Showing posts with label pacing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pacing. Show all posts

19 May 2020

Where To Start?


"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.

02 May 2015

Pace Yourself


In his book Story, screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says:

"Because a story is a metaphor for life, we expect it to feel like life, to have the rhythm of life. This rhythm beats between two contradictory desires: On one hand, we desire serenity, harmony, peace, and relaxation, but too much of this day after day and we become bored to the point of ennui, and need therapy. As a result, we also desire challenges, tension, danger, even fear. But too much of this day after day and again we end up in the rubber room. So the rhythm of life swings between these poles."

We all know that in a short story or a novel, the proper pacing is vital to its success. And in the case of mystery/crime fiction, the pace has to be fast. Nobody likes being bored, and nothing is so boring to a reader as a story that drags along and doesn't do something.

Ideally, this building of suspense has to happen throughout the narrative. A good, exciting opening is always important, but the challenge is then to keep up that pace afterward as well. Personally, I'd almost rather read a story or novel that starts slowly than one that starts strong and then bogs down in the middle; if it has a poor beginning I can at least stop reading sooner. As I've said before, there are too many good books and stories and movies out there for me to waste my time reading one or watching one that doesn't hold my interest.

So yes, good pacing is essential. But--as the little boy said to the magician--how do you do it?

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three ways that we writers can control the pacing of our fiction.

1. Style

- Dialogue speeds things up; description slows them down

- Short, simple sentences speed things up; long, complex sentences slow them down (think Hemingway vs. Faulkner)

- Action verbs speed things up (sprinting vs. running, slamming vs. closing, gulping vs. eating, stomping vs. walking)

- The overuse of certain kinds of punctuation (commas, ellipses, parentheses, etc.) slows things down

- Active voice speeds things up; passive voice slows them down

- Short scenes/chapters speed things up; long scenes/chapters slow them down (think Patterson vs. Michener)

2. Action

As mentioned earlier, the best way to keep the reader interested is to make things happen--preferably exciting things and preferably often. There should be plenty of confrontations, obstacles, and setbacks. Internal struggles of course create tension, but in genre fiction the conflicts should be external as well. According to Jessica Page Morrell in her book Thanks, but This Isn't for Us: "If too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won't work. Especially if in most of the scenes the character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing."

3. Reversals

I'm a big fan of plot twists--and by that I don't just mean O. Henry-type surprise endings. I love it when the story takes a sharp and unexpected turn at any point, even near the beginning. It keeps me guessing and therefore keeps me reading. (Or watching. Reference the shower scene in Psycho.) I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing here, but if you're the writer and you think things might be moving too slowly, that's a good time to have someone burst through the door holding a gun.

Those are just a few thoughts--please feel free to contradict them or to add to the list.

Finally, no discussion of pacing would be complete without at least mentioning the concept of "scene and sequel." Scenes are units of story action, and sequels (in terms of writing) are breaks in the action--rest periods when the hero/heroine takes a timeout to think about what just happened and to consider what might happen next. Properly alternating scenes and sequels is a pacing mechanism, to allow the reader to--along with the protagonist--catch his breath and calm down a bit before facing the next challenge.

If you want to read some really fast-paced mystery fiction, I suggest stories and novels by the following authors: Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Jack Ritchie, Joe R. Lansdale, and Elmore Leonard.

It won't take you long.

28 May 2012

A Lesson in Digression


Recent events in my personal life have led to many kindnesses from relatives, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers.  Thinking about this made me consider kindness in literature.  As some of you know, great lines I find in reading tend to earn permanent homes in my digressive mind.

"Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."  What a great line after an older woman restores a young  man's sense of masculinity by bedding down that virgin.  The closing line's been with me since I first read the play Tea and Sympathy while in seventh grade though not as assigned reading. 

On the left is Deborah Kerr as Laura Reynolds (the older woman) and John Kerr as seventeen-year-old Tom Robinson Lee in the movie produced by Vincente Minnelli in 1956, an adaptation of the 1953 stage play by Robert Anderson.

The plot of Tea and Sympathy created an uproar in the uptight fifties since it dealt not only with an older woman seducing a teenager but included accusations of homosexuality.

During eighth grade, I discovered I could go into school, store my books in my locker, go out the back door, and catch the city bus to the Five Points Theater where they showed old movies of many of the plays I'd read and loved. I caught the city bus back to the school right before dismissal. I spent most of my high school time downtown watching movies at least two days a week.  I was only caught once.  When the principal pulled my records and saw I was a straight A student, he patted me on the hand and said, "Now, Francie, don't do that again." (Kinda like cases when the jury says "guilty," but a judge gives a ridiculously light sentence because it's the first time the defendant's been in trouble.)

Vivien Leigh as Blanche when the man who'd
fallen in love with her reacts to learning that
she's a woman with a past.
I read plays by Eugene O'Neil. Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and others, (I confess I thought The Iceman Cometh was going to be off-color.) I still enjoy reading plays, but I was (and remain) especially fond of Tennessee Williams's work, and  my favorite Williams play was A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie had been out several years before I first saw it at the Five Points. 

This one included rape and everyone's refusal to believe Blanche's accusations though they accepted the rumor that dismissal from her teaching position was because of sexual misconduct with a student. Blanche's last line, when the authorities come to take her to a mental institution because she "hallucinated" that her sister's husband raped her is,  "Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Personally, I don't depend on the kindness of strangers, but I do appreciate them.

Are you, like me, wondering where I'm headed?  After all, most SS posts have something to do with mysteries or writing.  I seem to be digressing all over the place.

I began this blog thinking of kindness and could be headed toward something I learned long ago:
When it doesn't hurt anyone, sometimes it's better to be kind than right.

Both of the movies I mentioned dealt with older women seducing teenaged students--Laura, the coach's wife in Tea and Sympathy and Blanche who'd lost her teaching job for that offense before the action begins in A Streetcar Named Desire. Heaven knows we can't turn on the news these days without hearing about something similar, but as a retired teacher, this violation of professionalism and, in my opinion, decency, leads me to *&^*(*&^%$$# words, so I'm not going there.

I told you about skipping school and the principal's reaction.  Perhaps I was headed toward telling you my parents' reaction, which wasn't at all like the school's.

My mind is digressive. I've already warned you.  Having a digressive mind means that thoughts jump from one subject to another, frequently straying from the main subject.  In the extreme, it's not easy to even identify the main subject.
    


What were we talking about?  Reading plays.   How is that related to mystery or writing? Live drama and movies are entertaining, but reading plays is more beneficial to prose writers.  The structure of most plays is acts divided into scenes. Though the structure is there in performances, it's more obvious when a reader is looking at a print form.   Having trouble with plot sequence and pacing?  Think of your story as a three-act play.  It has a beginning, middle, and ending.  Scenes are the smaller parts of each act.  Thinking in those terms also helps in chapter division in longer works unless you're James Patterson.  I like his short, short chapters, an easy task because it's just making each scene a chapter. My last manuscript to my agent was "Pattersonesque."  It's only been a few days, and I'm eager to see his response. 

Now, what else did I want to write?  Danged if I know, so I'll just say

Until we meet again, take care of . . . YOU!