Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pacing Yourself by Christine Duncan

After years and years of going to critique with my manuscripts, I've heard a lot of writers try to figure out how to write themselves out of whatever corner they're in. The complaint I hear most from my fellow writers is about pace. Too often a scene or even a whole chapter lags and the author just can't figure out why.

More often than not, the answer is goals.

I'm not talking about your goal when you write the scene. That could be anything from introducing a character to killing off your victim. The goal the writer has for the scene should be different than the character's goals. And it is the character's goals that should be up-front and out there--visibly stated at the beginning of the scene.

Why? Let's say you write, "Justin decided there was only one way to take care of this. He was going to confront Anna." See, that is just a simple goal statement. And your reader is going to start worrying. Ooh, is this the end of Justin and Anna? What will Anna say? Why doesn't Justin know that Anna is not the murderer--that she's actually in danger of being the next victim?

Right then and there, just by stating the point of view character's goals at the beginning of the scene, you have introduced tension. And that helps your pace.

Now, the character may or may not meet his goal. Justin may just stomp over to Anna's to hear that she's gone for a girls' night out. Or she may have something she wants to confront him with and he never gets a word in edge-wise. Or in the interest in keeping the characters up a proverbial tree and throwing coconuts at him, Justin may get in the car and find himself in the middle of an earthquake.

That's fine. Really fine. Just be sure to keep mentioning the goal every so often so the reader will keep worrying.

And make sure the scene goal relates to the overall story goal. It can't be that Justin's goal is to bum a cigarette off his friend. Who cares? It has to be something a bit more significant to the story.

I hear a bunch of you sighing out there. Just inserting a line or two about the character's goal at the beginning a scene can't help pace that much, can it? Try it. It helps the best when you start writing the scene because then your scene will be more pointed. You the author will keep it in mind, and play with it in the scene. But it's not a bad thing to insert the scene goal when you go back and edit either. You will automatically see the stuff that goes in that scene, and what needs to go out. And the scene will be sharper for it.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Book Two, Safe House is available now.


Enid Wilson said...

I'm never that scientific. I normally have three scenes planned per chapter and plan to move the story ahead in such a way. But from time to time, one scene may be too long and dragging the pace down. I may try your method in future.

Steamy Darcy

Dana Fredsti said...

Christine, this is a very timely post for me and the advice quite helpful! I've been beating my head against a wall on one chapter (you'll read about it Sunday) and have been trying different things to move past it. Gonna try this one.

Christine Duncan said...

Let me know how it works for you!