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?