July 19, 2013

Casual Friday: Mastering Pacing and Tension

This is the fourth post in a series on four major problem areas found in most manuscripts sponsored by Between the Line Edits. You can click here to find a listing of the other posts. 

In my years of experience as an editor, I have never rejected a MS solely because of pacing and tension. In fact, when it is a problem, it’s usually the last issue we tackle in editing. Why? Because pacing/tension isn’t a direct problem, it’s a result, generally of the other three things we’ve discussed: characters, plot and show vs. tell. When a writer examines those three bigger areas, pacing and tension usually tend to resolve themselves. However, it’s good to have a few guidelines.

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “That’s the end” but then it wasn’t? And another scene passed and “that’s the end?” but it wasn’t, and then you just wanted it to be over? Or maybe the beginning was really good, but then you spent the next hour wondering why you were still watching it? These are two things you never want to happen in your MS. In books, these feelings can largely be pointed back to pacing and tension. If things are moving too slowly, or too quickly, or seem to not matter, then that’s a pacing/tension problem.

source: www.sodahead.com
Pacing problems can be correlated to at least five areas.

1. Character development
We’ve talked about how important characters are in story, but characters also affect pacing. (Everything effects pacing.) Characters that develop too slowly or too quickly or not quickly enough are all problematic.

2. Dialogue 
All dialogue exists for two reasons: to move the story forward and to reveal something about the characters. When dialogue does it’s job then it keeps the story (and all its elements) flowing in a believable way. It drives the story toward the end goal.

Unnecessary conversations between characters slow down the story. Let’s examine a piece of dialogue as an example. (PS. I totally borrowed this whole plot from Switched at Birth because I had no ideas, and I’ve been marathoning that show.)

I threw myself on the bed with a sigh. 
“What happened?” Stacy asked. 
“It’s Travis,” I said. “He came to see me at school today.” 
I hadn’t told her a lot. Not about my family or any of the things I’d learned. “I have a lot to tell you.” 
She stared at me and then sat beside me. I bit my lip. She could handle this. I had to tell someone. “One day during class we ran a blood test and I told my parents at dinner and we all thought that it was weird. But they said it wasn’t a big deal, and I said it was, and we started looking into it. There was no way that they were my parents.” 
“I know,” I said. “So we asked why and started looking and it turns out that when I was born, another girl was born. And her mom is my mom and my parents are her parents. We were switched at birth.” She didn’t say anything. 
“The other girl’s name is Sara, and she and her mom moved into my house. My mom. Her house. I don’t know anymore.” 
“That’s crazy.” 
“It gets worse,” I said….

And then the character goes on to recap everything that’s happened for the last fifteen chapters to her best friend, who had no idea what was going on.

What’s the problem with this?

By telling another character the whole story in dialogue, you slow down the pacing and lose the tension. This is a common problem in manuscripts, but it shouldn't be. You don't have to recap it all. The reader already knows the story because they experienced it as it happened. (Or should've.) You don’t have to recap the story again because the reader will get bored.

Look how effective it could have been if it was handled another way:

I threw myself on the bed with a sigh. 
“What happened?” Stacy asked. 
“It’s Travis,” I said. “He came to see me at school today.” 
I hadn’t told her a lot. Not about my family or any of the things I’d learned. 
“I have a lot to tell you.” 
She stared at me and then sat beside me. I bit my lip. She could handle this. I had to tell someone. 
“I was switched at birth,” I say. 
She looked at me like I was crazy, but then I told her the story of how it happened. The test at school, meeting Sara, them moving in. Everything. 
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? You could've,” she said when I finished.

In this conversation, the reader understand that our MC is telling her best friend everything—without actually re-telling us the things we’d already learned. It’s more effective, it’s faster, and it keeps things moving. The purpose of this scene is probably the best friend’s reaction, which the dialogue in the first example wasn't doing. If dialogue slows things down, then it’s not doing the job it’s supposed to do.

source: http://wall.alphacoders.com/profile.php?id=44411&page=3

3. Descriptions 
There are some readers who love pages and pages of descriptions. I am not one of those readers – I’m not one of those editors or writers either. For one, I tend to get lost in all the descriptions and lose something when I’m building a world in my head. For another reason, it slows that story way down. I like action and dialogue done write and characters that keep the story moving.

Some of the best descriptions paint a picture clear enough for you understand what you’re seeing, but not so clear that you see every detail. Languid descriptions of landscapes, buildings, and scenery don’t necessarily make a better story. Show enough to set a scene, to bring out the best in the internal monologue/emotions of the narrator(s) and actions.

The more unnecessary information you insert into a story, the more challenging it will be to maintain good pacing. Your reader is smart. Trust that their minds will fill in what you leave out. (That said, don't leave out key elements that the reader must know in order to understand your story.)

4. Subplots 
In YA especially, we love subplots! The more things we can throw in, the more twists we can have, the better! A simple story about two sisters in a small town trying to get out? Let’s make that more interesting by giving them a circus, a string of murders, a single father, an absentee mother who just happens to show up at that circus, a snowstorm that traps them all together, a college interview that sister A has on Monday if she can get to it, and a boy for them both to fall for, because that’s drama!

Subplots are great, but your story could suffer if you’re not careful. If you have too many of them, drop them halfway through, or give them slapdash resolutions, subplots can kill pacing.

If you’re not sure what your subplots are, map your story out. Make a list. Write down your main plot (motivation and immediate goal of the MC that carries throughout the story) and then everything else that you have going on. Which threads are beneficial to that main plot? Which ones are in direct conflict? Can any be cut? It’s important to figure out what you want the story to be, then shape a couple subplots around that main plot. You can’t carry fifteen plots throughout a story; it will move too slowly or too quickly. A reader won’t be able to stay with you, and your story will suffer.

5. World building
Another way pacing can be thrown off, especially for a speculative story, is with world building. The bigger the world, the more complex the rules, the more difficulty you will have with pacing. Either you will spend too much time building the world, or you won’t spend enough. The best way to deal with world building pacing is to know the rules of your world.

Every world must have rules. Rules for living, rules for magic, rules for how one thing connects everything else. As the author, it’s your responsibility to know those rules—and to follow them. (Read that again: follow your own rules.)

Make another list. What are your most basic rules? Do those rules have caveats? Are there rules for magic? For dating? For living? Can everyone work? How do they eat? What do they do in their spare time? What are their expectations? What creatures exist in your world? How are the made? Killed? Controlled? How does creature A differ from creature B? The list goes on and on, but the point is: know the rules!

Make it simple. Reveal it in an orderly fashion, starting with the things critical to understanding the book before trickling down to things the MC learns along with the reader. You never want your world to be so overwhelming or inconsistent that it slows down the book. And you never want the reader to be confused by the world. Ever.

Now, let’s move on to pacing’s first love:

source: http://www.brettbrooks.org/umass/2011/09/23/milk-cookies/


Stories must have tension. Tension is innate because every MC has a goal and something that stands in the way of that goal—that’s the tension! Stories are about risk, and where there’s risk, there is tension. Without it, the story doesn’t matter.

Sometimes, tension can exist in subplots or in characters, and other times, fixing tension issues can be as simple as rewording a few paragraphs. For this post, we’re going to break down a few types of tension.

Conflicting Motivations – When two people are going after different things.

Example: One person wants to save the humans from a monster; the other is a hungry monster who wants to eat humans.

This tension can be internal or external, though typically it’s external. Whenever anything is at conflict by warring desires, that’s tension.

Unclear Goals – When the MC doesn’t know what he/she wants.

This is tension because in order to work toward a goal, you have to know what the goal is. So if a character doesn’t know if she loves the monster or wants to stop it, the tension becomes the character figuring out what she wants—and then shifts to following through with that.

Internal Conflict – Who the MC is vs. who MC wants to be vs. who MC thinks he/she should be.

Characters, especially teen ones, are on a journey to discover who they are. Lots of the time, due to other pressures, they are in conflict with who they are vs. who they want to be vs. who they think they should be (or who someone else thinks they should be). That’s tension.

Other Characters – What they want vs. what the MC wants vs. what the MC thinks they want for them vs. what they want for the MC.

Other characters, even when their goals align, can be points of tension for a story. Do they want what the MC wants or are they against it? Is their motive selfish or selfless? Why do they want it? Does the MC really want it? Do they want it for the MC? What does the MC think of them? Are they friends? Enemies? Family?
souce: www.tumblr.com

Romantic tension – To kiss or not to kiss?

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you have two potential love interests, there’s bound to be tension. That’s when playing the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game comes into play, or the 'almost kissing' or the 'forbidden love'. Whatever it is, this one is a biggie!

The most important thing to know about tension (other than that you must have tension in a story) is this: As writers, tension is your best friend. Don't be afraid to depend on it.

This post is provided by Between the Line Edits, a freelance editing company specializing in NA/YA fiction composed of three industry professional editors (Danielle Ellison, Briana Dyrness and Patricia Riley) who have more than twenty manuscripts under their experience. BLT Editors are dedicated to helping writers shape great stories. Their goal is to give you, the writer, develope the tools that will help you get where you want to be. Connect with them on twitter @BTLEdits and get more information on their services on their website.


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