Pacing Your Pages – Part II

Playing the "Time Lord" is no matter to horse around with.

After surely leaving you in suspense all week with the dramatic hook at the end of my last post, “Pacing Your Pages – Part I,” I bring you the thrilling conclusion of the joke:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says

“WHY THE LONG FACE?”

Boddum-bum. *ching!*

Right. To get back on topic, last time I introduced the first part of author Julie Cohen‘s workshop on Pacing. She’d explained how we’re the “Time Lords” over our readers’ experience with our novel—how engaged they are and how quickly they move through it. We’ve already been over analyzing our use of conflicts, functions, hooks, and variety, so moving onward today…

Keeping secrets is another tool for creating a page-turning novel. As Cohen said:

“Readers are nosy.”

As the writer, we can choose to either keep a secret from the reader or let them in on one that’s kept from a character. However you approach it, try to keep that secret for as long as you can, as wanting to find out what it is (or see the character do so) is what will prompt readers to keep reading. That being said, know when to let it go, even if it’s earlier than you’d want to if it means not distracting or overly teasing the reader. You want them intrigued, not annoyed.

And just when we’ve been talking about how to pick up the pace of your novel, just as important is slowing down. Moments warranting a slow-down are dramatic events, sudden happenings, and emotional high points that we might want to prolong for their significance and to allow the reader to process them. Strategies for expanding on reader time include adding section breaks, changing point-of-view, and leaving an incident for a chapter before returning to it later.

Then there’s the matter of speeding up. If you want to get things rolling a little faster, avoid coffee-drinking scenes and the like with characters just sitting around and gabbing if it’s not moving the story forward, along with description for its own sake. Establishing atmosphere and such can be better achieved through a few concise, well-selected descriptions than rambling on over every detail of everything appearing in a scene—and remember your R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain! Other areas to cut include naturalistic but unneeded dialogue, bits that aren’t hooks at the beginning and end of scenes, and things necessary to real life but not fiction (think going to the bathroom or getting from one side of the room to the other).

Where making these cuts are concerned, Cohen says:

“If you have a sneaking suspicion something shouldn’t be in there, cut it.”

We new writers hear this advice at every turn. That’s because it’s essential, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Looking on the bright side of cutting things out, we can: 1) accept that we’ve learned something from writing it; and, 2) use it again somehow…perhaps in another story, as a “free read” on your website or blog as a means of drawing readership, or, quite possibly, it might even have to be stuck back in the story it originally came from! Cohen herself had this experience—she’d cut a scene out by her own choice, but when her editor later suggested that that part of the story was lacking a certain something, the bit that she’d cut was exactly the solution!

Finally, I’d mentioned her color-coding system before for determining the appearance and interplay of conflict throughout a manuscript. She likewise closed her session with a similar method for outlining other aspects of plot. Basically, however you’d like to slice and dice it, assign each plot element a color (e.g., interaction between hero and heroine, interaction between hero and his mother, etc.) and jot it on a Post-It note. Then go chapter by chapter and apply the Post-Its to a sheet of paper for each to see your story’s development. This isn’t so much for outlining in advance as it is a post-draft diagnostic tool.

* To see a photo of this strategy and read Cohen’s own description of it, see her blog post, “Post-It Plotting“:
http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

What pacing strategies have worked for you? Would you give any of these from Part I or II a go?

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

9 responses to “Pacing Your Pages – Part II

  • Milo James Fowler

    “Keeping secrets is another tool for creating a page-turning novel” — I’ve really been noticing this in Stephen King’s writing. I don’t know if he’s gotten more obvious about it over the years, or I’m just more in tune with his ability to “R.U.E.”; but it’s definitely something I’m working on and need to improve.

    • thefallenmonkey

      I received a Stephen King novel with my writing festival SWAG, so really need to read him again and pay close attention to his handling of secrets and R.U.E. (I love that reading can count as “writing” when it comes to using it as research as much as pleasure, don’t you? :)) I think an issue with my manuscript has been perhaps holding onto the secret too long and, even when it’s revealed, not making it obvious enough. My R.U.E. in that case was actually too strong and has screwed me!

  • Eva

    Great post again! I see the teacher so well in there. Did you ever think of doing classes yourself? Am sure you would be brilliant.
    Aaanyway, on the topic – for my stories (all two of them) I usually follow the strategy of letting readers into the secret that is kept from the main characters. I try to get tension out of the character’s oblivion that behind their backs, everything is going downhill for them, while they worry about seemingly important stuff (usually sub-plot).
    Guess I like that type of story because I so far have failed to plot a “whodunnit” that I didn’t feel could be figured out by readers quite soon… 😉

    Thanks as well for the link to Julie’s blog – seems a lovely one! I actually tried out the colour-coded post-its myself 2 months ago to get hold of my plot and to keep my change of perspectives regular. So can only recommend that, too, although I assigned colours to characters rather than scenes. So, just the same in green, I guess.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks, Eva! *blush* You compliment my teaching ability too greatly. 🙂

      I think it’s very cool that you share the secret with the reader and withhold it from the character–great means of building suspense…it’s like when you’re watching a movie and can see what’s around the corner from the character and are screaming at them, “Don’t go that way!!” And I agree that crafting a non-predictable secret that can be kept from the reader for a while is so challenging. A couple books I’ve recently read, though I still loved them, did have secrets I predicted rather early on—those were both cases of prolonging the secret too long to the point where all the clues totally gave it away whether the author was ready to or not.

      I like your idea of color-coding characters to keep POVs straight—as I’m finding in these manuscripts that I edit with multiple perspectives, those switches are so critical to track.

  • Glen

    great tips – yet again I leave here educated – thanks 🙂

  • Nicki

    First—is that YOU in the horse head? Slim shoulders, big bosoms peaking out, a cider, I believe?

    Second—I second Eva’s comment about YOU teaching classes. YOU ought to be the speaker at some of these workshops. Seriously.

    Third—R.U.E. – love it! such a good tip. The color-coding is interesting too. That could even work in Word w/ shading.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha ha, yep, that’s me in the horse head. Though the “big” bosoms must be someone else’s… 😉
      And to your second point, aw shucks, I still have so much to learn. But I’m excited about sharing what I’ve learned so far on at least a basic level if I return to the high school classroom or tutoring! So thanks to you and Eva for the vote of confidence!
      Third – I love the idea of shading in Word; that’s brilliant! Seems like it would be easier and save some trees. 🙂

  • The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating « The Fallen Monkey

    […] Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see also “Story Arc” category and, more specifically, “Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II) […]

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