Pacing the Narrative: A New Tool

Look up “pacing your novel” on the internet, and you’ll hit a list of links page after page. It’s a topic about which writers are curious and hopeful of answers. The conundrum is, however, there isn’t a quick and true “fix” to pace. A range of techniques from developing conflict and tension to literary devices like dialogue, imagery, and syntax (personal usage of language) are presented as means to achieve the elixir for pace. There’s a plethora of information out there.

Every writer has a toolbox built over the years of developing craft. Again, Stephen King talks about this extensively.

Every writer has a toolbox built over the years of developing craft. Again, Stephen King talks about this extensively.

So, instead of write about pacing from the same lens of what’s already been offered, I thought I’d draw from my writer’s toolbox and cover a technique I learned and have used directly related to pacing.

First and foremost, as Stephen King has impressed upon us in his On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, read, read and read some more. There is no better way to become a better writer (other than to write). Studying authors you like, different genres, “listening” to the beats of writing with a writer’s ear is the first and best way to develop your own style which includes pacing. This is not an easy fix, just a necessary truth.

That said, here’s a tool from my own TOOLBOX: Compression and Expansion

Several years ago, I attended a workshop called Write Your Life by Mark W. Travis (Hollywood Director; see his books about directing, writing, and writing structure). The purpose of the workshop was to explore autobiographical storytelling, and while it was geared toward oral storytelling it supported the art of writing the story. Two terms Mr. Travis taught were the ideas of Compression and Expansion both of which I have found useful in the art of pacing.

Compression does exactly what it sounds like: compress or press together in the case of story time.  Consider in a movie the idea of a montage (i.e., a training montage in an action film, or the makeover trope in a romance film) and the way the visuals are pieced together to showcase the passage of time. Compression does this in a written form, highlighting key moments to compress the passage of time into something small and powerful.

Expansion is the opposite. It takes a key moment and expands it, highlighting its importance for the character, conflict, and theme. Visually, in a film, this might be a slow motion moment or a flashback. Expansion as a technique of writing follows a similar pattern as compression, highlighting key words and ideas to expand the idea into something meaningful.

Click  here  to visit CL Walters Amazon Author Page

Click here to visit CL Walters Amazon Author Page

The ideas in practice using work I’ve written would look like the following excerpts from my novels Swimming Sideways and The Ugly Truth. First determine a scene which you feel would benefit from either technique and determine if you want to highlight the passage of time - compress it - or the importance of a moment - expand it.

Compression (from The Ugly Truth):

In the following scene, Seth, the protagonist, has become aware of himself and the fact his consciousness is outside of his physical body. The compression used in this scene was meant to compress an unknown amount of time for him because time has stopped making logical sense:

 The wail of the siren.  

Words: “Stay with us, Seth.”

The wail of a woman (I think she is my mother).

Bright lights.

Beeps and blips of equipment speaking.

Drip.

“Swelling.”

“Induced coma.”

Doctors.

Whir.

Now.

I don’t think it has been very long. If I use the emotion of the woman I think is my mother’s gusts of grief as a measure, this seems recent.

Expansion (from Swimming Sideways):

The following scene is the moment the audience learns what happens to Abby in her past as she attends a party with her friend, Seth. Though the moment explores a party she attended in her past and the subsequent trauma of it, instead of glossing over the idea in a few sentences or a paragraph to tell what happened, I expanded it to heighten the drama of the whole scene.


 I close my eyes and slip backwards in time:

Have another drink.

Feeling loose.

Kanoa is staring at me.

Giddy with his attention.

Another drink. He brings it to me.

Laughter.

Kanoa is all-encompassing. I’ve seen him at school. He’s older.

He asks me to dance.

Pressed up against me, the dance is slow. I feel his body. The ache of want.

A kiss and my heart dances too.

Here, have another drink.

Drown the pain and grief of losing Poppa.

I return to the dance with Seth and shudder. He leans back, lifts my face to look at him. He’s smiling, until he realizes I’m crying. “What’s wrong?” he says.

I shake my head, unable to speak and bury my head against his chest as I return to the past:

Another dance. Another drink. I feel loose.

I feel dizzy. Where are my friends?

Here’s another drink. Kanoa. He’s there.

Have another. Drink up.

Where are my friends?

Inhibition dissipates like steam from a boiling pot.

Fast song.

Kanoa dancing with me.

“Dance for me,” he says.

People encircle us.

The crowd chants my name but they slip away as I move; a show for Kanoa.

Kanoa pulls at my shirt. I help him take it off.

His hands all over my now bare skin.

His undivided attention. His smile.

I dance. He helps me, his hands guiding my hips.

The crowd cheers.

I didn't know there were cameras.

A show for everyone.

It was too late.

Where are my friends?

In a viral moment, I became the resident slut of my high school.

Writing is about making choices to propel our goal as writers of telling the best story we can. My goals for using these techniques were to:

  1. pace the content,

  2. highlight the importance of the moment in the narrative,

  3. add to and build tension, and

  4. finally to continue developing characters.

Is it directly related to pacing? Maybe. Maybe not. You decide.

Practice Point:  Choose a moment in your current WIP to expand or compress. Reread the section with the addition. What does it do for pacing and flow?

NEXT UP: Dialogue

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Point of View and Writing

In the act of writing, I don’t think I have ever made a conscious decision when beginning to write a new story about point of view.  What I mean by that is, I don’t think I sat down and planned in conscious manner I would be writing in first person or third person, omniscient. I wonder if any writer does? I’d love to hear from them.

In my process, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, new ideas, new characters, often come in snippets, so when I sit down to explore the snippet further, I just write and by write, I mean word-vomit whatever is going on in my mind. I don’t think about the point of view, I just go for it. To review: Point of view is the way a story is written. There are three points of view: first, second and third, but to complicate things third can broken up into two types: third person, limited and third person, omniscient.

First person is when the character writes in a way that places the reader in an intimate place within his thought process, as if reading the character’s journal. The first person perspective uses pronouns like I, me, we, us. Swimming Sideways and The Ugly Truth are written in first person point of view.

Second person is when the reader becomes the character. Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those were written in 2nd person and replied on the pronoun you to include the reader as the protagonist of the tale. This isn’t a frequently utilized point of view, however a great example is Freewill by Chris Lynch (A YA Mystery and a Printz Honor Award Winner published in 2001).

Finally, third person is the removal of the audience from the story by placing them outside of the action but providing them with a bird’s eye view. This is done by using pronouns like he, she, them, they. Not a part of the action but witness to it, the audience is afforded the opportunity to understand a character without being connected to them. First person, limited, is when the point of view (narration) never leaves the experience of a single character. We see this happen a lot in YA literature when an author identifies which character she is writing to explore various character’s experiences. Several examples of this third person, limited are Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom or Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and an all-time favorite work of fiction - J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  Third person, omniscient, then, is when the narration of the story is god-like, and the impact of events and thoughts of characters can be explored at will. Examples include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Want more examples of different POV?  Click here.

Want more examples of different POV? Click here.

Writers, then, often grapple with which point of view do I choose? If you google it, the answer is often: whichever one suits your story best. Hah! Thanks for nothing.

If you remember the story of the creation of Swimming Sideways, it was initially a very different story. A paranormal teen romance with angels and demons, the first time I wrote it, it was in third person, limited. I switched back and forth between Abby’s perspective, Seth’s and Gabe’s. The style of the story which worked to keep the reader outside - looking in - and distant made third person a logical choice. When we think about stories that incorporate extensive world-building, this is often the case.  Swimming Sideways was revised to a very character-driven story which lost the paranormal elements altogether. When this happened, I made the decision to change the third person, limited view to a first person in order to make it more personal between the character and the reader. Successful? The jury is out.

For me, making the decision as to which sort of point of view to write a story is linked to character and goals. Is the story character-driven or plot-driven? What level of emotion am I building into the conflict (more on conflict in a later post)? The analysis of my goals will often answer the question for me. While, I haven’t found a tried and true methodology to identify which POV to write my stories, I would say that by reading (a lot), I have been given maps to understand POV and successful implementation of each.

Do you have a specific methodology for choosing POV? Comment and discuss below!

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Thank you!

I just want to take a moment to thank those who have supported me on my journey . . .

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Without those of you willing to take a risk on an unknown writer with a story to tell - I’d just be telling the story to myself. What a lonely place.

Thank you for the reviews! So helpful. If you’ve read the story and haven’t yet left a review, please consider it. Thank you.

It’s at 100%! That’s awesome.

It’s at 100%! That’s awesome.

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