Pace Beyond Plot

Every novel has a rhythm, and pace is the speed at which a novel’s events unfold. But “pace” also has an implied meaning in the market. It tends to get equated with lots of action. So what does pace mean for a non-plot-driven novel? What really matters is that the book is compelling and keeps readers turning the page. Pace can go beyond plot. I like to think of it as character-based pace instead of plot-based pace. Pace that works for the non-plot-driven novel, using techniques that enhance plot-driven novels as well.

1. Mysteries of Character

Intriguing characters have secrets, not just the kind they keep from the reader, but also important things they don’t realize about themselves. The resistance we find in characters often springs from unrecognized inner fears and conflicts. As for the resources that characters must summon to overcome the obstacles in their lives – these, too, may not be known until they’re needed most. Treat these aspects of character as the mysteries they are. Spool them out, don’t try to solve them too soon, have there be consequences, keep readers on edge.

2. Unreliability

Unreliable narration uses character mysteries as a driving engine. Broadly speaking, we see two different kinds of unreliable narrators: a character’s deliberate unreliability, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and unreliability due to personal blind spots, as in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The manipulative narrators in Gone Girl add to the pace because we’re anxious to find out what’s actually happening and we worry about what they’ll do. In The Goldfinch, the character’s failure of self-knowledge creates tension because we’re concerned about him. While a classic mystery poses secrets at the level of plot, unreliability poses secrets at the level of character that keep us reading forward.

3. Surprises of Self-Perception

Literary agent and writer, Donald Maass, suggests that predictability is what makes a novel a slog, and not just on the level of plot: “Relationships can unfold predictably too. Inner lives can plod down an obvious path.” See Getting Ahead of Yourself and Your Reader on Writer Unboxed. Instead, Maass looks for inner shifts in self-perception, awakenings, new understandings – the ah-ha’s of interiors. Changes that in turn have implications for plot. His answer to pace is to bring about inner changes and address the implications before readers arrive on their own.

4. Relationship Stakes

The plot of many novels centers on solving, or failing to solve, a relationship. But even if you don’t have a relationship plot per se, your protagonist’s inner fears and resistance to change will affect their relationships. Readers feel the cost of those issues most acutely when critical relationships are put at risk.

5. Deepening to Intensify

Depth and good writing are key to creating pace with lower levels of action. We need to know that a moment holds stakes for your character, but that doesn’t need to mean a “tell.” You can use revealing gestures to expose a character’s true feelings. You can summon up a vivid memory tied to the senses or captured in a fragment of scene. You can expand meaning with metaphor, either ones that carry power on their own or that build on imagery from earlier in your book. If you bring energy to your writing, it will read with energy, which in turn will contribute to pace.

6. Rhythm of Language

Finally, think of what it means to hold a reader spellbound. You’re weaving a spell with your rhythms and words. While shorter, choppier, even fragmented sentences can work well for the pace that goes with action, mixing in some longer sentences can be good for character-based pace. Long sentences sink us in time. The moment seems to enlarge – a place for increased focus and sharpened perception. See Tension in the Telling.

The action may slow, but we can be captivated nonetheless.



Voice as a Way In

Voice is often associated with literary writing, but it plays a huge part in successful commercial and genre fiction as well. How we gain insight through voice alone can be especially enriching to more plot-driven work.

1. Voice communicates character

Think about how in a movie, actors and actresses convey character beyond the script. They use facial expressions, intonation, pauses, gestures, movement – not just their lines, but the way they speak their lines. Similarly, voice in a novel can give us words and texture, personality and state of mind. It can carry the weight of our characters’ histories and project their conflicted feelings: the vulnerability in arrogance, the toughness in pain. Voice gives us the opportunity to telegraph depth and complexity without losing pace.

2. Voice acts as a hook

You may otherwise have a very worthy novel, but if you don’t have voice, you may have trouble getting an agent past your first page. In contrast, a strong voice can act as a powerful hook all by itself. When we refer to a “hook,” we’re talking about what gets the readers’ attention in the opening of a story and makes them want to keep reading. To accomplish this, the voice should start right away – a well-voiced first sentence can be an especially strong way to open – and it should be distinctive, as well as hint at complication. Trouble should already be brewing. Main characters should be the product of their past, but you want to resist over-explaining it on the first page. Try instead to be intriguing, with secrets, mystery, irony or threat, or just the sense that there’s a lot to be resolved.

3. Voice sets up story

Voice is not just a character, but a character in a specific moment of his or her life. Voice can convey rueful experience, loss, doubt, bitterness, pushback, broken courage – the kind of inner conflict that sets up a story. Consider the brilliant first sentence of Shirley Jackson’s young adult mystery novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

In that brief paragraph, we get a flash of personality, looks, history, but even more: we get issues. A wish for dark power in someone pretty powerless, and a possibly unhealthy fascination with death.

4. Voice can expose low-insight characters

The concept of “insight” comes from psychiatry. It refers to how aware a patient is of his or her mental state. Both of the main characters in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn have very little of this kind of insight. They each feel justified and right, and are pretty much blind to anything else. It’s up to the readers to perceive how messed up they are. The main way we do that is by hearing more in their voices than they think they’re telling us and seeing more in their actions than they think they’re revealing. Take this example with the character Amy (p 221):

“I grew up feeling special, proud. I was the girl who battled oblivion and won. The chances were about 1 percent, but I did it. I ruined my mother’s womb in the process – my own prenatal Sherman’s March. Marybeth would never have another baby. As a child, I got a vibrant pleasure out of this: just me, just me, only me.”

Talk about revealing. Voice becomes a vehicle for taking us deeper and increasing complexity, even when characters don’t want to let us inside.



Foibles and Fixes

Creative writing requires recommitment from time to time. Not writing is much easier than writing. Curiously, what many of us find is that although we want to write in theory, we keep letting other things get in the way. If those things involve our health, family or job, then writing may have to wait. But if the problems are our own foibles when it comes to writing, then they may be a form of anxiety avoidance which these strategies may help us to surmount:

1. You love to write, but can’t think of anything to say.

The most common answer to this problem is usually to read. Immersing yourself in great books in your genre will motivate and inspire you. The only difficulty is that sometimes those great books will make you feel more lacking. What could you possibly come up with that hasn’t already been said? My suggestion is that you try reading in a different discipline than your own: poetry to get a fiction writer thinking about character; fiction to lure a poet into diving deeper inside; real-life news articles to spur novelists into creating new “what if”s. Or extend your reach further, such as to the visual arts or music. Try attending a play and jot down notes in the dark. No form of artistic expression is exactly the same in terms of what it does best. If you’re a writer, you’ll sense the holes that writing would delve.

2. You freeze up when faced with an empty page.

This is similar to the first issue, but your anxiety is more formless. You’re so swamped with self-doubt, you can barely bring yourself to try. For this, I strongly recommend Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way. She urges writers to start every morning with three pages of free writing. The only rule of morning pages is that there aren’t any rules. You could start each entry with “I hate blank pages” and complain for ten minutes. Cameron believes all that anxious stuff needs to be expunged. You may also find that within that time, you can’t help but shift from paralyzing fear to a more writerly preoccupation with expression. You think: What a great line of swearing. I should have a character say that! And you’re off. If you don’t want to write morning pages, instead try to limit your writing commitment with a timer. Agree to write for ten minutes – how bad could that be? Most writers find themselves resetting the timer again and again. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reminds us that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

3. You get stuck in the middle of a piece.

Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. The plot sticks or the character becomes unconvincing or the tension flatlines; you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do. Staring at the page in a panic only makes the problem worse. In her excellent New Yorker article, “Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?,” Maria Konnikova explains that a focused gaze works with analytic problem-solving, but when further insight is needed, we need to step away and allow ourselves to think more diffusely. In other words, try coffee first, but if that doesn’t help, then go for a walk. Or switch your attention to another project and mull this one over in the back of your mind. If you prefer to stay on task, another trick for writers is to build up the details of the scene. Convince yourself more completely of its reality. Sometimes it helps to go back to an earlier point in the story and work forward from there. You could also try to free write the scene a few different ways. If nothing else works, go out for a drink with a trusted writer friend and free talk the damn thing.

4. You revise and revise, but never finish.

Many writers struggle to complete anything. As long as you’re still working on it, your novel, story or poem could always improve. You can dream and hope without fear. Rejection only happens if you finish and try to put your work out there. Unfortunately, if you never take that risk, then your work may never be read by others. You need to consider what it is you truly want. First and foremost, you should try to finish a piece for your own satisfaction. Think of seeking publication as a separate event. If you decide to pursue it, but are afraid of rejection, then you could try starting small. Send out a version to test the waters. At the same time, make a list of five more places. Some writers benefit from revising between submissions, but if this is your foible, you may want to resubmit as soon as a piece comes back. If it helps, think of yourself as two people: the creative writer and the businesslike submitter. Strip the process of emotional content as much as possible.

In a novel, when a character really wants something, we expect that to increase the stakes. Unless you have an ego of steel, anxiety is part of being an artist. Whether you’re sinking into other people’s art for inspiration or writing your morning pages or taking your issues for a walk, in every case, what you’re trying to do is block out the negative voices and let your focus return to the work. Resilience is key. Recommit as often as you need to.