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.



Tension in the Telling Tension Series Part 6

Tension is key to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories. That tension begins with character and gets expressed and magnified in plot, but the way we tell our stories is every bit as important. To complete my series on tension, I’d like to highlight some of the storytelling techniques that may be exploited as part of the overall orchestration of tension.

1. Writing in Scene

Writing in scene means something is taking place right in front of us, and we don’t know where it will lead. We have the most rawness and risk. This is true for the writer originally as well as for the reader: scene pushes us to discover our characters’ reactions in the moment. When events occur off-stage or in summary, we’re more shielded from uncertainty and the tension that goes with it. Scenes encourage us to show rather than tell and to make the fullest use of plot devices such as time pressure and suspense. (See Dynamic Tension in Plot.)

Despite the advantages of scene, summary may at times enhance the tension. It can help to avoid losing focus or dragging down the pace. To choose between scene and summary in a given instance, your sense of tension can help you decide. Sometimes a quick summary will better sustain the tension in your story’s forward line.

2. Emotional Impact

If your protagonist seems unaffected by what’s happening in the plot, then the tension dissipates. Why should readers care if the characters don’t? Donald Maass writes eloquently about the importance of including emotions in fiction in Third Level Emotions on Writer Unboxed. As you write, you need to keep asking yourself: how does my point-of-view character feel? Then you want to look for ways to convey that in story, including the techniques mentioned below and elsewhere on this blog. (See The Things We Carry.) For more, check out Don’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, and Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus.

3. Activating the Senses

Sensory details provide the most visceral experience of tension. We can use them to increase the tension in our characters and readers simultaneously. What is being seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted? Keep in mind that what we want readers to share is the filtered experience: details that give us insight into a character’s feelings, as well as bringing home the larger forces of tension at play in character and plot. If your protagonist is angry, then the food might taste awful. Or if the food tastes good, then the angry character might have trouble choking it down. Readers will pick up on that choking sensation on a physical level and share in the tension that triggers it.

4. Staging and Gestures

How close we stand and whether we touch are other physical clues that can affect readers directly. Do the characters keep a certain distance? What happens when they break it? What gestures do they make without being fully aware? Literary editor, writer and teacher, Fred Shafer likes to ask writers, “Where are their hands?” How we move is revealing of how we feel, and can be a nuanced way to convey tension without wordy explanations. (See Movement with Meaning.)

5. Setting and Objects

The larger environment of your novel should reflect the protagonist’s fears and what he or she has to conquer, but within each scene, subtle aspects of setting can add to the tension. The closeness of a room, the atmosphere, the weather, the amount of light and noise, even the nature of objects. “Objective correlative” means that perceptions of objective things are colored by the feelings of the point-of-view character. If that protagonist of yours is still angry, then the furniture might be hard, the weather bleak. If it’s sunny, then it could be painfully bright. (See The Things We Carry.) The concept here is telling details. Details that tell us important things.

Also note that some objects are inherently loaded with tension: guns, knives, diaries, secret letters. Or writers can choose to load an object with meaning, such as Donna Tartt does with the painting in The Goldfinch. Acuteness of observation all by itself has a way of bringing things into focus and making them matter to readers. We listen harder when the details get crisp.

6. Poetic Power

Metaphors, imagery, and other figurative language can augment tension because of the associations they bring up in readers’ minds. A bird with a broken wing has meaning for us all. Writers can also infuse images with story-specific significance to carry import and tension from one point to another. Either approach can have the effect of exploding with meaning – the way sudden insight expands our vision.

7. Narrative Techniques

Readers can pick up on tension that is outside the protagonist. In first person, the protagonist may have blind spots or a certain obtuseness – he or she may report things, but not fully see. In third person restricted, this can go even further: even a virtually invisible narrator can include actions of which the protagonist is barely conscious, which can be quite revealing. In third person omniscient, this can go farthest of all – we can know thoughts in one head that are a complete mystery to another. But the trade-off in terms of tension can be the dispersal of identification. Readers may not as fully invest themselves on an emotional level with a series of point-of-view characters as they would with one.

When working with tension outside the protagonist, writers should try to reread their work with different experiences in the forefront. Read first for tension shared with the protagonist, then read again for all-inclusive tension. You never want to skip the former because you need to be sure to track how the protagonist is feeling throughout. A common error in genre fiction is for the writer to read only for overall tension. The protagonist can end up seeming relatively unaffected inside, as if he or she is shallow or amnesic. Good genre fiction has characters with authentic feelings.

8. Rhythm of Language

The rhythm of language itself makes a huge difference, both in creating tension and in sustaining it. Think of the oral storytelling tradition: holding an audience spellbound is about how a story is told as well as what is said. (See Making a Moment Count.) The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music that contributes hugely to our experience of tension. These rhythms reach readers directly, akin to sensory data and figurative language.

The trick here is to match the rhythms of language to your intent. For example, try short, quick sentences for the kind of tension that goes with action. Experiment with sentence fragments when a character is under the most pressure. Try the probing quality of an extended sentence when the tension is mounting internally as a character moves toward unwelcome truth. Use the ends of paragraphs to leave a lasting impression. Held notes vs staccato. But don’t be afraid to mix it up either. The best music has variety as well as harmony, surprise as well as balance.

9. Final Thoughts

Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. But as writers, we always need to exert some control. We want our instruments to be harmonizing – our subtler sources of tension to complement the larger ones. In addition, less is needed to sustain tension than to create it. Small content- or sensory-based hints will keep hearts thumping.

We also need to be careful of overwriting for tension. Restraint works better than hyperbole. Histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with lots of showy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. Listen as you write to see what affects you the most. When you’re not writing, read books known for their powerful writing and learn from them.

Remember, too, that pace is different from tension. Tension can be slow, inexorable, quiet – too quiet. Hearing the machinery click in an empty room. Letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. Details stand out that we didn’t notice before. In this way, a moment can take on significance and seem to enlarge. It can become a place for increased focus and sharpened perception.

Most of all, trust your gut. These are the kind of decisions that artists make. You’re an artist. This is what artists do.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them, beginning with Tension: The Secret to Storytelling and concluding with this post.



Tension: The Secret to Storytelling Tension Series Part 1

Fiction is magical: that’s something I’ve always believed. When we read fiction, the real world falls away. The characters are made up and yet we care deeply about them. Their problems worry us to the point that we can’t bear to stop reading until they’re resolved. The insights gained in a story can lead to changes in our real lives. We don’t feel that way about a simple description of a character or a list of issues he or she faces or a collection of insights delivered as platitudes.

Tension is the secret: the storyteller’s deepest magic.

Tension is your story’s beating heart: the conflicted character, the crucial stakes, the daunting obstacles, the pressure of time, the risks that should never be taken, the mysteries that need to be solved. Tension refers to both the strain and the harmonic balance of opposing forces. It can be as subtle as the awkward silence between a husband and wife who are keeping secrets from each other. The existence of tension can transform the ordinary into the compelling.

I would go even further: tension is fundamental to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories.

Readers absorb tension – actually feel it on a visceral level – and carry it forward. Once they sense it, they listen hard to hear more. Readers are affected not only by the tension being experienced by the main character, but can also feel tension directly because of things of which the main character is unaware. When we talk about tension, we’re talking about both an effect that the writer creates on the page and a way that the reader feels in response to that effect.  Your ultimate goal is to generate tension in the reader. Tension in the reader sustains the channel of emotional engagement.

Imagine a scene in which a woman listens behind a door as cold air slips through a crack and brushes over her skin, raising hairs. Reading that, we can physically feel it, and share in the apprehension that comes with that sensation. Tension speaks to the deep places in our unconscious where we store emotional reactions and sensory data. Where we have an almost universal response. When tension works in a story, we feel it: we’re tense. And not only do we feel tension when we read it; we, as writers, should feel it when we write. The writer’s own experience of physical tension is the best indication that readers will feel it too. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.)

Once tension is established in a story, it reverberates under the surface, akin to the music carrying mood in a movie, with this distinguishing feature: we carry the music of tension in our guts. The writer is both the composer and the conductor. Tension arises from what you put in your story – the content – and from how you tell it. Even word choice makes a difference, sentence length, rhythms, the mesmerizing music of language. You can build tension up or quiet it down, blending the different sources like the music of instruments.

Orchestration gives us a way to think about tension that takes into account its complexity and importance, as well as its nonlinear aspects. Some tension builds in a progression, but other tension can come in from the side. A multiplicity of possible sources exists. Tension can and should come from character and plot, but that’s not all. Even the little things can contribute: how close your characters stand, whether they touch, how harsh the lights are. Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. Tension can augment tension. But some kinds of tension may undermine others; it’s not a complete free-for all.

As writers, we need to cultivate the ability to think on more than one plane. To experience our work as readers, at the same time as creating it as writers. To use our bodies as well as our brains. Orchestrating tension means being aware of the physical experience of tension – like a reader – at the same time as generating the effect of tension – like a writer. Tension is a place where the mind and body meet.

The magic, in short, is in you.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Next month: Tension Begins With Character.



Orchestrating Tension Writing Workshop at OCWW

Please join me at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop on April 7, 2016, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, for my workshop on the art of Orchestrating Tension.

Tension may well be the storyteller’s deepest magic. Tension is the secret to both your hook and your hold: the pulse that keeps readers turning the page. Tension can range from subtle and psychological to big and action-based – the stuff of profound literary work or gripping genre fiction or wonderfully addictive stories for kids. Once established, tension reverberates under the surface, akin to a movie score. You can build it up or quiet it down, blending different kinds of tension like music. As author, you’re both the composer and the conductor. This workshop will cover the various sources of tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them.

The workshop will take place at the Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, in Winnetka, north of Chicago. Members: $10; nonmembers: $15. All are welcome. Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by sending them by email to OCWW VP Fred Fitzsimmons at fredfitz@gmail.com no later than Monday, April 4, 2016. Critique fees are $15 up to 15 pages and $25 up to 25 pages. Manuscripts must follow the guidelines posted on OCWW’s website.

I hope to see you there!



What Makes Us Cry

At the second turn of the Belmont, when American Pharoah opened up his stride and pulled away from the pack, I burst into tears. And I wasn’t alone. In the room, on the screen, over Facebook and Twitter, people were sobbing. Yes, the horse ran a glorious race, but why did we cry? I’ve often wondered the same thing about books. Unlike movies, where the image of people crying stirs a sympathetic response, characters blubbering on the page can make readers detach. Mere sadness isn’t enough. Something more complex and nuanced is required. Books need to earn our tears.

Tears mean the body is involved as well as the mind. Crying comes out of a physical need for release. As readers, we have to care so deeply about the character that the struggle feels like our own. We need to be surprised in a way that gets past our defenses. The character has to want something with primal resonance so the stakes grab us viscerally. Most of all, the writing must stir our souls. Our conscious brains have little to do with it: it’s our bodies that break into tears.

To care so deeply that the problems feel like our own, we have to know and identify with the character. Knowledge comes out of the character being specific and seeming real to us. For this, the writer needs to believe in and care about the character first. Backstory – what brought the character to this point – may be critical to the writer’s connecting with the character, but how much of that to include and when is up to each writer. The important thing here is to write him or her as vividly as you can out of your own deep connection.

Identification is built up through showing a specific character in scene. Even if characters are very different from us, we put ourselves in their shoes when things happen. As they react to events, so do we. This is how identification begins. The reader thinks: if I were her, I’d react that way too. When people talk about a character being sympathetic, it has more to do with our relating to their reactions and desires than it does with lengthy character descriptions.

Readers also need time with a character if they’re expected to care. Writers are often advised to dive into a problem at the start of their book, which can generate a lot of interest and energy, but not usually tears. I’ve been hooked by the tragedies that open some books – such as the death of the mother in The Secret Life of Bees and Swamplandia (these aren’t spoilers: if you flip through their first few pages, you’ll know this before you buy them) – but they don’t make me cry.

The Goldfinch comes close by telegraphing the mother’s death early on, then dropping back to build up to the event in scene, letting us get to know both son and mother before the loss. But this early reveal is more effective at engaging us with the main character – we open up to a more intimate and serious level with him right away – than it is at getting us to cry. We know about the death, so we defend ourselves from caring too much. That takes an element of surprise.

The stakes also have to be big enough. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder tells writers to root their plots in primal drives such as survival and hunger – urges so basic they connect with all of us in a visceral way. What the character wants, we feel ourselves wanting too. This is how our identification becomes complete. Add to that obstacles, setbacks, trying and failing, trying again, courage in the face of bad odds. Achieving these wants can’t be easy. Struggle gets to us. Often it’s not a loss, but the sudden success despite everything that moves us to tears.

Finally, the way you tell the story matters. The beat of words, the rhythm of sentences, the infusing of image with meaning. The storyteller’s art. If you want tears, you need to make these moments count. Poor writing can leave readers cold even if all the other elements are there. Beautiful writing almost seems to pull tears out of readers.

I cried about American Pharoah because it had been so long since anyone took the crown (stakes and surprise) and the way he ran showed me that he had heart and that he cared (character). The other horses running meant that he could still lose (struggle). The race even had a kind of rhythm to it – the pound of hooves, the reach of muscles – that stirred me inside (akin to good writing).

I’m also a sap when it comes to horses, but that’s just me.