Tag Archives: pacing

Lose the Laundry

No, I’m not talking about your dirty clothes. Today’s post is about a necessary writing responsibility called description.

Do I hear groans? Quick! How many of you skip descriptive passages when you’re reading fiction? It can become boring pretty fast sometimes, and it’s slow. It puts the story on pause while the writer evokes some lovely–or clunky–imagery.

So if it has all these things going against it, why am I even bothering to bring it up? Why not ditch description altogether? Didn’t Elmore Leonard advise fiction writers never to include the things that readers skip?

He did.

However, we shouldn’t ditch description completely. Why? Because our stories need it. Description helps orient readers to our story world, particularly when your setting is purely imaginary. After all, remember that your fans have never been to the planet Faraway unless you describe it to them.

Secondly, description shows readers what our characters look like, especially in their introductions when they’re making that all-important first impression. Without description, I might read maybe half of a novel, all the while imagining–for whatever reason–that my viewpoint is stocky and red-haired, then suddenly discover that this individual is tall, willowy, and blonde. It’s like walking down a staircase and missing a step. Even if you catch your balance and avoid falling, you’ve taken quite a jolt.

And, finally, description helps evoke emotions or physical sensations through what our point-of-view character experiences. After all, if your protagonist has just proposed to the girl of his dreams and she turns him down, he needs to feel the emotions of disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, anger, and disbelief. Maybe we toss in resentment and stir up a bit of jealousy toward the guy she’s choosing instead. Or, if your point-of-view person is coshed with a blackjack at the end of Chapter Four and comes to at the beginning of Chapter Five to find herself trussed with rope and her face smushed into the gritty texture of old carpet that smells like dog urine and mold, then you have to share those descriptive details with readers or how will they know she’s shivery and nauseous from the throbbing pain in her skull and needs to keep her eyes shut against the dizzying spin of the room around her.

Hmm. So despite its bad rep, description is necessary. Does that mean Mr. Leonard is wrong? Not at all! It means we have to make description fun, fast, and lively enough that readers don’t want to skip it. Or, like tricking a toddler into opening his mouth so we can spoon in green peas, we have to slip description past readers before they realize what’s happening.

It’s helpful to remember that there are two major types of description:  laundry list and  dominant impression.

Let’s get the laundry out of the way, shall we? Early in my career, an editor criticized my manuscript for featuring too many laundry lists. I had no idea what she was talking about and kept piling on more and more details in my descriptive passages, which was the wrong thing to do and exactly what this editor did not want. Somehow, I finally revised that project to her satisfaction or exhaustion–not sure which–and publication deadline was met.

For clarity, let’s define laundry-list description as old-school enumeration of endless details about a setting or a character. Often such description begins with one side of a room and systematically moves the reader’s eye around as it catalogues the colors, furnishings, and architectural features. Or it might start with a character’s glossy black hair pinned high atop her head with only one long curl allowed to rest on her sloping shoulder, then moving down to address the widow’s peak of her hairline, her wide-spaced cerulean eyes with thick curling lashes, her pertly perfect nose with three adorable freckles scattered across its curvature, the rosy fullness of her lips, and the dimple in her chin. Fiction of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century often features such passages. Because every detail is lavishly attended to with equal emphasis, description tends to be long. More information means more word count. Longer imagery grows slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r until it becomes … ZZZZzzzz.

The other type of description is dominant impression, which focuses on a single image you want to get across to readers. What is the most important or notable aspect of the treasure cave that you need to convey?

Well obviously it’s the treasure.

All other information can wait. If that cave holds fabulous riches, then go bold with it in a couple of sentences and make sure you emphasize specific, well-chosen details. Consider ropes of immense pearls, rubies and emeralds winking in the torchlight, heavy Spanish doubloons heaped on the floor. However, don’t catalogue every jewel or count the bolts of shimmering silk cloth. Instead, what is it about a heap of treasure that would stand out to you first and foremost? The glitter-fire within the jewels? The gleam of the coins? If you want this trove to dazzle, then focus on how it shines and sparkles in the flickering torchlight. It’s the dazzle that’s the dominant impression, not each item.

Of course, if the treasure your hero expected to find is not in the cave and instead he encounters a pile of human skeletons in rotted clothing with baleful red rat eyes gleaming from among the bones, then you’ll want to focus on whatever your overwhelming disappointment leads you to notice. Maybe it’s the stench–dank and putrid–like standing in a mass grave. Hit with one vivid metaphor–ideally less of a cliche than my examples–and keep the action moving.

Every few pages, if needed, you can insert a descriptive phrase to supplement the dank dismal atmosphere or the empty gloom within the cave or the glum resignation on the sidekick’s face or the sharp twinge in the protagonist’s stomach as his ulcer perforates from the stress of failure and sends him to his knees in agony.

By pausing only briefly for a swift, vivid impression for setting establishment or character introductions and by mixing descriptive words into the story action, you’ll be able to lose the boring pile of laundry and keep your story exciting, plausible, and vivid.

 

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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.

 

 

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Read 100

There is light at the end of my tunnel. I can look ahead past the stacks of student manuscripts and deadlines to a summer where my time is my own.

My imagination is presently staggering, malnourished and underfed. It craves vitamins and nutrients. It craves fun, creativity, good story, fast pacing, involving characters — all the elements it hasn’t been receiving in sufficient quantities lately.

Therefore, I plan to feed it by reading at least 100 books this summer. I hope the number will far exceed that, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve never been a bean counter. Any past attempts to document my reading through listing the titles and plot summaries in some kind of diary have usually fallen by the wayside. I know I read a lot, but I never know how much. As long as I’m getting through at least one or two novels a week, I’m happy.

However, I want to be better organized than this, so I propose to go through my house and gather up 100 novels that I haven’t read as yet. All those to-be stacks of books spilling off the tops of overloaded bookshelves and stacked beneath chairs … time to pull them out, dust them off, and crack them open.

I think I’ll corral them in a large plastic tub and park it in the living room. If I start a book and dislike it enough to toss it aside after the first few pages, then it won’t count toward my quota. If I should empty the tub before the end of summer, then I’ll refill it with another 100 books and keep going.

Too ambitious?

I have no idea. I keep thinking back to my childhood, when I spent most summer days reading one to two books daily. I don’t intend to shoot for THAT, but the well needs filling and I aim to do it the best way I know how.

Meanwhile, there are new books to be chased down and captured as well. John Sandford’s new Prey title was released today. And the latest Miss Julia offering from Ann B. Ross came out earlier this month. My fingers are itching to order heaps of tomes. I visited bookstores three times this past weekend, racing up and down aisles with a sense of joy and abandon, surrounded by books on all sides.

During the past few months, I have been restricted on book purchases. Nothing like paying off the bills for eye surgery to dent one’s bank balance. But although this weekend I meant to buy only one book because payday cometh soon, I couldn’t quite achieve such self-discipline. Let’s just say I managed to get out of the store with only two sacks full of reading material, my credit card groaning all the way. How I wanted more!

What are your reading plans for the summer? Right now, I’m heading for the bookstore with maybe a detour past the library.

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Adversary Versus Adversity

I think my last couple of posts on scenes managed to confuse a few folks, so let’s look at things from a slightly different angle.

A novel isn’t split totally between scenes and their sequels. Other types of material are utilized as well. So there might be segments devoted to description of a setting or a character. There might be sections centered around providing information or background. There can be condensed portions where the author skims over a huge event–such as the WWII invasion of Normandy–without supplying a lot of detail.

Let’s focus for now on story action:

Dynamic story action can be presented in two ways.

One way is through a scene. The protagonist is pitted against a sentient, reasoning, foe or one that’s intelligently directed.

The other option is known as narrative summary. This is where the protagonist is pursuing a goal and encountering obstacles, but–despite harrowing danger–the story action is not actually a scene.

Now, let’s define and differentiate these two forms of action a little better.

A scene pits the protagonist against an adversary, right here, right now, and right in the protagonist’s face. The scene focuses on that encounter without summary. Every moment, every line of dialogue, and every move/countermove between the two characters is depicted.

So, for example, if James Bond is standing handcuffed in front of Dr. No and they are sparring verbally as one demands information and the other refuses to supply it, we have a scene.

Narrative summary pits the protagonist against adversity or obstacles or random bad luck. The event is summarized, supplying the gist of the action that’s happening without depicting every moment. Dialogue may be indirect or omitted entirely.

An example of this would be when James Bond is crawling through Dr. No’s horrific tunnel and meets dangerous obstacle after dangerous obstacle. With each new danger, Bond’s predicament grows worse. The suspense level increases, and audience sympathy for Bond rises. But he’s not in a scene.

Each form serves a purpose. Each can be quite effective. Mixing them up varies the pace within the story and keeps things from becoming monotonous and predictable.

If there’s no antagonist present, then utilize narrative summary.

If the antagonist steps out through a hidden door and blocks the passageway, then you’re in a scene and should slow things down fractionally to present the give-and-take conflict occurring between your protagonist and his adversary.

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When in Doubt, Speed Up!

Do you ever read a novel that bogs down in the middle? Or gets vague and tangled up as it goes?

Do you ever write a story that maybe starts off in an exciting way but soon you find that every page you’re producing is a slog … uphill … through quicksand?

And then, when you read over it, it’s even worse than you thought?

How easy it is to write when you’re enthusiastic and passionate about your plot and characters. And why are you that way? Because you have an idea. You can envision that opening scene, that event. You see the setting vividly. You hear the dialogue. You feel what your protagonist is feeling, and you can’t wait to get to your keyboard. Oh, the joy of feeling those words flowing from your imagination to your computer screen.

And then, the big opening is over. You’ve written it. Now a fog closes in around you. The headlights that once shone across your novel are dim. Maybe one headlight has cracked, and now you have a tentative notion of where your characters are going next, but you aren’t sure.

In my experience, uncertainty generates a slow-down in pacing. You may not realize it because you’re so busy trying to juggle a dozen other writing techniques. But if you doubt the scene you’re about to write, it will come through as timidity, hesitancy, and caution.

Before you know it, your next scene, and the next, and the next are small. The stakes shrink. Your characters are talking instead of arguing. The conflict level has dwindled to zero. You keep saying, “I’m stuck. Why am I stuck? I had a great idea. What’s happened to it? It’s horrible. I hate it. I think I’ll write something else instead.”

As for your characters, when you’re unsure they become dull. Why? Because your caution will usually lead you to tone down their design. They become plain, ordinary, realistic people who chat with each other about nothing important.

You are in a whirlpool, my friends, and you are going down.

The answer?

Go big! Go faster!

This is one of those rare times when a writer should work contrary to his instincts. It’s natural to shrink. But a writer must enhance, enlarge, go wild, be unpredictable, take chances … LEAP!

So how, you might be thinking, am I supposed to pick up the pace when I don’t know where I’m going?

Believe in your original story idea, the one you plotted in your preliminary outline, the one you smoothed and honed and thought over before you ever began your project. Believe in it. Trust it. Stick with it.

Also, if you’ve bogged down and can’t think of what’s going to happen next, go back to the point in your story where you stopped writing conflict, where your protagonist stopped actively pursuing a goal, and where no antagonist stepped up to oppose the hero’s success.

Fix that!

No aimless chatter allowed. The characters should be arguing, disagreeing, trying to persuade or plead or influence each other. Raise the stakes. Put your protagonist in trouble. Even if you’re still stuck, throw in a massively wild, totally unexpected danger that’s apparently unconnected to anything you have going on.

Planned? No. But do anything to get your story rolling again. You can figure out a connection later in revision.

The wild, out-of-left-field plot twist or new trouble is a technique that I call an “alligator.” Why? Long story. Just keep in mind that when you happen to meet a real alligator, you have only a few options–chiefly are you going to run away from it and maybe call the authorities or fight it? Alligators are primitive, crude, highly dangerous reptiles. They don’t allow you to stand there passively, staring at them. When confronted by one, either on land or in the water, you must TAKE ACTION!

Same thing with your plot. Alligators shouldn’t force your storyline completely off track, but give your characters an unexpected, new, immediate problem to deal with. Get ’em moving. And above all, get them moving fast.

The more conflict you put them in, the faster your story will go. The more exaggerated and flamboyant your characters are forced to be, the more active they’ll become.

Give it a try, the next time you start slogging.

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Whoa Now! Varying the Pace

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say, “Get on with the story.” He was talking about the tendency of the unsure writer to stall or slow down the story’s progression. Again and again, he stressed the necessity of keeping the pace fast. I’ve found his advice to be sound. Keep the pages turning. Keep readers from finding a stopping place. Keep things happening.

However, it’s just as possible to stumble with a story that’s too fast as with a story that’s too slow.

Any plot can become monotonous or dull if the pacing never varies. There are many terms for this: the story’s rhythm, the rise and fall of drama, the peaks and valleys of plot, etc.

Try this:

Bob darted around the corner with his Uzi held at waist level. He saw the target ahead–a shadow waiting for him in the alley. A flower of flame burst to life in the darkness. A split-second later, Bob heard the rat-tat staccato of gunfire. The bullets chipped pellets of brick, stinging when they struck him. He ducked, rolled, came up, returned fire. His opponent twisted, flung back by a hit, and fell. Bob raced forward. That was one down, but he knew seven more assailants waited between him and his goal.

This moves quickly, but if I gave Bob a moment to catch his breath and weigh a couple of options before he takes on Enemy #2, it would be more effective. Hit the reader with too much action, happening too quickly, with no chance to process, and within a few pages the reader’s circuits will be shorting out from overload. Burn out your reader, and the book is put down.

Let’s try again:

Bob eased his way across the corner, holding his Uzi at waist level. He concentrated on moving silently, taking his time, placing the soles of his shoes precisely in contact with the alley’s pavement. He was wearing a dark pair of New Balance cross-trainers, secure and reliable. Still, he couldn’t afford to let them squeak or scuff the cement. He knew that alert ears were ahead of him, ears listening for any sound that might signal an attack. Ahead, a shadow moved, and a burst of flame from a muzzle was all the warning he received before the echoing crash of gunfire bounced off the walls around him. Bob ducked, breathing hard and fast. His hands were suddenly sweaty on his weapon. He was shaking with adrenaline, unable to force his fingers to do what they’d been trained to do. Shoot back, he snarled at himself. Just shoot back! But everything had slowed down. He could taste sweat and blood in his mouth. His ears thundered from the staccato hailstorm of bullets. He wanted to throw himself flat on his belly and scream, but instead he brought up his weapon, and squeezed the trigger. The Uzi bucked in his hands, sending death in reply. Bob saw his opponent twist and fall with a choked cry. Then all was quiet, except for the ringing in his ears. His nostrils were full of cordite stench. He let his knees wobble beneath him as he sank down, breathing hard. He hadn’t killed anyone since that mission three years ago, the one he’d blanked from his mind as much as possible. Now, the smells and sounds came flooding back, the stuff of nightmares.

He forced himself to stay focused, and not dwell on the past. That was one, he thought. Only seven to go. This way in had been compromised now. They would be expecting him. Maybe he should retreat, but if he failed his mission how could he face the …

Gak! Enough of that! Here, I’ve deliberately written this action sequence to be slow. There’s too much concentration on descriptive details at points where Bob needs to be less self-absorbed and more focused on staying alive.

Pace, like so many aspects of writing technique, is a question of balance.

Keep Pages Turning

You keep readers engaged by utilizing hooks, plot twists, conflict, rising stakes, motivation, sympathetic characters, and unpredictability.

There’s an old Ronald Reagan movie called KING’S ROW. In the film, Ronnie suffers an accident and is badly injured. The town doctor amputates his legs–not because Ronnie needs an amputation, but because the doctor doesn’t want Ronnie and his daughter to become a couple. No actual gore is shown, but during the doctor’s grim assessment of this injured young man and his quiet orders to the other men to clear the room so he can take out his bone saw, the pace is slow but INTENSE. If you were reading this in prose, you would be turning pages.

Lesson to learn: Don’t rely on narrative summary alone to turn pages. Readers care more about what’s happening than how fast the events are unfolding.

No Stopping Places

Typically, readers want to put the book down at the end of chapters. Many like to read before they go to sleep at night and don’t intend to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A writer’s intention should be to prevent readers from laying down the book.

To achieve this, you need hooks at the end of every chapter. These can be cliffhangers, questions, plot twists, etc.

You should put hooks at the beginnings of chapters, too. Maybe you shift viewpoint or use catchy dialogue. These tactics can keep the reader intrigued and engaged.

Watch out for boring sections of your story. Have you allowed the conflict to become circular? (Straighten out the scene and make it work. Throw in a twist or an unexpected tactic from the antagonist.)

Are you stalling because you don’t know what you want to write next? (Figure it out and then cut out the padding.)

Are you relying too much on description and imagery to make pretty settings? (Readers like a sense of place, but too much description slows the pace.)

Keep Things Happening

Are the characters standing around talking instead of doing?

Has the conflict gone flat?

Can you add more conflict?

Is character dialogue chatty small talk or is it advancing the plot?

When was the last time you utilized a plot twist?

The point is that you shouldn’t stick to one speed from start to finish. You shouldn’t rely on one or two techniques all the time. When you become predictable, your story becomes boring–whether it’s overloaded with events of equal weight happening so fast that no one can make sense of them or whether it’s burdened with dragging, slow introspection from your navel-gazer of a protagonist.

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The Happy Angler

I’m pretty sure we all realize that it’s not enough to catch a reader in the opening line. You can hook a fish with an attractive lure, but that fish can slip its hook and get away if you don’t pay attention. Same thing with readers.

Over this past weekend, between bouts of Olympic action, I watched one of my favorite classic screwball comedies: LIBELED LADY, 1936. It has a super cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. I won’t go into the plot, but my favorite part of the movie is where Powell’s character is trying to impress Loy and her father and gain their trust. He goes fishing with them, pretending to be an expert fly fisherman, even though he really knows nothing about the sport. Separating himself from the others, Powell positions himself upstream where he can’t be observed. He makes a couple of casts, and surreptitiously looks at his handbook on fishing that he’s hidden in his creel. When a trout snaps his lure, he’s suddenly floundering around in the water with no idea of how to play the fish or reel it in.

[Powell was an actor able to handle dramatic as well as comedic roles. In this film, he displays an ability for physical comedy that’s equal to Cary Grant’s. But I digress.] 

The method is to give the fish enough line to swim and thrash about until it’s tired. Then you reel it in until it resumes its struggle. That’s when you give it line again. Reel in a fish that’s not exhausted and can still fight you hard, and you run the risk of breaking your line. Give too much line to a strong fish, and it will perhaps yank both rod and reel from your hands. Then you’ve lost your equipment and your catch–which is what happens to the character Johnson in the Howard Hawks’s 1944 film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, staring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (with William Faulkner as one of the screenwriters). Johnson is marlin fishing. He’s brash, stupid, arrogant, doesn’t know what he’s doing, and refuses to be instructed.

Now–to get out of the water and back onto the page–you hook your reader in the opening sentence or paragraph of your story. But then what do you do?

Are you going to lose your reader midway through Chapter 1? Will you lose your reader in the first four chapters? Last night, I starting reading a Robert Crais mystery. I made it to about Chapter 5, but this morning I picked up Raymond Chandler instead and am having a much better time.

Our mission–should we choose to accept it–is to entice, trick, beguile, and intrigue readers into staying with us from start to finish. It’s our job to make readers willing to keep turning pages.

How do we do that?

*Great Plot

*Intriguing & Sympathetic Characters

*Quick but Varied Pace

*More Hooks

I’ll discuss each of these in turn in the series to come.

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