Monday, September 19, 2011

Mentor Monday: Keeping up the Pace

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help while on vacation recently. I couldn’t put it down. I started to think about what that phrase, “couldn’t put it down,” means. Why is it that some books keep us up at night turning pages and preventing sleep while other books are sleep-inducing?

I believe part of the reason lies with the pacing of the novel. The story grabs you right from the start and takes you along much like the hook grabbing the front cart of a roller coaster. A good story won’t let go and just when you get to the top of the first rise, it drops you. The tension repeats and repeats until you can hardly stand it and then…the writer gives you a break. The next section you read is quieter, perhaps descriptive, giving your imagination time to catch its breath. But the ride’s not over. Soon you’re climbing another hill. You hold on, refusing to let go because you don’t want to miss a minute.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld, in a 2007 article for The Writer (February) called pacing (or the action of a story) “The Heartbeat of Fiction.” He suggested that “Scenes should be created in a physical setting that feels real, and should contain action, new information for the reader, and dramatic tension all of which is usually accomplished by putting the characters in some kind of conflict or danger.”

Beware of excess exposition. Don’t worry about telling your reader, right from the beginning, what your character looks like, sounds like, is wearing, what time it is, which room he’s in, etc. Get into the action right away. Your reader won’t care about the who as much as the who + the what. That is, what’s happening to the protagonist.

Rosenfeld states that action is “comprised of all the elements a reader can ‘witness’ taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life.”

As you revise, check the pacing of your story. Give your readers the ride of their life. Check for:

√ A hook on the very first page

√ Well-constructed scenes

√ Revealing dialogue

√ Occasional flashbacks (don’t have your character say “Remember the time…” Put your character in the scene. Describing a memory creates a passive, boring scene.

√ Pay attention to the character’s body language. A hand that trembles while the character is writing her name, for example, tells the reader more than the phrase “She was nervous.” And it ups the tension.

√ Leave the last scene in the chapter open. Make your reader need to turn the page.

√ Occasionally give your reader a break. Use a little humor or a little exposition to slow the pace after a particularly tension-filled scene. But don’t linger too long. Your reader wants to get caught up in the action again.

1 comment:

Sally said...

Very effective description of "how to" . . .