by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2003 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Pacing is the peaks and valleys in the action of your story. While I admit that this rule of good writing, like every other rule, has been broken, it is rare that an author can do so with impunity. For example, James Joyce tried it in Ulysses, 783 pages of vulgarity and run-on sentences described as "dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable". You're welcome to read the book and decide whether he succeeded. For most of us, pacing is essential, especially in a story of novella length or longer.
There are a couple of basic rules for pacing:
|1||The first paragraph is probably the most important paragraph in the story.|
|It's a competitive world. Look in a bookstore and ask yourself, how a prospective reader would choose your story over any of the others around? If you want your story to be read, you need to catch the interest of the reader as quickly as possible. A catchy title, an interesting blurb, or an interesting cover might get you to pick the book up, but you don't buy it until you've read the first paragraph or so. I've made this point before so I won't belabor it.|
|2||The end of each chapter should leave the reader wondering what will happen next.|
|It's actually important to select an end point for each chapter. Some people seem to use arbitrary factors like file size (i.e., to allow for size limits on some e-mail programs) or number of words (i.e., continuing a procedure that initially came from some professor who gave a writing exercise such as write 2000 word chapters). I remember when I was in high school and the teacher would assign use to write essays that included 20 selected spelling words and I would stop the essay in the middle as soon as I got the last spelling word in. The result of such procedures is a story with meaningless and annoying breaks. The solution is to make certain that there is something the reader is waiting to see resolved, that he or she is anticipating, in the next chapter so he or she keeps reading.|
|3||Avoid lengthy expositions.|
|Just to be certain we're speaking the same language here, by exposition
I mean narrative where someone tells you what is happening rather
than describing the action directly. Exposition works in small
doses, but only the most skilled writers can make it work in large
chunks. For example, many of Robert A. Heinlein's novels contain
multi-page expositions of his views on life, but he was skilled
enough that he knew to keep the frame of a good story around them.
He was so good, that few readers actually realize he has done
this. Do you think you're that good?
Check out the example below:
With a crash louder than thunder, the meteor dropped through the ceiling of George's basement apartment. Striking the floor, it produced an explosion of cement dust as it struck and then, surprisingly, bounced up onto his lap as he sat in his favorite recliner watching his beat up old television.
Deafened, choking and startled, George couldn't say how long he stared at it before realizing that his pants were burning. With a yelp of pain, he pushed the baseball-sized lump of rock onto the floor and grabbed a half-filled can of beer from the end table beside him. His agonized brain worked overtime as he decided whether to waste good brew, but when his smoldering pants began to glow red and burst into flame he knew what he had to do.
"That's what he said happened, I swear it," Jack said. "He said he was sitting quietly in his recliner when a meteor crashed through the ceiling of his apartment. Then he told me it slammed into the cement floor and created a small crater and a ton of dust.
"And you know what he said happened next? He said the burning hot meteor bounced onto his lap and began burning his pants. He had to pour beer onto his lap."
"That's gotta be a crock. That couldn't really have happened, could it?" asked Richard. "I mean, George wasting a beer? No way, dude."
"I guess so," Jack responded. "But he did show me a pair of pants with some definite singe marks on them."
|This example is short enough that it actually might work as exposition, but imagine it as the form of the entire story. It would get 'old' very quickly, wouldn't it?|
|4||Make an outline.|
|The first think I usually hear when I say this is, "Why? I know
where I'm going with my story, I don't need to waste time with
an outline." And my usual response is, "And how many stories have
you actually finished?"
Having written novella length stories with and without formal outlines, I understand why someone might not wish to take the time to do an outline. I often use a modified version of an outline involving  a story bible and  a theme for each chapter.
To elaborate a bit, a 'story bible' is similar to what soap operas use to keep track of all their characters. It tends to include:
|A||The character's name.|
|B||Any unusual features of the character (e.g., hair color, accent). Ever read a story when the character's name or hair changed color in the middle of the story? Jarring, isn't it?|
|C||The character's motives. We talked in the past about how important it is to have your character act in a consistent and believable manner. This is a great way to help that happen.|
|D||Events or situation of note. This is where you keep track of history. Imaging if Holmes kept forgetting where he had fought Moriarty to the death. Was it Reichenbach Falls, Right-In-Back-Of-The Falls, or Right-On-His-Back-He Falls? When a character purposely lies, you will probably need to show that later and this is a great place to check on whether you did that.|
|One of the advantages of a theme for each chapter -- I often use obtuse quotations to help myself while confusing my readers (the later being not recommended) -- is that it is easier to write a story in small pieces than as a whole.|
|5||Build to a climax.|
"Bull's bat whistled through the air and he swung. It was a perfect pitch -- outside and just a bit high -- exactly where he liked them. There was a joyous smile on his face; he knew this one was gong all the way -- he could feel it. Thunk! It was a solid hit, and hard. The bat vibrated in his hand with enough force to sting. The ball flew up into the clear blue sky and little Barry Connors calmly began to trot down the baseline, certain that it was out of the park. The crowd did too, they knew this could be the series-winning run. Their cheers were palpable, echoing from bleacher to bleacher and back, but then the sound changed, instead of a pure roar of animal pride and victory, a hint of a question appeared. It surprised Barry and he nearly stumbled over first base in his victory lap. Looking up he saw the problem. He'd pulled the ball and it was perilously close to the foul line. In fact, from his position rounding first, it might actually be out. The man on third stopped his dash home and turned back. Barry couldn't tell if his teammate was stopping to judge where the ball would land or turning dejectedly back to his original base. The umpire had staked out a position on the baseline directly between the runner and home in order to better make his call. Barry actually stopped before he reached second, stopped and watched the ball, waiting for it to slow its upward trajectory and head earthward so he could see where it would land. Would it land to the right of the flag and be the winning run, or to the left and be just another flashy strike? It was finally coming down, slowly, almost as if floating one the breeze. The breeze, Barry thought suddenly, which way is it blowing. It might be enough to decide where the ball landed. Blast! It was blowing east, toward the foul line. It was going to be a foul. All his effort would be for naught. The ball was falling, falling, falling, and finally it landed. It was a...
|Do you care about Barry? Do you care if the ball was in or out
of bounds? More importantly, do you see how the writing brought
you into the story, made the situation more and more exciting,
building to a crescendo? That's building to a climax.
Oh, and the ball was in. It was a two-run homer and Barry's team won.
|6||Don't rush the story.|
|I don't know how many times I've heard people ask, "How long is
too long?" or the converse, "Why can't I just tell the story and
forget all the extraneous stuff?" Both questions are nearly impossible
to answer and yet are essential considerations in plotting. The
problem is the answer depends on the story. For example, Jack
Chalker's Well World stories have a large readership. I too am a fan. However, they
probably should have been a four book series rather than five.
Much of the travel from hex to hex is little more than filler
since it does little to advance the plot and does not really develop
the fantastic beings he describes. Similarly, I wish Chalker had
spent more time exploring the people, events and situations on
Earth in the first half of The Identity Matrix. It was the first (and possibly still the best) discussion of
learning to live in a new and different body I've ever read, and
I was disappointed when the story moved on to the next logical
stages of the plot.
Have you ever read a story where you felt the story was really just a series of events waiting for and ending? That story was too long. Have you ever read a story were you sat back after finishing it and thought, "But what about such-and-such?" or "Why didn't thus-and-so happen?" That story probably wasn't long enough.
So how do you tell if you're doing too much or too little? It's easy. Ask a friend -- and hope he's a good enough friend to be honest. But to offer some hints:
|A||Make a list of the points you want to make.|
|B||Think about how your characters should act and give them their heads as much as possible.|
|C||Don't forget the incidentals. This means fill in some of the background sounds, colors, shapes, locations, etc. Ask yourself if either of the two example stories above would be as good without the background. Would George's story be as good without the imagery of the beer-guzzling guy watching his beat up old television while sitting back in his recliner? Would Barry's story be as good without the crowd or the breeze? Just to make things a bit less clear, I should also note that too many incidentals can overwhelm a story. Imaging if I took the time to specify the color of the peeling wallpaper, mention that there had been tile on the floor, but George had pulled it up and painted over the concrete because it was so badly worn and that his apartment had a shower but no bathtub. These would be color too, but not color that helps the reader to visualize the event. They are extraneous. So how can you tell what is too much? For most beginning writers I usually find it necessary to say, put in more. Put in as much as you can and then edit. When you edit, ask yourself if each image, each idea, each situation helps tell the story. If it does, keep it. If it doesn't, drop it. I hate to think about how many words, sentences, paragraphs and even chapters I've actually removed during the editing process. Just remember, painful as it sounds, it's easier to delete than add.|
|I love to read and will read almost anything, exceptions being The Lord of the Rings and The National Enquirer, but I find I don't enjoy stories that don't have some emotion in them. I refer you to Barry's story for an example. It doesn't matter whether you like Barry or not; initially, I actually wrote him as a cocky little snot, like the famous Casey. What matters is if you, the reader, feel something and care about what is happening. Did you feel yourself wishing the ball in bounds (or out)? Did you want to suck in your breath in anticipation as the breeze came up? If yes, it worked. If no, I should have done more editing.|
|8||Have a clean ending point.|
|This is a clean ending. The story is over. The points have been
made. There may still be a few questions pending, after all, you
may want to write a sequel, but this is a logical place to stop.
Some people like to end with a twist, like O. Henry. It's not
necessary. Some people like to summarize the story and make sure
all the loose ends are wrapped up. Unnecessary. The only necessary
consideration in ending a story is once you've determined that
the reader will feel satisfied that they've been entertained.
So if you've been entertained by this column, I'll say goodbye and let you get back to writing.