Monthly Archives: June 2010

Slightly Random Thoughts About Story Pacing… From 10,000 Feet

Part 1 of 2

There’s already an elephant in this article, let’s go there first.

Why random?  And why from 10,000 feet?

Because pacing is to storytelling what love is to relationships.  I kid you not.  It’s what makes it all work.

Which means it’s bigger than this.

Last weekend I was privileged to present a workshop on pacing at Jessica Morrell’s Summer in Words writing conference.  In preparing, I realized how vast this aspect of storytelling actually is.  It’s better suited to an entire book, rather than the cozy and often claustrophobic confines of a 1500 word post or a two-hour workshop.

Can you fix your marriage in a two-hour workshop at the local Holiday Inn?  Didn’t think so.

That said, the workshop delivered a high level overview of how the art of pacing fits into the overall story development model, which means it’s certainly worth repeating here.  Like many aspects of storytelling – and, since the analogy has been launched, like relationships – it’s easy to take for granted by putting it on auto-pilot.

But don’t be fooled. 

Think of this, then, as an overview of the Table of Contents for the book required to do justice to the topic of story pacing.  Every sub-heading below is an entire chapter – and, another blog post… count on it – in that book.

Awareness is a beautiful and powerful thing.  In marriage and in storytelling.  Both of which, by the way, can break you if you don’t do it right. 

Get ready to feel the love.

The Big Picture of Pacing

You pantsers are gonna hate this.  But the truth is, you can’t pants pace.

But you can plan for it.

The pacing of your story is very much like analyzing the flow of the blueprint for a building that hasn’t been constructed yet.  You look at the relationships between the parts – chapters and scenes for writers, hallways and rooms for architecture – and determine if the sequence and proportions are in balance, if they are optimized for flow and feel, not to mention structural integrity and aesthetic beauty, and you make adjustments accordingly

So whether you plan or pants, pacing is something you address – you build in – at the point at which you are sure your story architecture is solid. 

You can’t pace that which you don’t yet fully understand.

Placement of Pace

Here’s something that’s obvious, but only after you realize it: the nature and implementation of pacing is very different as you progress into a story.

In other words, the pacing in Part 1 is different than the ensuing parts.  The further you go into the story, the more intense and contextual the pace becomes. 

Pacing is most extreme and noticeable as you near the end.

The reason for this has to do with the amount of expository story information on the table, including character development.  The more the reader understands about the nature of the conflict (including the hero’s inner demons) at a given moment in a story… including the manner in which prior exposition has moved the story forward… the more incumbent it is upon the writer to adjust the specific means of delivering pace as you move forward.

A mouthful, that one.  Maybe read it again.  I know I did.

This is what makes the last few scenes something the reader absolutely cannot put down. 

Or not, if you don’t get this.

The Realms of Pacing

As a writer looking to optimize the pace of your story, you are juggling several balls, each of which is airborne in context to the others.

The story itself has pacing demands.  Big picture story architecture stuff.

As we just learned, you need to accelerate the pace and the nature of the exposition as you move forward.  You need to identify and deliver the right scenes, in the right place, to make sure the story is moving not only in the direction you want, but at the pace you want.

Those things – direction and pace – are mutually exclusive.  Your job is to keep them joined at the hip.

Character arc is also subject to pacing. 

The hero (and perhaps others) grow and evolve over the course of the story as they square off with obstacles coming at them, both externally and internally.  How they handle those challenges defines the nature of the way a scene unfolds in terms of pacing. 

Pacing links to tension in a given moment, and the more we feel the tension within a character – which means we need to understand the inner demon that is in play – the more urgent our need to see what happens to her or him.

Scenes themselves – once identified and properly placed – are highly sensitive to and dependent upon pace. 

Effective scenes have a micro-structure that renders them effective when well executed.  We’re all guilty of skimming through the beginning of a chapter just to get to something that happens… this is the author’s fault.  Don’t let that author be you.

If you pace a scene poorly you render it ineffective, even when it’s just what the story needed, when it needed it. 

It’s like putting a relief pitcher into the game with men on base.  Even though the guy is your proven stopper – the right pitcher at the right moment – if he doesn’t deliver, you lose.

Next up (Friday) — the rest of this.

Also… a Newsflash — Amazon.com now has the pre-sale page up for my new book from Writers Digest Books, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.  Due out February 2011. 

(Storyfix in an Amazon.com affiliate marketer.)

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A Guest Post by Kay Kenyon: How to Keep Track of a Novel

If you read science fiction and fantasy, chances are you’ve heard of Kay Kenyon.  If you’re a writer on the lookout for great writing conferences, her name may ring familiar there, as well, since she runs one of the best around.

If not, you’ll probably remember her name (and hopefully check out her work — all ten novels) after reading this enlightening piece.  Twice.

You thought I was left-brained about the right-brained task of writing a novel?  Good to know there’s someone else out there with a story engineering hat on.   Enjoy.

How To Keep Track of a Novel

Or how I wrote an epic four-book sci-fantasy saga over five years and still had the brain power left to write grocery lists.

by Kay Kenyon

I admit it, I write complicated books.

I’m going to tell you how I keep from going crazy with all the details, and how I remember, in technical terms, what the hell is going on with my story. You may not need everything that I use, but if you are writing an ambitious book I highly recommend these methods (I’ve been using them for a decade.)

Here are my methods, the high and the low.

Project notebook.

Before I write even a page, I work in a large notebook to discover and develop my story. I muse on concepts, characters, armature (theme) and milieu. I take a stab at a trial plot chart with a three act structure.

I like a physical notebook because, unlike using a computer keyboard/screen, I do not feel strange doing nothing but thinking. I like the archeological benefit too: without a delete function I can–even months later–review how my planning evolved. Sometimes I go back to those early ideas. When I’m writing the novel, I use this notebook to storyboard the next scenes. (Tip: always date your entries. It will show you how long it took to write your novel, something you think you will never forget, but you will. After 5-10 novels, you will forget it all, trust me.)

If the scene is particularly difficult, I list the “beats” of the scene, casting on possible action segments. This is a magic technique that can get you through the most daunting scenes where a lot has to happen, clues given, character revealed and awesomeness created!

Your project notebook is something that future scholars of your work will fight over. (OK, let’s dream about it, anyway . . .) They will see the very moment when you discovered your true theme. There will be a great big STAR by it. Also several exclamation points!!!

Scene list.

At the end of the writing day I briefly summarize what happened in the scenes I completed: clues dropped, foreshadowing, new characters introduced and whether they are second cousins once removed. The scene list is my main method for keeping track of where I am; it also allows me to pencil in the margins — next to the right scenes — notes for changes that become necessary as the story evolves. (No, not a half brother, second cousin once removed!!)

If you are rereading and rereading your last few chapters to get a run-up on your next scene, stop this now. Rereading causes revision blindness later, since you will be too familiar with the material. Read your scene list instead. That tells you exactly what you wrote yesterday and the day before. Every now and then the scene list gets so messy that I edit it and print a fresh version to muck up. To be picky (let’s) — the scene blurb should state POV and page number.  Thus: p. 73 (POV Titus).

Style sheet.

Here is where I record every character name, place, piece of technology, special terms and odd spelling. For my series, this file is quite large. If you don’t begin files like the style sheet and scene list within the first few chapters of your manuscript you will hate yourself. Keep the style sheet file open and faithfully update it as you write. It is an ugly task to go back and create it when you are deep into your novel.

A great big box.

Seriously. All the loose leaf things like newspaper articles, notes from conferences, letters from experts, style sheet, project notebook, scene list, plot chart (always 17 inches long, so it doesn’t fit in the notebook), everything that I use everyday goes in the (specially purchased) box. (If you can keep all your planning materials in a manila file folder, you are a minimalist, and I think I envy you.) At the end of workday, I sweep everything into the box. Clean office! When transferring my work station outside, a full cup of coffee goes in as well.

For especially complicated projects like altnernate history or big milieu fantasy or science fiction…

 … use a three ring binder.

The binder should have tabs for culture, language (phrases, insults, sayings, oaths), history, religion, technology, flora/fauna, publications/books, politics, dress, military terms, and rules of magic or science research points.

Is it worth it?

If you feel a teensy bit daunted, I dont blame you.

It takes a bit of work to set up these tracking and organizational devices, but oh, the frustration saved! How is the pacing? Is enough happening? (Check out your scene list.) Where have I dropped clues on Meena’s true identity? (Scene list.) Where is Meena from? Islamabad. (Style sheet.) What again is my theme? (Notebook with big STAR by it.) How do you swear in Victorian England? (Three ring binder.) Where is my coffee cup? (Great big box.)

There you have it, your organizational tools for writing the novel. They will keep you on track, calm your nerves and save your ass. Now all you need to do is . . . listen to Larry Brooks. And write, write, write.

Kay Kenyon’s latest work is a science fiction series with a fantasy feel. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. The series has twice been shortlisted for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Rounding out the quartet are A World Too Near, City Without End and Prince of Storms. They are available in trade paper, Audible.com and Kindle editions. At her website, Writing the World, she regularly blogs on writing fiction.

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