Tag Archives: plotting techniques

Pacing: A Literary Strip Tease

I love the way a good book will spoon feed me interesting tidbits, stringing me along like a drug addict flipping pages from fix to fix. Getting to the end of a chapter and realizing I can’t stop there, that I simply must continue reading, that my life will be a little poorer until I find out how the hero is going to free himself from the rock that has him pinned to that hard place there is an awesome feeling.

With epic fantasy and the cast of hundreds some of the successful series wield (i.e. A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time), it might actually be a chapter or two if not a hundred pages before you get back to said hero stuck in said predicament. The challenge the writer faces is making sure A: the continuation of the storyline you’re slavering over is worth the wait, and B: the intervening storylines and their characters are not only necessary, but interesting enough not to lose your attention in the meantime.

Of course, the pacing you use will vary depending on the format of what you’re writing. The pacing in a short story is quicker–for obvious reasons–than in a novel, and a 150k novel will have different pacing than one of the 450k word tomes Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin publish. Likewise, it will vary depending on the genre. If you like writing YA, your story will definitely have a quicker pace than a story written for a more mature audience.

I aspire to write epic fantasy, and often find myself struggling with my own pacing. Like so many of you, I’m a product of this current age of instant gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now! But with literature–as with just about any form of entertainment–a good percentage of the enjoyment we derive from it comes from sheer anticipation. How often do you see the monster in the horror movie before the second act? Very rarely.

And while I love that very same anticipation when reading a book or watching a movie, when I’m actually writing, I wish I could write ten times as fast. As the author, I know what’s going to happen next. I know how awesome I think it is, and how badly I want my readers to get to it so they can revel in its glory right there beside me.

Somewhere along the line in the writing process, I typically lose my sense of pacing and begin revealing things far too quickly. The big secret which is supposed to be revealed at the climax suddenly makes an appearance in the prologue. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but this most definitely is one of my weaknesses as a writer. As such, it’s one of the things I always ask my alpha readers to focus on.

Anyone have any tricks for how they deal with pacing in different forms of fiction? Since I’m writing epic fantasy, it helps to tell myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Pacing and Scene Selection

Today I want to talk about story pacing.

I’m currently reading one of those books that’s really gotten into my head and I’ve been thinking about why. The book is Princeps Fury, book 5 of the Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera epic fantasy series. I’m really enjoying the book and the series, although I need to finish it soon so I can get it out of my head and focus on my own writing.

Two things in particular have jumped out at me while reading this book. First, it is a big fat epic fantasy, and yet it is paced more like a military thriller: fast, unrelenting, with constant twists and escalations. Second, every scene drives the plot forward, escalating the conflict or twisting the plot. There’s no downtime, no reprieves.

For me it works, even though it’s hard to maintain such a pace for such a long book. For my wife, it doesn’t. She prefers stories where there are breaks in the tension, where the action comes more in cycles than in one long, continuous sprint toward the end. She needs the periodic emotional rest or she finds a story overwhelming.

Different readers have different preferences. As authors we need to discover what pacing our story requires. Then we need to deliver it. Some readers will like it. Some won’t. But if the story isn’t paced properly, no one will.

In a thriller or a fast-action story a hard-hitting, constantly escalating pace is required or there’s not enough emotional tension for the author to achieve the sought after experience for the readers. On the other hand, some stories have different objectives. Some epic fantasies explore the milieu (the environment, culture, history, and customs of the worlds they’ve created). That’s fine too. Many readers love this type of story as long as it doesn’t get too bogged down by all the side-tracks.

The pacing needs to be appropriate or the story dies. A common mistake that can derail the correct pacing is including the wrong scenes. Imagine a story like the movie “Die Hard” where, in the middle of the action, the hero John McLane decides to take a hot bath and drink some tea.

Wouldn’t work.

That example’s a bit extreme, but new authors often fall into the trap of including scenes just because they’re the next sequential step in the character’s journey, even if they’re just filler material between the scenes that really matter. Experienced authors have learned to recognize those filler scenes that do nothing in and of themselves to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way. They learn to cut those scenes and move on to the next important action.

For authors who do a lot of exploratory writing to “find’ the story, this can be a greater challenge because the very nature of that exploratory writing will result in scenes that are useful to the author but not to the finished work. In subsequent drafts as the author is paring the story down to its core plot line, those scenes must be removed or they will drag a story down and ruin it.

I’ve learned this the hard way. In the early drafts of one novel I wrote I included several entire chapters that, although interesting and well written, did next to nothing to drive the plot forward. It was hard to recognize that they had to go because in a slightly different story they would have been perfectly appropriate.

Just not in the story they happened to be in.

I had to learn to ask the question: “If I remove this entire scene, will the reader even notice?” The answer was “No”. I cut the scenes and no one blinked an eye.

On the other hand, in the same novel, I got a little carried away with trimming the fat and cut an entire POV and all of its related scenes. Beta readers didn’t know what was missing but they sensed that something was lacking in the story. I put the scenes back and readers confirmed it filled the gap.

It can be a tricky process, but it is vital. We as authors need to make sure we understand what emotional journey our readers will be taking as they follow our characters through the torturous adventures we throw them into. Extraneous scenes need to go. Scenes that do not deliver the correct tension, pacing, or emotional beat have to go or have to be corrected.

What techniques have you developed for identifying scenes to chop?

Taking Advice

Everybody has an opinion. Oftentimes, a person’s opinions and ideas about a given subject will contradict those of other people. Writing is no exception.

Take any topic within writing, ask a bunch of writers what they think about it, and the answers you’ll receive will be all over the board. It doesn’t matter if the topic is agents, dialogue tags, or the best hours of the day to write–opinions on such things will vary widely. But does this mean there is no one right answer to the question you’re asking?

At first, it might be easy to think so. After all, what these authors are doing obviously works well for them. But there’s the rub: what they’re doing works well in their situation.

Now, I’m not advocating the position that there are no universal truths in the world or in writing, which I would argue is a philosophically invalid and practically worthless position. What I am advocating is the notion that these universal truths only apply within a given context.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to design a book cover for your Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel. You might think, “Well, book covers that have tramp-stamped female characters on motorcycles holding shotguns are selling like mad. I’ll think I’ll jump on that bandwagon.” Doing so would absolutely ruin your book and everyone who read it would hate it. Why? Because books with that kind of cover only sell well in the context of urban fantasy novels, not epic fantasy novels.

The reason context is so important is because our careers, our writing styles, and our stories, could potentially manifest themselves in a vast number of ways, some of which could be very unlike others who have written in our respective genre. While a particular method for getting published or selling books might have worked for one person, that same method applied by someone with very different personal qualities or writing strengths could crash and burn.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from those who have come before us. It does mean that we have to know ourselves, our situations, and our writing, and that we have to know how to apply the things we’ve learned in a way that benefits us. While our writing and our careers may look nothing like someone like Stephen King’s, there is still much we can learn from him (if you haven’t already, read his book On Writing).

So if I were to give you one piece of writing advice that is universal, it would be this: do what is appropriate for your story, and do what is appropriate for your career.

Pantsers vs Plotters

We often hear that writers fall into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters. In truth, most of us straddle those two camps with a toe and maybe an arm in one and most of our body in the other. I am one of those ridiculously methodical people who have a spreadsheet or a list for everything. My writing desk needs to be spotless and organised. I have multiple spreadsheets tracking everything from submissions to budgets to daily word counts. Wouldn’t you expect me to be a plotter?

Actually, I’m a pantser – I write by the seat of my pants, without an outline, figuring it out as I go. I usually start with a particular setting I want to explore and as I get to know the characters who inhabit that setting, the story unfolds. But I’d love to be a plotter. The methodical part of my brain adores the idea of a neatly-constructed outline, a manuscript mapped out scene by scene, writing with a definite end in mind.

I’ve tried to be a plotter. I really have. Before I started writing my previous manuscript, I wrote a detailed outline. I knew exactly where the manuscript was heading and what would happen in every chapter. I lasted two scenes and then deviated irretrievably from the outline. Perhaps I could have forced the story to follow the path I had originally chosen, but the way it went instead felt more natural and the outline was abandoned.

Yet I still longed to be a plotter. So this time I’m trying something different. I have a very brief outline written on index cards – lovely big, pink ones. I adore index cards and the methodical part of my brain is thrilled at having a stash of those pink cards spread out around me as I write. It makes me feel like a “proper” writer.

The index card method is working well. Because I can change the order of the cards, I’m finding it easier to insert additional scenes or move them to a more appropriate place as the story changes. The story is coming out more easily because I do have some sort of plan in mind, however brief. As I get to know my characters and understand what drives them, the story I had intended naturally changes. With my new index card system, I can shuffle around a few cards, add others in, remove the ones I no longer need, and hey presto, I still have an outline of sorts and the yet the story can follow its own course.

I’m not saying I’m a reformed pantser, not by a long shot. By I have discovered that pantsers and plotters are perhaps not as mutually exclusive as I once thought.

How about you? Are you a pantser or a plotter? And which would you prefer to be?