Writer's Circle – Week #2 [Watch Your Pace]
Welcome back to week #2 of the Writer's Circle
. This week the discussion will be focused around pacing your story. I was once again flipping through the pages of a few back-issue “The Writer” magazines and came upon this intriguing article on pacing your story. Its written by Deborah Chester. She is the author of 38 novels, including “The pearls” and “The Crown” from Ace books, Deborah Chester teaches writing at the University of Oklahoma. Her work includes romance, young adult, science fiction and fantasy. Web: www.deborahchester.com
My face lit up when I saw that DC was the author of this article, she has been a big source of inspiration for me and many others who write in the sci-fi fantasy genre. And working in a library, as I do, her books are in constant circulation. That in itself is a testament to her prowess as an author.
Lets get to the article shall we.
“Watch your pace” By: Deborah Chester from “The Writer” Magazine
'Watch your pace' Create a more engaging story by focusing on 5 critical elements
I used to live in horror of boring readers. As a result, I shot my characters through their plot lines like bullets,keeping them in trouble, barely letting them breathe before I plunged them into fresh difficulties.
Eventually, I realized that in my rush to excite readers I was also shortchanging them. The constant zip of my prose often prevented people from savoring what should have been the best parts of my novels.
So, aware that the entire story should not blur from start to finish, I set out to imporve my pacing management. Here's what I learned:
1.Narrative summary races along. Summarizing a story event compresses it into few words. Although a summary reads so quickly that it can become a blur, if it's not overused, it's efficient at sharing information.
“John strode from the library, hurrying down the steps past the marble lions and out onto the sidewalks. He cut across town on foot, making no attempt to flag a taxi, and ducked into a small flower shop on the corner of West and Dixon. Inside, he spoke to the proprietor for a few minutes before picking up a small package wrapped in brown paper. Leaving the shop, he headed back across town, this time catching the northbound bus that took him out to the park.”
pro: Narrative summary is terrific for following events that are required for logical flow, yet aren't important enough to dramatized into a scene.
con: It holds readers at a distance and keeps them from getting involved or caring much about the character.
2.Dramatic action runs almost as fast. If I let two characters interact in direct conflict, then I have a scene of dramatic action that's going to move quickly while holding reader interest. It does take a higher word count to write dramatic action because of the moment-by-moment detail, but if readers are interested, they don't seem to mind the longer length.
“John was about to exit the library when a stocky man in a dark overcoat blocked his path. Cutting his gaze left and right, John saw a trickle of library patrons walking along a side corridor. He turned sharply in that direction and quickened his steps. The man in the overcoat followed. Ahead, John saw an exit door. Just as he started through it, the man behind him gripped his arm and swung him around.”
In the narrative summary example, John traveled all over town in one paragraph. Here, he has yet to leave the library. But what's happening seems more intriguing.
pro: Dramatic action increased reader involvement.
con: It requires a lot of logical cause-and-effect detail.
3.Dialogue reads slower than dramatic action. Want to gain even more reader involvement in the story action? Let the characters talk to each other. It slows down the story's momentum enough to show the characters' intentions and motivations as they maneuver.
“You goin' somewhere, Johnny boy?” the man in the overcoat asked.
“Johm swallowed hard, his mind racing in a dozen directions. “I've got an appointment.”
“So be late for it. We gotta talk.”
pro: Dialogue adds dimension by developing characterization and advancing the plot.
con: When it's too banal and mundane, dialogue can impede the progression of the story.
4.Description ambles. How many times have you been reading when you found yourself skipping over a page of description? Who did you do that? Is it because you wanted to get on with the story and grew impatient while it paused to paint a word picture?
“On his way out the library door, John paused on the steps to inhale crisp autumn air. There was nothing quite like the scent of a damp October day. Tipping hack his head, he gazed at the skyscrapers looming above him, their glass sides mirroring the gray clouds overhead.”
Has John lost his common sense? What about the man following him or the package he's supposed to pick up and deliver across town? In this description sample, John's story concerns simply wait until he's finished examining his environment. In effect, the story is put on hold while nothing happens.
pro: Description done in a few vivid sentences can establish a clear sense of the place and ground a story in its setting.
con: Excessive or wrongly placed description sidetracks the story or stops it, and it can be dull.
5.Factual exposition crawls. Remember school days when reading a text on, say, Flemish medieval economics seemed to take hours? So why cram dull facts into your story?
“Walking into the flower shop, John was struck y a magnificent pale orchid on the counter. Cattleya orchids, native to Brazil, are epiphytes, meaning they have water-storage organs called pseudobulbs and large, fleshy roots. Also know as the corsage orchid, they're available in a variety of hues. ...”
Whew! We lost the tread of our story in a digression on South American flora. Or did we? Not if we want to build suspense. If terrible danger awaits John outside the flower shop, using facts to deliberately slow the pace means that we're increasing reader anticipation … and enjoyment. Also, certain kinds of plots, such as those found in mysteries, medical thrillers and science fiction, may turn on factual solutions.
pro: Factual exposition in tiny, digestible doses adds authenticity to a story.
con: Once an author does the research, it's tempting to dump it all in, but too much is deadly, deadly dull.
When you understand these various modes of discourse and their effects on pacing, you can use them singly or combine them for improved story flow and varied rhythm.
Before I had read this article, I must admit, I never really paid much attention to how I was pacing my story. Most of my work, it seems, is either narrative summary or dramatic action. Much to my displeasure, its almost entirely overwhelming. I like the ideas that Deborah Chester puts forth here in the above article with blending description, factual exposition, dialogue, dramatic action, and narrative summary. In accompaniment to this article she has a small “before and after” section as well separated by a box below the first page. It reads as such:
Before and After
Losing the fizz
DON'T BLAST into action in your story at the expense of reader anticipation.
Rushing a character through an important, even dangerous, moment flattens is significance. Using narrative summary here is ineffective:
Searching for her father on the now-silent battlefield, Alexeika found him lying dead beneath the broken banner of his army. Heartbroken, she sank to her knees, weeping. But the looters were already coming. There was no time to grieve. If she was going to put the protections on his corpse, she had to do it now.
In this slower version, dramatic action, description and dialogue have been combined to showcase Alexeika's grief without sacrificing the urgency of her situation.
”Oh, Papa,” she said. Sinking to her knees beside him, she lifted his visor.
He had never known defeat in his long and distinguished career. His valiant name alone was enough to fill the hearts of men with courage. Five times in the past five years he had led the small rebel forces in skirmishes and battles, each time they won. But today, he had faced the king's real army, one supplemented with hard-bitten Gantese mercenaries and Nonkind, and he had lacked sorcerels to protect his men.
In the distance, the looters now came. She felt the thunder of their approaching hoofbeats shaking the valley floor, but she did not lift her gaze from her father's face.
Although his eyes were shut, he looked stern. Already death had made his face a stranger's. She touched his cheek, but it did not bring him closer or keep him with her. He was gone.
Weeping, she drew back her hand, curling her fingers into a fist. The noise of the galloping horses grew louder.
A hand gripped her shoulder. She jumped, screaming and whirled around to attack, but it was only old Uzfan the priest. Gasping with relief, she sagged to her knees again.
“Swiftly, child,” Uzfan said. “Use the salt you brought. I have no more in my pouch.”
As you can see, just using the narrative summary for that section is not very effective. However, if you combine a few different types of pacing in your story to slow down and extend important moments such as these, it gives the reader a better chance to catch their breath and take in the severity and importance of the situation.
DC also gives us an additional section to benefit from with this article. There has been included a “workout” section. Don't worry everyone, shes not gonna make you do squats and wall-sits just to help you better understand pacing. Although its not a bad analogy...haha.
Here is the section I am referring to:
Here is where I would like to open the discussion up to you all.
THESE EXERCISES will help you improve your pace.
1.Select a page or two from a published novel similar in theme or genre to your work-in-progress. Using colored pencils or markers, assign green for narrative summary, red for dramatic action, blue for dialogue, purple for description, and brown for factual exposition. Mark your selected pages, underlining each phrase, sentence or paragraph in the appropriate color. Observe the mix, or balance, of colors to see how the author controlled pacing.
2.Next, select pages from your manuscript and mark them with the same colors. Evaluate whether you have a balance of colors or are depending too heavily on one or two. This should help you determine which parts of your story need expanding and where you should consider cutting or summarizing.
Finish reviewing the article again if you would like as well as the Before and After and Workout sections.
How do your stories fit in comparison with this article? What type of writing do you focus on the most? Are you centered around Narrative summary? Or perhaps Dramatic action? (i'm sure many of us are, seeing how the entire 40k universe was founded on “dramatic” action) What about dialogue, or description, or factual exposition? Do you have a balanced story?
I'll start things off.
I've taken a look at my stories that i've posted here on Heresy. I've noticed that I tend to focus a lot on narrative summary or some slow description. Of course, if you read Chapter One of my novel “The Ghost of Iron” (link can be found on my userpage) you will notice that dialogue is the center of my story. I'd like to say that this is because I've introduced so many new characters in the first chapter that it was only right I include enough dialogue to say hello and explain my characters better. However, this may just be an overzealous attempt on my part to include every character in the story as best as I can.
With this articles help, I've been able to see different ways to add dimension to my story while still keeping the reader engaged and interested throughout.
How about you? Perhaps you have more suggestions then what you see here. Then bang 'em out and lets hear 'em!
Thanks for tuning into week #2 of the Writer's Circle
. Where every week is a new discussion on writing, the written word, and even tips and tricks to help make your writing stand out.