How often have you been asked this question:
What's more important to a story, a strong plot or strong characters?
When I first heard this question, I argued heavily for plot being the King of the Road. After all, I wrote plot-driven stories and plotting was one of my biggest strengths! Maybe my characters weren't anything to write home about, but hey, I'd dazzle my readers through plot twists.
The more I listened to the advocates of characterization, tho, I began to realize how important a strong, authentic character is for getting the reader to relate to the story and connect to the plot. I started actively working on strengthening this component of my writing.
Now, I would say both plot and character are equally deserving of the top spot in writing; both are race cars that pack a powerful kick on the road. They don't share that distinction alone however. A third contender should sit rightfully between them: Pacing.
Why? Because without successful pacing, readers will never get to know the well-drawn characters, never get to experience that twisting plot brilliance. If the pacing stinks, they'll close the book and go find something else to read.
Pacing is a difficult thing to master. Like driving a car, there are many things we need to be on top of to keep our story on the road. Are we glancing out the window enough to be aware of the setting around us? Do we have a destination in mind, or is our plot taking the scenic route? Did we remember to bring road munchies for the long trip, like humor, voice, atmosphere, tension, and a steady point of view?
All stories should flow in one direction: forward. Seems easy, doesn't it? After all, we all know the formula of beginning, middle and end. But trust me, there are many things hazards to be wary of, even for masters of the road. In this post, I'd like to take a look at potential potholes that slow forward motion or stop it altogether.
1. Physical descriptions
Big chunks of description, of either people or places, can put the brakes on your story. Details of the setting should be woven into the story and provide concrete imagery. What the characters notice should be relevant to who they are and what they are feeling. If you do this, you can say a lot with only a few words.
If you're describing a character, select only a few fingernail details, relevant to what you want the reader to know about them. A head to toe account of what they're wearing is seldom necessary. What a character does speaks louder than what they look like.
2. Repetitives (Looping)
Repetition is something that occurs on all levels of writing, and something we must always be vigilant for. Whether it's two lines of description that say the same thing, internal thoughts that rehash current actions, two secondary characters who have the same purpose, or a repeating conflict that occurs over and over, the result is the same--it puts a speed restriction on your pace. If the repetition is minor, your reader will feel a mild sense of déjà vu. If they pick up on a major loop, they may skim ahead or stop reading altogether.
Becca and I often refer to something called RUE. It's from a book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King and stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. Basically, the concept is to show something once and move on, resisting the urge to clarify or explain it.
Writers struggle with 'over telling' because they want to make sure the message gets through to their readers. A common place where this happens is around dialogue or when showing character action and emotion.
"I'm done with the both of you!" Mary screamed, vibrating with rage. She stomped up the stairs and then slammed her bedroom door.
Here, the dialogue, the stomping and the slamming, all show her anger level. The 'vibrating with rage' is completely unnecessary, basically telling what has been already been shown.
*Keep your eye out for the small bumps in the road too, like overused words. Strong, specific verbs will stand out if used several times (ones like shun, ricochet, shatter, seeped, wept, etc)as do descriptors, the word said, etc.
3. Internal thoughts
Forward motion occurs on two levels: the physical and emotional. Often the emotional is conveyed internally, through thought. If there is an imbalance between thoughts and actions, it can slow the journey of the story.
Have you ever read a passage of dialogue where every single line is accompanied by thoughts? I think we all have, in fact, we probably all do this in our writing to some degree. I know I do, and it's something I have to edit out during the rewriting process.
When too many thoughts interrupt a scene, the reader is jerked from internal to external like tug-a-war. Focus shifts from what is happening to what the character thinks, and then back again. Sooner or later, the reader will grow frustrated and likely begin to skim, following only the dialogue. Having a reader skim is counterproductive, because the whole reason for internal thoughts is to draw your audience in closer to your character's perspective and emotions.
In any scene, actions should flow naturally from one to the next. This is especially true of dialogue. That's not to say that there shouldn't be any internal thoughts, simply they should be minimized and focused. Often, you can show what someone is thinking or feeling by what they do (action).
4. Back story
Our old pal back story can be like that clunky old rusted-out Ford driving 20 miles under the speed limit. In the wrong place, or at the wrong time, you suddenly find yourself inside a traffic jam.
Now back story sometimes gets a bad rap, because face it, occasionally we need something to haul a load of lumber or dirt. Of course we're going to use an old pickup, because it makes sense to do so. The trick with back story is to use it sparingly, when the gain outweighs the momentary loss of forward motion.
Sometimes, by moving the story back, you can provide the reader with information about a significant person, item or place that will offer an emotional connection to the main character and shed light on their current actions and motivations. Flashbacks should not be used just to provide more information on something the author believes the reader will find interesting.
To use a flashback properly, the content of it must have direct bearing on the current scene. The trick is to use smooth transitions to get in and out of the flashback as soon as possible so you can continue onward. By having the flashback be brought on by something experienced or seen in the moment, a seamless line can be drawn from current scene, to memory, to the scene again. Always make sure there is an emotional relevance, and be as brief as possible.
Can you think of any other dangers that can foul up the pace (and be sure to use my driving analogies, cause I KNOW you all want to!)
One that probably also deserves to be mentioned is SKIMPING, where we skim on details or speed through scenes in order to get to our destination. Don't be afraid to add meat to your writing; there's nothing wrong with description and with taking the time to set the stage.
As with all things, balance is the key. Pace should act as a mirror, slowing or speeding up to reflect the action level of each scene.