Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Keep your story moving

The pace of the story can either make or break the story. Too often, I will read a submission that comes across my desk, really hoping for the best. The premise was one of those "WOW, I can't wait to get my hands on it." And then, when I do, I find myself screaming at the pace. No, I am not just talking about a slow pace but also one that rushes things too much.

Writers need to remember that they, the ones sitting at the keyboard, are the ones in control of the story - not the characters. You decide how much information you give to the reader and how much you want to hold back. It is your job, no responsibility, to keep the story moving at the pace it needs to be at to match the plot of the story.

Let's take some time to talk about many of the mistakes that I see.

SLOW START - This is the most common of the problems. Writers have jumped into the story, not with movement, but with a huge amount of backstory. The idea is that we can not get into the stories or the characters without fully understanding the characters and their setting. This is wrong. Sure, you as the writer might need that information to get moving, but the readers don't need that information yet. Give us enough to know the setting. Give us enough to get a good visual idea of the characters and the situation and then move it on. If the heroine is running through the woods being chased by an alien vampire bunny, I want to know what she looks like and what the bunny looks like. I want to know how dense the forest is, and I want to know what time of day it is. I have no desire to know about what the girl was doing before this. I don't care about the dangerous world the bunny came from or how he got there. That is for later. Right now we need to get moving.

INTROSPECTION OVERLOAD - This is when the story comes to a screeching stop. Clearly the writer has been told that we need to know what the heroine or hero is thinking. So, in the middle of that mad argument with each other, the writer stops in the middle of the dialogue and unloads a paragraph of introspection. You just got us going and the fight is escalating. In this case, sentences need to be short and crisp. No extensive dialogue tags. Get us through the fight. Besides, in the middle of an argument, people, in general, do not stop to contemplate the situation. Remember, this is the time they often say things they will regret later because they weren't thinking. Oh, and one more thing. In the middle of this yelling match, neither should be thinking those sexual thoughts because you know in the next page, they will be hopping into bed.

BACKSTORY DUMP - This one came up with one of my writers a couple of days ago. The story is going great but they were going to be on a boat for a period of time. She had thought, but fortunately the thought was dumped quickly, that she would use that time on the boat to give them a chance to "think about each other." Talk about a lack of action. We later talked and she realized that her mistake in thinking came from the time she knew they would be on the boat. She was thinking, "what else would they do?" The solution on this was easy. End the chapter with they got on the boat, begin the next chapter with a time reference and get them off the boat. The introspection would be inserted carefully before and after the boat trip. Now the story is moving, the pace from the pre-boat trip is still continuing and we still find out about the characters thoughts.

When you think about pacing, it is very much like writing poetry. The poet controls the pace with the rhyme, the punctuation, the spacing and the line breaks. Writers of fiction do the same thing. They, however, get the benefit of using narration to really control things.



  1. Thanks! You just solved one of my problems. Yea, I CAN skip the boring, pace stopping scene and move on to the real action. Excellent tips.

  2. This is so frustrating. I know you are really trying to help here, but every month I see books published that break all the rules, and when they sell well, they are called "great books," even though the writing quality is poor, and the storyline predictable, and often not even following logically.
    To make it worse, agents then say they want books just like these, (especially new agents who simply publish wish lists of books on their sites that sold well in the past, AND then in six months are complaining mightily that all they receive are books about dogs, vampires, etc.
    Almost every bestseller seems to catch the industry completely off -guard. It's infuriating to then hear it insist that it wants more books "like these," when they clearly could NOT predict what was going to sell well in the beginning. Anyone else want to throw some mud at the wall and see what sticks?
    Everybody is scrambling to catch the next wave. The difference is that writers are forced to commit a huge block of time to a guess in the dark, and agents only have to spend sixty seconds saying, nah...don't like it.
    Let's change places for a while. I only want to see books like Twilight!
    But DON'T send me any more books about vampires 'cause that has been done to death already.
    Okay, Now What??? How to make writers really crazy...
    And THIS is what writers are thinking today. I'd rather be an agent for a while. Yeah.

  3. Great post. This is really helpful, especially the part about beginning the story. I sometimes have that tendency, to tell where they came from, and I can see now why I shouldn't (and more importantly how I should be doing it). Thanks alot.

  4. Anon,

    I agree with you on the frustrating but one thing that might clear things up is this. When agents and editors say they want books like X what they are referring to is the voice, not the plot or character. Yes, they would love more powerful love stories with characters like Bella and Edward designed for teens. They want that passion. They want that heat. It doesn't need to be vamps though. Now, does this mean you go out and write werewolf stories. No. We are talking voice here!

    As for the quality you will always find situations like this. In some cases, a great writer may produce something less than great due to forcing the story or rushing things.

    As for the "breaking the rules" again, remember that newer writers are often hung up on the rules, for lack of a better word. They have been told to follow the rules perfectly so that they can figure out the craft and learn to write. Many writers find ways to "break the rules" and still make things flow. Hemingway, for example, knew the rules and was able to break the rules to achieve a voice he needed in his stories. That is what you see with the writers out there that are established.

    In the end, the key is to write a dang good story, make it unique and go for it. Will it be published? Not necessarily, but you get closer than just doing a copycat version of someone else.

  5. Dear Scott,
    As always, you do your best to be honest and fair. (Personally I enjoy the heck out of the rants, but...)
    Thanks for your sweet answer to my earlier post about being so frustrated by what seem to be directly conflicting demands from agents, and especially new ones. More and more I see web sites posted by newer agents, in which they simply list the names of the books that inexplicably, unpredictably, rose from last year's pack and were the titles that sold best.
    The laundry list of names is ALWAYS followed by the statement, "I want to represent books like these."
    Hey girl, who doesn"t? I want to write books like these! Now what? Ask for world peace and a cure for cancer while you are at it, kid.
    Sometimes a writer just has to howl at the moon because of the sheer inanity of it all.
    I want to write "Twilight" It's my right! Now what?
    Your writers are lucky people, Scott, and good wishes as always from pushed-right-over- the-edge by all this, Anon. Arrrggghhhhhh...
    I've been out of town, and it was so nice to get away from all of this. A real Twilight moment, yes sir.