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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This Writer Reads

Stephen King wrote that “books are a uniquely portable magic,” and he also said, “If you don’t have time read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.” This wisdom speaks to me on so many levels, therefore I have always made time to read. So far this year, I’ve read thirty-eight books (I’m proud of that number since I surpassed my Good Reads goal by 20 books already. I may have undershot it a bit when making my goal). Right now, stacked on my nightstand are Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi of which I am about 25 pages into, and then Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay which is next. I will definitely hit at least forty reads by the end of the year (and prove I need to increase my Good Reads goal next year).

To give you a sense of my reading choices:

I’ve read both of Rupi Kapur’s books of poetry as well as The Darkness Between Stars by Atticus Poetry. I’ve delved into The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert and was entertained by both Tehereh Mafi’s Shatter Me and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage. I’ve read four duologies, trilogies, series from Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty Trilogy to Sabaa Tahir’s A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3) Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark duology. Then I’ve read some older Lavyrle Spencer romance novels and some dark who-done-its by Ruth Ware and Jo Nesbo. The point I’m hopefully making is that I read a lot of different kinds of genres by a variety of authors. Maybe that will help frame my perspective when giving you my top books I’ve read so far this year (in no particular order).

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green - while not my favorite John Green book (Looking For Alaska is my favorite btw) - was a wonderful story that really put into perspective the struggles of someone with anxiety and compulsive disorder. This was very eye opening for me and one of the reasons I read. I want my world to increase. Turtles All the Way Down did that in wonderful John Green fashion.

A poignant story that explores struggle.

A poignant story that explores struggle.

Sleeping Beauties by Owen and Stephen King was a really interesting look at gender roles. The timeliness in conjunction of the #metoo movement really made this book relevant in the best King fashion. The coincidence of reading this book while I was working with students on a unit about perspective as it relates to themes of social injustice, specifically with race and gender, felt a bit like the universe was speaking to me. The book is too long to use in the classroom setting, but we did talk about it (because I’m always talking to my students about what I’m reading).

Coincides nicely with the #metoo movement and gender studies.

Coincides nicely with the #metoo movement and gender studies.

Confession: I am embarrassed to say that I had never read The Great Gatsby by  F. Scott Fitzgerald until this year. As I was working on my own novel Swimming Sideways, Abby’s English Teacher was making her read it (weird it was a book I hadn’t read, but it HAD to be that book for some reason). I thought: I better read it, and OMG, it rocked my world! The themes are on point. I’m so glad I added this classic to my “read it” pile.

A wonderful classic and a quick read.

A wonderful classic and a quick read.

I worked with a teacher many years ago who suggested I read Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I never got to that one (though it is on my shelf waiting to be read) but I did read Infinite In Between. It was good. While I might have given it one less than five stars because the ending felt a bit rushed to me, overall, this was such a creative and interesting take on four characters. Mackler’s development of them was excellent, and I ended up sucking this book dry so quickly I got brain freeze!

Loved this coming of age story with heart.

Loved this coming of age story with heart.

Leigh Bardugo is my writing hero on so many levels. I devoured the Grisha Verse series (and it is excellent and creative) but it is nothing next to the Six of Crows series and Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2) is fantastic. It is like Bardugo took Six of Crows #1 and shot it with steroids to create Crooked Kingdom. These characters walk from the page and asked me to be a part of their troop Character development, which Bardugo does so well, is one of my BIGGEST turn ons as a writer. One of my favorite series ever - hands down.

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb was one of those books that I didn’t know anything about and hadn’t heard anything about so I just randomly selected it based on the cover. It sounded cute; I opened it up and started reading. Here’s the thing, I didn’t expect the exploration of grief and the heartfelt coming-of-age story. This story hit me where it mattered, in all the right places of my heart. Granted, I was going rounds with very fresh grief of my own when I read it, so that might have skewed my perspective. Another Confession: I’m a crier. It isn’t difficult to get me to cry when the moment is poignant, but this novel got me to sob. The character development was fantastic. I LOVED it!

LOVED this story: coming of age with adventure, heartbreak and love.

LOVED this story: coming of age with adventure, heartbreak and love.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah was a recommendation from a friend. I picked it up and am so glad I did. This is an excellent story and I texted every one of my English Teacher friends and said: We have to teach this book! It’s funny, it’s relevant, it’s heartfelt (yes, I cried) and it’s necessary. One of my top books this year.

This book made me laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time so I had snot bubble out of my nose.

This book made me laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time so I had snot bubble out of my nose.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates was another recommendation. On the cover of the book, Toni Morrison is quoted with “This is required reading.” So I walked into the book initially with a deer in the headlights feeling that this was going to be way over my head. Ten pages in, as Coates writes this letter to his son, I was sure I wasn’t smart enough to read it, but I kept going, and I’m so glad that I did; I’m better for it, I hope. Coates wrote: “A writer and that is what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it is his own.” This book made me sob and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. In the push to open my eyes and increase my world, this book did that tenfold. I agree that as Americans we should read this book.

This book opened my eyes in a way they hadn’t seen before.

This book opened my eyes in a way they hadn’t seen before.

The premise of I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall intrigued me. I purchased the book not knowing what to expect. As I began reading, I really liked the way in which she used time as a function of the story because it was about time. Our lives are boiled down to the essence of time and how we use it on so many levels. Initially, I didn’t like the protagonist because she was such a “victim,” but then Marshall flipped the script on me - surprising me -  and I loved her. This is one of my favorites this year!

I enjoyed this book so much. It surprised me.

I enjoyed this book so much. It surprised me.

Jeff Zentner is coming out with a new novel in February of 2019 which I am looking forward to reading, and The Serpent King is actually a couple of years old. I finally had some time to read it this year, and I was blown away. First, his teenagers were on point. Second, the prose was perfect. Third, it made me laugh out loud, but then I also sobbed my heart out. A talented writer, I think, is one who is able to make characters come alive in a way that makes a reader think they’ve made new friends. I find myself wondering how these characters are doing long after I finished the book. It’s an excellent examination of that question about parental influence on personal perspective of not only the world but of self. Read this one.