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

rss Block
Select a Blog Page to create an RSS feed link. Learn more






Character and Conflict Part2: Motivation

motivation typed.jpg

Having read - a lot - a definite way for me to want to throw a book at the wall is when the narrative either loses sight of the conflict or an author struggles to develop one. As a reader, a lack of or an unclear conflict can feel like sitting in a staff meeting without a purpose. Whether you’re a writer who wants to write a more cohesive story, or a reader who’s developing their critique technique, one thing to look for in respect to believable and developed conflict is the main character’s motivation.

Characters - if developed as a round, dynamic, fleshed out character - are motivated to act. Their movements don’t just spontaneously combust into forward movement for the sake of moving plot. If they do, there is a problem with author insertion and adding to a reader’s awareness of a plot feeling contrived. If you aren’t sure why a character makes a choice in the action or dialogue, or feel confused by it, chances are the character’s motivation isn’t clearly defined or the author is intruding.

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

Motivation for a character, just like in our own lives outside of the pages, can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the internal means of propelling a character based on internal desires. Harry Potter, for example, in The Sorcerer and the Stone (J.K. Rowling) was motivated to understand who he was outside the Dursleys. He wanted to know more about his past which propelled him on a journey toward personal enlightenment. Intrinsic motivation. Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien), however, was motivated to get the one ring out of the Shire in order to keep his home safe from an external danger. Extrinsic motivation. While the stories begin with a specific sort of motivation - internal or external - this doesn’t mean the motivation won’t change. We see both Harry and Frodo undergo changes along the journey to change what motivates their choices, just as that occurs in our own lives.

I took a wonderful class many years ago that helped me as a creative writer. The class was called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. Character motivation was one idea which really stuck with me. A simple tool Mr. Watt presented which I have used over and over in my own writing is the following sentence:


If (Main Character) can (fill in the blank) then s/he can (fill in the blank).

Here’s an example from Star Wars: A New Hope:


If Luke Skywalker can get off Tatooine then he can be happy.


This is Luke’s reality in the opening of the movie. A clear motivation which propels his curiosity. The longer we follow his journey, however, his initial motivation shifts as the he moves forward in the hero’s journey. When his family is murdered, his motivation shifts. This is a mirror to reality; our motivation is constantly shifting based on attained goals, redefined wants, and personal desires.

So to mirror Luke’s shift in motivation:

If Luke Skywalker can help the rebellion he can avenge his family’s death.

It is important to follow the motivation to the root, however. As the above example shows there are still questions: Why does Luke want to avenge his family?

If Luke can avenge his family then he can clear his conscious for leaving them.

A round and dynamic character’s motivation will always modify and shift as the journey shapes her; that is what makes her more relatable to readers. These changes in motivation whether intrinsic or extrinsic are often rooted in the journey (which if you aren’t familiar with Chris Vogler’s work on the Joseph Campbell monomyth be sure to look it up). As the story moves forward, the motivation serves as a guide for interaction with other characters, propels the main character’s choices, and determines forward action which is believable rather than contrived.

Think about your favorite novel or your current work in progress. Can you create an If/can, then/can statement?

Up Next: Pacing your story . . .





Character and Conflict, part one: Types of Conflict

As a reader, a teacher of literature, and a writer, next to character, conflict is the most critical element of literature. Conflict, the problem which the main character must overcome, is what drives the story from beginning to end. The conflict is that which makes the audience cheer or jeer. It is what keep us opening the book and reading into the wee hours of the morning. Conflict is what builds tension and explores the very essence of our own psyche. Haven’t you ever thought: what would I do in that situation?

A good book has a clear, relatable and exciting conflict. It’s what keeps us reading.

A good book has a clear, relatable and exciting conflict. It’s what keeps us reading.

Without conflict, the plot line flattens out. In a previous blog, I explored the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven one, and would say that regardless of how the story is driven, conflict is still present and necessary. A plot line in either case is still essential to move narrative from beginning to end, and is only able to occur because conflict is present.

2000px-Flowchart_Line.svg.png



The types of conflict we find in stories are categorized as follows:

  • Character (protagonist) versus Character (antagonist)

Character versus Character is the tried and true conflict of one person against another (or a few others). Think:  Harry versus Voldemort, Luke versus Darth Vader, Katniss Everdeen against President Snow.

The typical conflict: one character versus another.

The typical conflict: one character versus another.

  • Character versus Society

Character versus society is the exploration of a character’s conflict with the ideals or constructs of the society in which their journey takes place.  For example, while Katniss Everdeen is pitted against the power struggle with President Snow (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), the conflict also delves into what President Snow and District One represent (opulence and classism, abuse of power, etc). Or in Harry Potter’s journey in the The Order of The Phoenix, the character versus character is maintained with his conflict with Voldemort, but there is added complexity in the struggle against the Ministry of Magic which include fascism, racism, and abuse of power. A favorite example, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nick’s descent in the high society of 1920’s New York. These society constructs force the character to take a stand or change perspective which stretch the tension and develop the conflict.

  • Character versus Nature

Character versus nature is the survival story. This is the main character facing the destruction of a natural disaster,  hunger in a famine, or being lost in the woods and finding a way to survive the long winter. Think: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin.

Elements of nature provide conflict.

Elements of nature provide conflict.

  • Character versus Self

Character versus self is the tried and true struggle to overcome personal attitudes and perceptions. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for example, Junior must face his perceptions about himself as a Native American to determine his worth.

Though this isn’t strictly character versus self, I would argue that many novels don’t adhere to only one conflict which is a mirror to the reality of our own human experience. We struggle with ourselves, but simultaneously we struggle with our boss, or our spouse, or our parents, or our children, and at the same time with what we hear is happening on the news. Conflict in our lives doesn’t happen in isolation and often doesn’t for our characters either. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Scout struggles with societal perceptions about race and gender (character versus society) while at the same time learning about her own understanding of those things (character versus self). In a recent story I read called I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall, the main character faces her inner conflict coping with a new disability after an accident while trying to survive alone in the wild, AND eventually facing off with her father’s murderers. Three conflicts layered into the hero’s journey of this character (believe it or not, it worked!)

The internal struggle is the epitome of character versus self.

The internal struggle is the epitome of character versus self.

If you examine your current Work In Progress or the novel you’re currently reading, can you identify the conflict? I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s Queen of Air and Darkness and I’m not sure I can at 200 pages of 800 . . . there’s a lot going on (and I might want to throw the book at the wall) but more on that later..

Next up: I’ll explore the idea of character motivation and the tried and true magic statement I learned that has helped me stay on point.




rss Block
Select a Blog Page to create an RSS feed link. Learn more