Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacing by Ann Voss Peterson

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Kevin Hardman talking about Amazon ranking here:

You can read Mark Terry talking about his publishing journey here:

You can read Jeff Schajer talking about his thrillers here:

You can read Lisa Grace talk about movie options here:

You can read Brandilyn Collins talking about dialog subtext here:

You can read Katherine Sears talking about Booktrope:

You can read Richard Denoncourt talking about cover art here:

Now here's Ann Voss Peterson...

Ages ago, I promised Joe I would contribute a blog post about writing craft. With the majority of the guest posts focused on the business end of publishing, I thought this might be a good time to actually live up to that promise.

My first book was published in 2000, and I've now written over thirty, but one of the final things I had to master before selling to a publisher was pacing. I've seen it in fiction I've judged for contests, too; stories that are almost there except for pacing issues. Pacing can be tough to learn.

First of all, pace varies with genre and voice. That's a given. Some stories are meant to be leisurely and rich, some fast and frantic. It's up to the author to know his/her audience and find the pace that's right for his/her story.

But it's useful to note that no one complains about a truly fast-paced book. Fast pace means important things happen, the characters change, and the reader doesn't want to put the book down. The prose itself sucks us in and feels urgent.

But what if the pace feels too fast? Too slow? How do you gage the difference?

If a story feels too fast, speed isn't the culprit. Instead, the story is underdeveloped. The underdeveloped novel doesn't feature fully fleshed out scenes but instead relies on vignettes, like short visual clips you might see in a movie. The scenes change very fast, but the story feels sketchy. A little of that can work well, if it's done skillfully and for effect. An entire book of that is a literary slide show, not a novel. The scenes streak past, but the story doesn't really go anywhere.

Pacing that feels too slow is even more common, and there are a lot of articles out there featuring lists of tips and tricks for speeding up the sagging story. Some of the common suggestions are:

-Make sure your protagonist is active.
-If the action sags, kill someone.
-Add a ticking clock.
-Keep a secret.

I've never been a big fan of random lists of tips and tricks like the one above. I believe it’s more important to understand the WHY behind something and make it your own, rather than to just stick in a device here and there. So in my quest to understand pacing, I set out to learn why some prose feels fast and some feels slow. And as I read and analyzed, I came to the conclusion that the conventional way we frame the subject of pacing--as fast or slow--is all wrong.

Pacing isn’t about speed.

That’s right. Pacing doesn’t have ANYTHING to do with how fast the action unfolds on the page. Think about it. We've all read thrillers where plenty of action takes place, but they still feel as if they’re moving as slow as a Prius driver at a four-way stop. We've also read literary novels or family dramas which don’t have a lot of exterior “stuff” happening, yet leave us breathless. So if a novel’s pace isn’t about speed, what IS it about?

The secret to pacing your novel—whatever genre you're writing—is making your reader NEED to turn the page.

Well I just happen to be a reader. I’ll bet you are, too. So I asked myself what makes ME want to turn the page, and I came up with four things.

1. Conflict: I turn the page to discover who wins the fight.
2. Sequence: I turn the page to uncover what happens next.
3. Delayed Gratification: I turn the page to learn the answers to my questions.
4. Escalation: I turn the page to see how on earth the protagonist gets out of this unholy mess!

Now there are entire books written on these subjects, and a blog post (as long as this one is) is not going to be extensive enough to do them justice. My hope is to get you thinking about how you can compel your reader to turn the page by using these four elements on a small (sentence, paragraph) scale and a large (story) scale in your writing. So let's go.

1. Conflict: I turn the page to discover who wins the fight.

This is the biggest topic of the four. The basis for all fiction is conflict. Without it, story doesn't exist. Your protagonist wants something, and s/he must struggle against opposition and through hardship to reach that goal.

Small Scale:
There are opportunities to enhance the conflict your story on even the smallest scale. The simplest is word choice. Some words carry more visceral impact than others, generally short Germanic words as opposed to longer Latinate words. Add conflict to sentences by using strong verbs and nouns rather than propping up your verbs and nouns with adverbs and adjectives. Bring conflict into a scene with subtext; characters saying one thing while thinking or meaning something quite different. Show conflicting aspects of your character. A man can be both smooth and guttural; a woman both brutal and heroic.

Large Scale:
In the beginning of your story, you make a promise to your reader. What this promise is depends on genre and the inciting incident of the story. So if you begin with a detective finding a dead body, you are promising that by the end, we will know who the killer is. And if the story is a whodunit mystery, the murderer will be caught and brought to justice. If it's a romance, the couple will get together at the end. If it's a thriller, the threat will be stopped.

This doesn't just apply to genre novels. All books have an inciting incident (something happens that causes conflict) and the story is about the characters dealing with that conflict (and perhaps others), and when that initial conflict is resolved, the story is over. If you show the conflict has been resolved at the end of the third chapter, you've ended your story and no number of tips and tricks will fix the pacing of a story that feels as if it's already over.

There are a lot of good books on writing. And I'll be sharing a few I've found useful as we go along, both for beginners and for more advanced writers. Most of these are older and considered classics. All of the books I will be suggesting deal with conflict, but some to note here are:

2. Sequence: I turn the page to uncover what happens next.

This is also known as stimulus and response or action and reaction. A story is a chain of events. When something happens, there should be a reaction on the part of every character involved. Someone says something, another answers, and yet another acts out in a later scene. A character strikes, another strikes back. Everything that happens in a story causes something else to happen, like ripples in a pond.

Small Scale:
On a sentence and paragraph level, if your prose feels slow, you might not be ordering your sentences in a way that makes them easy to read. The reader's eye moves from left to right, and the action should as well. Every time you break this natural sequence, you ask your reader to backtrack in order to interpret the sentence's meaning.

Jake tripped and fell. –versus- Jake fell, because he tripped.

Now this doesn't mean you can never break chronological sequence, just that it should be your default setting. Breaking sequence is useful when you intend to draw the reader's attention. But every time you ask your reader to do extra work, there should be a reason. Nothing should happen by accident. Know what you're doing and why.

Large Scale:
The stimulus – response chain is the building block of story structure. Each action or reaction is called a beat. Beats add up to form scenes, scenes form sequences, sequences form acts, and acts form stories. I've found studying structure to be very helpful, and there are many books on the subject. One of my favorites is the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. I also adore this blog post on character development and sequel by JimButcher

Movie structure is actually easier to study than novel structure and is quite relevant for most popular fiction. McKee's Story deals with film structure, but I find that it doesn't translate to novels in some ways. To bridge the gap between movies and novels, try Alexandra Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love.

And for beginning writers, I suggest starting with the Bootcamp for Novelists Training Manuel by Linda Style and Connie Flynn.  

3. Delayed Gratification: I turn the page to learn the answers to my questions.

Remember the Carly Simon song used in the Heinz ketchup ad? 

Anticipation…Anticipation is making me wait…it's keeping me waiting…

Small Scale:
There is a delayed gratification trick that is used in poetry. The last word in a line carries the most power, as does the last line and word in a stanza, as does the last line and word in the entire poem. The reader reads through each line to find the point. We can use that in fiction as well.

Look at the last word in each sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter. Is it carrying a punch? Is it strong and significant enough to justify your reader reading to get to it? Don't contort your prose to make this happen, but pay attention to giving your reader a little reward, a tiny thrill, something to read toward. This technique can be really useful when writing your product description.

And if you want to test your prose to see if you're doing this, here's a fun little trick: take an excerpt of your writing that you think really works. Write down the last word in every sentence. Read them all together, pretending you've never seen that section of the story. Do you get a sense of what it's about? If those words are strong and significant, you will.

Large Scale:
And this is where I harp about backstory. J Lately I have come to suspect that some writers think backstory and character development are the same thing. They are not. Backstory is stuff that already happened to the character, the character's past. Just like people, characters are defined not only by their pasts, but by the choices they make in the present. We are what we do, and so are characters.

That's why a character's actions are most important, especially at the beginning of a book. The past can and should wait. Why? Because readers don't care yet. Sure you have to give enough information so the reader isn't lost, but that's far less than you feel they need. The best, most gut wrenching, character forming events of your protagonist's past should only be revealed when the reader thinks she cannot live without knowing. You leave hints. You show character behavior that begs an explanation. You let your character ooze with attitude. But you do not spill the beans.

In Writing theBreakout Novel, Donald Maass suggests holding backstory until at least the midpoint of the book, and I've found that works out pretty well in most of my stories. But the point isn't to adhere to a certain page. Hold off until you feel the moment is right for your story, just be sure to keep your secrets until your reader is desperate to know.

And when the secrets do come out, reveal them dramatically. In dialog. With conflict. Sittin' and thinkin' is boring. A tearful confession or a secret blurted out in the heat of an argument? That's conflict!

4. Escalation: I turn the page to see how on earth the protagonist gets out of this mess!

Raise the stakes. Increase the conflict. Break things. Make the problem unsolvable.
In fiction, the worse things get, the better we readers like it and the faster we have to read. So don't be afraid to rain down hell upon your characters. Then make it worse.

Small Scale:
Not only should the payoff for a sentence, paragraph, scene, sequence, act, story be at the end of each of these units, but the action should escalate to the end. That means each item in a list gets more intense, specific, important. Each beat builds. Each scene is more intense or meaningful than the last. If the emotional intensity stays the same, your story will feel as if it is sagging. If the intensity lessens, your reader will put down the book and never pick it up again. I know I will.

Large Scale:
Physical threat isn't the only way to escalate. There are things worse than losing your life, such as losing those you love, losing your honor, losing whatever makes you human. Stakes can be global, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. When the physical threat hits a crescendo, escalate by increasing an emotional threat.

The Codename: Chandler series that I write with Joe is all about a breakneck pace. In the Chandler books, many readers have commented that the action never lets up. That's not exactly true. Chandler does slow down now and then. But when that happens, Joe and I ramp up the emotional threat or the psychological threat or add a global threat to the mix. As a result, each story and the series as a whole escalate all the way to the end, never lagging or getting weaker in intensity. HIT is the latest, and it's only $2.99.

5. Number Five; the secret to it all.

I know I said there were four elements to good pacing, and now I've added a fifth. But this isn't exactly an element of pacing. This is THE KEY TO EVERYTHING (See? I kept this one for last. Delayed gratification and escalation). So what is it?
Great characters.

Now that is yet another topic too large for this blog post. But without great characters, a reader doesn't care who wins, what happens next, what their secrets are, or if their situation grows more and more dire. Without great characters, none of the four points I mentioned above matters.

Story is character in conflict. Add structure. Build to a big payoff.

So how about those pacing tips and tricks I mentioned at the beginning? Why do they work?

-An active character is one who is facing conflict, not sitting there like a stump.
-If done right, killing someone is going to provide conflict. It’s also going to give those story stakes a boost (escalation). That’s why it can make a slow area feel faster paced. But it only works if the murder does those two things. If it doesn’t raise the stakes or if it doesn’t increase the conflict, it’s going to muddy your story instead of making the reader need to turn that page.
-The ticking clock is an example of escalation. The characters had to do something in your story (right?), and now they have to do it in a very short time span.
-Keeping a secret is an example of delayed gratification. The reader has to race through those pages to find out what the secret is or to see it revealed to another character. And of course, the character’s reaction to that secret is her response to a stimulus...sequence!

Obviously this blog post only scratches the surface of a complex topic. I hope you find the handful of resources I named here helpful. I also hope you share more suggestions in the comments section. Different approaches speak to different people, so the more choices we amass; the more likely all will discover something helpful.

But reading how-to books is only the beginning. The most important thing is doing the writing itself. And when you sit down to write, ask yourself one question:

What makes you NEED to turn the page?
You are writing for YOUR reader. He or she values how YOU see the world. So put yourself in her place. Analyze your own writing from the point of view of yourself as a reader. Understand what makes your heart beat a little faster and your fingers clutch your Kindle a little tighter when you read.
Then work on tormenting your reader in the same way.
Pushed Too Far is free today (Friday 7/12) only.

Joe sez: I once had an argument on a writing panel with bestselling author who claimed the best novels were character driven. I disagreed. I said they were plot driven. I think you can have a really interesting character who readers won't care about if nothing happens in the story. He claimed the characters are what readers identify with.  
Ann eclipses this argument by stating that story is about a character in conflict, and I'd be hard pressed to debate against that. 

There are several tricks I use to keep readers turning the pages, some easy to master, some not. But they are things that my readers seem to enjoy, and in a blog post about pacing this is a good place to share them.

1. White space on the page. I've talked about this many times. When confronted with a big, blocky paragraph that takes up half or all the page/screen, some readers may start to skim. They'll read the first few sentences, subconsciously decide if it is adding to the story, and skip it if it doesn't escalate the conflict.

I like short, punchy paragraphs, no more than a few sentences each. I like a lot of dialog. I like avoiding adverbs, adjectives, overlong description, and speaker attribution when possible. The more white space on a page, the faster the reader can zip through it.

2. No chapters. The Joe Konrath School of Writing changes POV and starts each new section on the same page, tagged by who the POV character is, ending each section on a cliffhanger. I don't give readers a place to stop reading. And I try not to let any POV last longer than 2500 words. Some are as short as a few hundred.

3. Emotion. In the last five novels I've written, I try to find spots in the novel to make readers afraid, make them laugh, make them cry, and turn them on. Reading is a vicarious, safe way to induce emotion; to immerse a reader in a world they can imagine and identify with, and make them feel something. The more the reader feels, the harder it is to put the book down. So I use jokes and sex and violence and suspense, and I use them often.

4. Big ideas and big twists. A big idea is a hook--a plot point that intrigues the reader. A big twist is an a-ha--something unexpected. Conflict, Sequence, Delayed Gratification, Escalation, and Characters are something all good narratives should have. But if you have a great hook and some cool twists, you're going to set yourself apart from all the other good books out there. Readers expect all of the above things Ann mentions and so eloquently describes. But readers buy books based on the premise. A cool hook and some big surprises will get you fans.

5. Less is more. If a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word can be cut, it should be. If you're wondering how to pare down your length, look at backstory, description, prologues, purple prose, interior monologue, showing off (look how much research I did), and darlings (I love this part even though it doesn't move the story forward). Every word should have at least two reasons for being in your story, and if you aren't deliberately doing that, you're going to lose readers.

The quickest way to increase the pace of your story is to edit stuff out. If you aren't sure what to edit, hire an editor (always a smart move anyway) or give it to a trusted peer who is a pro, or your writing group. 

I encourage everyone to pick up Pushed Too Far, which is free, for a good example of how to pace a book (for Jack Daniels fans, she has a fun scene in it). You can also pick up Timecaster Supersymmetry for free, which also has Jack Daniels in it. 

But warning: both books are page-turners and contain violence, humor, and explicit sex.

Addendum: Today I tried a new advertising service for my Timecaster Supersymmetry giveaway promotion called Book Blast. It runs today. Supersymmetry is currently ranked at #136 in free ebooks on Amazon. We'll see if this gives it a boost.