There are a lot of components to pacing in your novel. You can think of it as:
The big picture, how fast and slow your whole novel goes. How scenes link together.
The scene, how fast and slow the individual scene moves
The page, how sentences and white space and even punctuation influence how quickly or slowly the reader moves through the story. This is the pacing of each line.
It’s linked to your novel’s structure in those individual scenes and how those scenes cycle through your story (some more active and others not so much). It’s also linked to your style and tone (your sentence length, word use, paragraph length). It also is linked to genre expectations.
When we settle in to Outlander or Game of Thrones, we’re expecting a slower pace than if we’re opening up a Tess Gerritsen novel.
So, it’s a lot, right?
It’s up to us writers to know the expectations (potentially even subverting them) and then slowing the speed up or down.
Typically, the story is the fastest paced at these moments:
1. In the opening
2. In the middle
3. In the climax.
The story tends to go faster when:
1. There’s action happening. So, an action scene. Most authors try to avoid long sentences full of clauses and detailed description and transitions here.
2. Dialogue without a lot of setting details, transitions or other things involved.
3. When there’s a cliff hanger. That’s basically just when the reader is compelled to turn the page to find out what happens next in the story.
4. Scene changes.
5. Scene changes in rapid succession.
6. Shorter chapters.
7. Shorter scenes.
8. Your words are simple and concrete and your sentences are short.
9. Your words are harsh. What do I mean here. Just when they have hard sounds. Like Gs and Cs and Ks.
The story tends to go more slowly when:
1. There’s no action happening. So exposition or setting or a pondering scene.
2. There are a lot of setting details, internal monologue (in paragraph form), backstory and exposition.
3. Longer chapters.
4. Longer scenes.
5. Your words are complex and abstract and your sentences are long and full of colons or semicolons and clauses.
6. Your words are softer. There aren’t those hard consonants and they make you think of more mellow things, so passive language.
Wow. I went very list-focused for this post. I hope you don’t mind. If you ever want me to explain anything more (in this post or any other), just let me know in the comments, okay?
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Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.
One of the big things that Carrie sees in stories a lot is nodding.
Here’s what it looks like:
Shaun nodded. “I agree that’s a lot nodding.”
Carrie nodded in affirmation. “Yes. There really is.”
For a moment they sat there and then Shaun smiled. “You want to get out of this excerpt and do the podcast, baby?”
“Yes.” Carrie nodded. “I do.”
Why is this bad? Well, for a couple of reasons:
It’s the same action over and over.
That same action is really just repeating what the dialogue is doing. The dialogue is already telling the reader that the character is agreeing.
The cool thing is that whenever us writers revise our work, we can go back in and specifically look for these nods and recognize them for what they are: placeholders.
That’s right. Every single time you see a nod, I want you to ask yourself:
Does that nod really need to be there?
What can I replace that nod with. A more telling physical action that involves the whole body? The character interacting with their physical setting? Just blank space?
You want to just go a little deeper into visualizing that scene, feeling and embodying that character’s body, so that you can bring the reader into the scene, too.
If you think about our little excerpt from earlier, you’ll notice there’s no setting. We have no clue about where Carrie and Shaun are, but also we have no clue about what their whole bodies are doing, what they look like, anything.
Here, let’s try it again:
Shaun stretched his long legs in front of him, knocking his shin against the iron support of the office desk, and put his arms behind his head. “I agree that’s a lot nodding.”
Carrie curled her legs under her and scooted her small velvet chair a little closer to him. “Yes. There really is.”
For a moment they sat there and then Shaun tapped his finger against the computer screen, sniffed in the eggy smell of dog farts and said, “You want to get out of this excerpt and do the podcast, baby?”
“Yes.” Carrie gagged, covering her mouth with her hand, cringing. Tears came to her eyes. “I do.”
Our bodies show people how we feel. How we stand, hold our head, purse our lips, move our hands, plant our feet, slump our shoulders, wiggle an eyebrow all communicate our emotional condition.
As writers, we have to key into those body movements, the expressions, so that we can have a full range of possibilities to help our readers be inside our characters’ worlds. That world is about a lot more than nodding, shrugging, and shaking heads.
The character in your story is pretty much the key to make it all work, to inspire the readers to keep turning the page or scrolling down the screen.
Dwight Swain writes:
“A character is a person in a story.
“To create story people, you grab the first stick figures that come in handy; then you flesh them out until they spring to life.”
So, the question becomes how the heck do you flesh them out, right?
Matt Bird writes, “Character is the human element of your story, the aspect that the audience actually cares about.”
And that’s the big deal.
You can have the best plot in the world and most of the time, it won’t matter because people want characters that they can cheer for, commiserate with, worry about.
Bird believes that there are certain elements that need to be there for readers to care about your character:
They have to identify with them (the character).
The character needs to be resourceful.
The character needs to be active.
The character who is misunderstood is more lovable than the one who saves the cat.
The character doesn’t have to be likeable to be lovable. Go for lovable.
A character who is vulnerable is good and even a badass can be vulnerable.
In the Secrets of Story, Bird brilliantly splits three aspects of hero/protagonists into three needs:
Believe – They have to feel like the character is real.
Care – The reader has to be emotionally engaged with the character’s journey.
Invest – The reader has to be into the character. Bird says this comes from active characters who are resourceful and aren’t like the other characters in the book.
Bird further goes on to say:
But it’s his first bit that interests me the most right now.
Humans are stunningly complex. We contradict ourselves. We don’t always make sense and to encapsulate all of that in a novel is pretty impossible, so we have to pick and choose the contradictions and details to highlight. How do you deal with that?
“A story is a record of how somebody deals with danger. One danger, for a simple story; a series of inter-related dangers, for one more complex.”
He advocates developing your character only so much as it is needed to deal with the story or to ‘fulfill his function in the story. You give an impression and approximation of life, rather than attempting to duplicate life itself.”
Swain believes that character begin with a fragment and then the author adds more and more on to that character, individualizing her until she becomes more real, more believable.
That individualization occurs through free association and layering in observations and details. What begins as a fragment of an idea (guinea pig hero) becomes a believable, lovable character as the author “supplements” that fragment with “Thought and insight.”
And that can be hard.
Swain thinks it’s hard because in real life, we tend not analyze people’s behavior and motivations. We take them and their actions for granted, he says.
“Consequently, when we try to build story people, we find that we lack a grasp of mental mechanisms: motivations.”
And motivations? They are a big deal. They are why characters go after goals. They are the yearnings that we readers connect to.
So, Swain says this is where the imagination steps in.
“To understand a man,” he writes,” you have to grasp the essence of that wholeness . . . its gestalt, the totality of its configuration.. . Each of us is an entity, a personal and private whole that transcends its components.”
I advocate taking a journal or diary when you’re really lost developing a character and go somewhere safe and observe people, think about why they might be acting the way they are. What is it that’s going on with them. Practice trying to understand people and you build those character development skills.
NEW BOOK OUT!
It’s super fun. An adult paranormal/mystery/romance/horror blend. Think Charlaine Harris but without all the vampires. Instead there are shifters and dragon grandmothers and evil police chiefs and potential necromancers and the occasional zombie and a sexy skunk.
Be ready to resurrect your love of the paranormal in the first novel in the Alisa Thea series—the books that give new meaning to quirky paranormal.
Alisa Thea is barely scraping by as a landscaper in small-town Bar Harbor. She can’t touch people with her bare skin without seeing their deaths and passing out, which limits her job and friendship opportunities. It also doesn’t give much of a possibility for a love life, nor does her overbearing stepfather, the town’s sheriff. Then along comes an opportunity at a local campground where she thinks her need for a home and job are finally solved . . .
But the campground and its quirky residents have secrets of their own: the upper level is full of paranormals. And when some horrifying murders hit the campground—along with a potential boyfriend from her past who may be involved—Alisa starts to wonder if living in a campground of paranormals will end up in her own death.
Join New York Times and internationally best[selling author Carrie Jones in the first book of the Alisa Thea Series as it combines the excitement of a thriller with the first-hand immediacy and quirky heroines that Jones is known for.
It’s fun. It’s weird. It’s kind of like Charlaine Harris, but a little bit more achy and weird.
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Dialogue and voice both do some really important things in your story.
Provide context –
You can provide some pretty awesome information via dialogue and idiosyncratic character voice.
Show the subtext –
Subtext is basically the hidden motivation/emotion/wants of your character that aren’t right there out on the surface.
So if I wrote:
“Look at you in that onesie! What a brave person you are.” Shaun said with a grimace.
You’d know that Shaun is really thinking that the other character is more unconventional than brave.
Make things more exciting –
When you have two characters bickering, it tends to be more interesting on the page than saying, “They bickered.”
Dialogue and voice helps provide context, drama, and interest. It pulls the reader in. It’s a big part of showing rather than telling.
“I can’t believe you don’t like my onesie,” she said, spinning around in front of the couch, arms out.
He smirked. “Didn’t say that.”
“Manatees are frolicking on this.” She stopped spinning and pulled out the fabric a bit. “Look! Look at the print. It is imported.”
“You look like you’re two. A two year old with boobs.”
“Boobs! Call them breasts. Oh my word . . .”
“That makes you sound like a chicken.”
“You are the chicken, mister, a negative, judgmental and derogatory chicken and I am incensed that you don’t understand the value of this outfit or me.”
Shows character difference.
Good dialogue and good voice show us how the characters aren’t the same. Even in my horrible example up there, the two characters don’t sound the same. One has longer sentences and more Latinate word choices. The other is a bit more blunt. One uses conjunctions and the other doesn’t.
Dialogue and voice go hand in hand to really make a huge impact on your story. Get cozy with them. Learn their rules. Buy them a coffee. Make them your friends. You won’t regret it.
NEW BOOK ALERT!
I just want to let everyone know that INCHWORMS (The Dude Series Book 2) is out and having a good time as Dude competes for a full scholarship at a prestigious Southern college and getting into a bit of trouble.
Here’s what it’s about:
A fascinating must-read suspense from New York Times bestseller Carrie Jones.
A new chance visiting a small Southern college. A potential love interest for a broken girl obsessed with psychology. A damaged group of co-eds. A drowning that’s no accident. A threat that seems to have no end.
And just like that Jessica Goodfeather aka Dude’s trip away from her claustrophobic life in Maine to try to get an amazing scholarship to her dream school has suddenly turned deadly. Again.
What would you do to make a difference?
After his best friend Norah was almost abducted, Cole Nicholaus has spent most of his childhood homeschooled, lonely and pining for Norah to move from best friend to girl friend status. When birds follow him around or he levitates the dishes, he thinks nothing of it—until a reporter appears and pushes him into making a choice: stay safe at home or help save a kidnapped kid.
Cole and Norah quickly end up trying to not just save a kid, but an entire town from a curse that has devastating roots and implications for how exactly Cole came to be the saint that he is.
Can Cole stop evil from hurting him and Norah again? And maybe even get together? Only the saints know.
From the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the NEED series, Saint is a book about dealing with the consequences that make us who we are and being brave enough to admit who we love and what we need.
BUY NOW! 🙂 I made a smiley face there so you don’t feel like I’m too desperate.