Saturday, January 10, 2009

Moving the Story Forward

One of the hardest things to get right in a novel is the pacing. Going all the way through at break-neck speed doesn't work - you don't give the reader any breathing space and after a while, the constant high drama is like a plateau to skim across. You don't want a reader to skim. But taking it slowly and developing everything in depth all the time doesn't work either. The reader keeps nodding off. The obvious answer is that the dramatic scenes take longer and the reflection scenes are shorter. But it doesn't neatly work like that either.

Every story has its own pace. The pace will vary, it will soar and dive, it will increase to top speed and slow for thinking space. So how do you work out speed and slowness for yourself? I've been doing some research on this and a few important points have emerged. One is your main character, and who they are. A slower, more thoughtful character will create a story that reflects who they are (think Alistair McCall-Smith's series with Mma Ramotswe, set in Botswana). A forceful character who leaps in before thinking will make for a higher-paced, more breathtaking story.

The trap with characters, I have found, is this: mostly we create people who are going to grow and change in the course of the story. That's natural and desirable. But it is very easy to end up with a story where things happen to the character all the time, so that the plot is pushing the character and directing her, instead of the other way around. It was something I hadn't considered in depth before, until I was trying to rewrite a novel and felt like I was stuck in mud. Except it wasn't me, it was my character.

Lots of exciting, suspenseful things were happening in the story, but they were happening TO her, not being caused or pushed along by her. It's a fundamental error, and I think it is very easy to fall into if you are not aware of it. The trap, I think, lies within the "grow and change" principle - we write about all these things that occur and how the character reacts and what they learn, but really they are learning by example, not learning by getting out there and taking risks and ACTING, rather than reacting.

This quote is from Cynthia Lord's blog - she is also revising right now, and asking some important questions as she goes along. This is the first on her list:

Can I change this plot development so it's the main character's idea? Or a result of her actions? to keep the main character driving the story. Not having the story happen to her--have it happening because of her.

It's a handy reminder that I want to keep on a piece of paper in front of me as I work through yet another draft. What's your favourite (current) revision question?


Tracey said...

Hmm, favourite current revision question is "Why is this here? What's it adding to the story?" -- well, that's two questions obviously, but they're tied together. My focus is currently on cutting words, and in every revision I always find there's more I can flesh out, and I just want to add, add, add, so I'm thinking about justifying every scene's existence, every paragraph's, every sentence's, yes, even every word's.

I'm also constantly thinking about whether characters are being active rather than reactive, because that's a trap I fall into too. It's about making sure the story is character and not plot driven.

The whole pacing question is interesting and sometimes complex. I recently workshopped a slower chapter that I was worried was too bogged down, and one of the comments was that the pacing might be too fast! Having had another look, I have to say that I still think it's too slow if anything. Ultimately, you've got to go with your own gut.

Maniac Scribbler said...

Why did I put in all of these adverbs, and how do I get rid of them in an efficient fashion? (Which is also kind of two questions, but also related.)
Also: Can I write this tighter, or does something need to be added here?
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Sherryl said...

I think revision questions often depend on what kind of first draft writer you are. If you're a splurger, then a lot of your revision is trimming. If you're a bare-bones writer, then you have to deepen and enrich without padding.
The hardest thing is to stand back and be objective - what is the reader (who has not read the previous ten drafts over and over like I have!) going to experience?

Kristi Holl said...

Oh, yes, the HARDEST part is to stand back and be objective! Thankfully I happen to have a wonderful critique partner! 8-)
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Very useful advice, Sherryl. Thank you ! :)