Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing 101 - Pacing

Writing 101 - Pacing

This started out with an author in my writing group struggling through his latest chapter. It flat-out wasn't interesting, which is not a good idea when you are writing an adventure story. The trouble was quickly apparent to me. Character back-fill, overly drawn out descriptions and explanations having little to do with forwarding the plot. A completely safe atmosphere for his characters. Heavy narration. In short - pacing.

What is pacing? For a reader, it is best described as that "page turner". The desire to keep on reading despite the late hour. Pacing is the undercurrent for your novel's plot - the force moving it forward. Pacing fails when the reader is compelled to either skip paragraphs or just put the book down and forget about it.

For the writer, pacing is a tempo that must be adhered to if they are writing any kind of adventure. Pacing is a meter to be watched with each scene, and part of a symphony hurling your reader to new highs - or giving them a chance to breath again. You have to do both.

Action and drama are the accelerators for pacing. Narration and back-story are the brakes. This is where the "show" vs "tell" monster lives for new writers, urging them to simply write down everything the author wants to move past rather than show through their characters' actions and dialog.

Jane was upset. This is narrating - telling. This slows pacing.

Jane slumped against the wall, her fists clenched. This is showing. This speeds pacing.

Jane didn't like Bob. Again, this is narrating.

Jane glared at Bob. "Go to hell!" This is showing.

Jane came from a poor family, and dressed in her older sister's hand-me-downs. Again, telling.

"You have NO idea what being poor is!" Jane seethed. "Try showing your face wearing your older sister's cast-offs and see how you like it." This is showing.

You want to start your action novel off with fast pacing, but remember that you can't keep piling it on forever. Every action scene will have a moment to gasp for breath. A chapter or two of battle needs to be followed by a respite. It can't be full speed ahead each moment or your reader will tire and dramatic effect dilute. You need to orchestrate your pacing for maximum effect, much as a horror writer sets up for that all-important scream.

With every scene you write must come the question - how does this advance one of my story arcs? If a long explanation of something in the scene in no way contributes to either the plot or character growth, then consider it with a jaundiced eye. Just because common sense says this or that should be, doesn't mean you allow it in. Your first and foremost duty is to the reader's entertainment.

Let me demonstrate the idea of drama over common sense. In my upcoming novel I will have my main character, now a hugely important figure in her society, engaging in battle. If I applied logic and common sense, her people would keep her far FAR from any potential harm, right? So, I had to dig up a reason to deliberately put her in harm's way simply so I COULD logically put her in harm's way. Why? Because sitting in a comfy building watching someone else fight is boring. Watching my character do what she does best is not. Sometimes you have to put your common sense aside for the sake of entertainment. It is not what your character should be doing in many cases - it is what the reader wants them to do. It is up to you, as author, to decide when to set a small measure of credibility aside in favor of action.

Pacing. It is the heartbeat of your work.


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