This week I return to my series of posts on Creative intersections. Thus far, I have discussed point of view and worldbuilding, plot and character development, and worldbuilding and plot. Today, I am going to address plotting once again, and combine it with a discussion of pacing.
In my opinion, pacing is one of the most difficult elements of storytelling to master. We all have read books that seem to drag at certain times or that become so frenetic that they are almost impossible to read. And yet, I would never suggest that you try to make your pace consistent throughout an entire novel; to my mind, novels, like great pieces of music, have mixed dynamics. There are slower passages and fast ones, periods where everything is loud and exciting, and periods of calm, during which your readers have a chance to catch their collective breath. The key is, how do we balance all these different moods and how do we keep our stories moving and building so that the ending is exciting and satisfying?
I have been hammering away at the old “pantser” versus “planner” thing in recent weeks. I think I’ve mentioned in every post I’ve written this year the fact that I outline, and I’m about to go into it again. I am not proselytizing. Really, I’m not. But outlining is something I do that helps nearly every aspect of my writing, and after getting away from it for some time, I am outlining again and am more committed to that aspect of my process than ever. It is particularly important when it comes to pacing a novel. Why? Well, the process itself explains it best.
When I outline a book, I tend to do it chapter by chapter. My outlines are rough — no more than a sentence or two to describe the key plot points that will occur in each chapter. But if I know that my 100,000 word book is going to be, say, 25 chapters long, then I know (approximately) how long my chapters need to be (4,000 words or so each) and I can keep track of the progress I am making in my plotting as I write the book. My outlines read as almost a list of key plot points, and so if I find that I am 12 chapters into the actual writing of my novel, but I am only at the plot points that I describe in my outline under the heading “chapter 8,” I know that a) my action is happening too slowly, and b) my book is on pace to be much longer than I had planned.
On the other hand, if I am writing chapter 12, but I am already on the plot points planned for chapter 15, I know that either I need to slow down the action a bit, or I was off in my estimation of how long it would take to develop my story. In either case, whether going too slowly, or too quickly, the problem is correctable. In fact, with City of Shades, the third Thieftaker book, which I am writing now, I found myself in this second scenario. I was starting chapter 13, but had already gotten to chapter 14 in my outline. But I realized that my plotting had failed to account for a couple of story elements that needed to be explored. And so when I wrote chapters 13, 14, and 15, they were pretty much unplanned. But since I knew both where I had been and where I was going, fitting them into the story proved incredibly easy. Now, I am on chapter 16, and the outline and my manuscript are back in sync.
Now these are the mechanics of matching pacing to plot. But what about the art of making that combination work? As I mentioned before, I do not like to write my books at a single pace. Life doesn’t work that way, and, in my opinion, neither should fiction. Our plots usually consist of many threads, some of them naturally faster, more action-packed than others. In the Thieftaker books, including City of Shades, Ethan has a central mystery to solve. That is often the source of the most excitement and the greatest amount of action. It also tends to be the darkest aspect of the plot. Ethan also has an ongoing rivalry with Sephira Pryce, Boston’s premiere thieftaker. This rivalry also supplies plenty of action and excitement. But it can also provide a certain amount of humor. Ethan’s interaction with Sephira can be menacing and violent at times, but it also includes its share of quips and ironies. Beyond those two threads, Ethan also has a romance with Kannice Lester, and colorful friendships with Diver Jervis, Rev. Trevor Pell., Tarijanna Windcatcher, and Henry Dall. These interactions tend to have more humor and warmth, and, in the case of Ethan’s relationship with Kannice, lots of romantic interludes and even a bit of s-e-x.
Elements of just about all of these relationships enter into every Thieftaker book. And they are interwoven — again, I refer back to the image of the braid that I introduced in the post I did on character and plot. Yes, the end of my books are weighted heavily toward action. But even in those final chapters, Ethan has moments with Kannice — the reader needs to be reminded of the stakes, of what Ethan is fighting for and what he risks. He has moments with Pell, or Janna, or Diver, for the same reason and also because rather than make any section of a book unrelentingly dark, I want to throw in moments that will make my readers laugh or will tug at their heartstrings. The word we use for all of this is “pacing” but really the word is not quite appropriate. When I think of pacing, I think of running, of setting a pace and sticking to it. I would argue that what we do in writing a novel is more akin to composing. We blend dynamics, we vary tempo, we modulate between major and minor keys. In short, we create literary symphonies that touch on many notes, but build to a final movement that is powerful and fast-paced, that will end on passages that leave our readers breathless, their pulses racing. Furthermore, I believe there should be echoes of those final passages throughout the book, and the final pages should bring together all the tonal and melodic themes that have run through the entire piece.
So, when I seek to combine my pacing and my plotting, I rely on an outline to give my book structure and to ensure that my writing lines up with my planning. But I also rely on a something that is less easy to name. Some of it is instinct, some of it is simply the product of experience, of understanding when to up the tension and when to give my readers a respite. This is one of the reasons why I utterly reject the notion that people who outline do not write organically. Being an organic writer, again in my opinion, has nothing to do with pantsing versus planning, and everything to do with creating in the moment, with allowing characters and plotlines to adapt and change as the writing process unfolds. That is why I outline loosely: because I want to retain that organic element of storytelling even as I impose some structure on my process.
Whether or not you use an outline, you should think about your plot threads and how they can overlap and blend to give your story those musical elements I outline above. Because if you can get yourself to think musically, to view your narrative in terms of tempo and rhythm, modulation and dynamics, you may well find that your pacing concerns take care of themselves.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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