character should be looking toward its possibility. So try these two things:

First, add to the story in a way that extends the time of anticipation and the stakes are the experience that's coming. And do this through the character as much as possible.

Second, explore the possibility of interjecting a different emotion right before the big payoff. This switch stops the reader from protecting him or herself from feeling too much. Writers have known about this technique for a long time. A great example, is comic relief, where something funny happens before an anticipated tragedy or horror.

Too much speed can also lead to disorientation, so it's worthwhile to take a fast-moving section and make sure that time, place, and the identities of participants are completely clear before things begin to happen. This is narration with the purpose.

Scenes can also feel like they are moving too quickly when they lack a singularity of purpose. It's always a good idea to write down why a scene is in a story. This practice becomes essential when it feels like too much is going on. Take a deep breath. Write down the purpose of the scene. Make it specific. And see if this is the only (or nearly the only) reason why this piece is part of your work. Your apt to find out that the scene tries to accomplish several things. (The solution is to simplify.)

Too Slow
Too fast is not usually a problem for writers. It's much more likely that some scenes will go too slowly. Take your scene and highlight everything that isn't moment to moment. This includes characters remembering, description, and most narration. I like to pull out almost all this in the first 30 pages, and most manuscripts I read spend most of the first 30 pages in this mode. To get yourself into the right mindframe for balancing moment-to-moment with the rest, take some favorite scenes from authors you love to read who write in your genre, and mark them up in the same way — highlighting whatever is not moment-to-moment.

Simpler than that technique is to just look at the pages. Chances are, if your story is moving too quickly, it has long paragraphs and too little dialogue. Look at the white space on your pages and compare it to work that moves more quickly. The answer is likely to be right in front of you.

One more thing: emotion always makes the pages fly by. If they seem to drag, it's entirely possible that not enough attention is being paid to evoking emotions. So read over your text, checking your heart as you go. I had one manuscript that I critiqued where I thought a lack of emotion was the problem. I was wrong. The emotion in those pages was terrific, but it was buried underneath lots of nonemotional detritus. Once I struck out all the excess wordage, especially descriptions and reflections that primarily provided background information, the work was wonderful and it moved.

Sometimes stories get into trouble because they get away from the spine. Even areas that may have intrinsic interest can drag down the pace if they pull readers away from the story question. Sadly, these parts also need to be cut. But there is one rule to keep in mind — don't cut funny. What is good practice in normal storytelling can be skirted whenever your writing comedy or interjecting light moments (including comic relief). So my final suggestion is this. Pay attention to your instincts. They will rarely be wrong.

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