Shelley Widhalm

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Pacing a Good Story

In 52 Writing Topics, Pacing, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 26, 2012 at 10:00 am

Though I made the promise to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, I wanted to take this week off. I just didn’t want to write about writing.

But then I had to follow my promise. If I skipped writing this week, I might skip again.

And again.

My writing topic is pacing, a fitting topic considering that I was dragging my heels. In other words, I slowed way down.

Pacing in a short story or novel involves various levels of speed, from fast paced to careful and unhurried.

When starting the telling of a story, begin in the middle of the action to achieve a level of pacing that draws in the reader.

Don’t start at the beginning by writing this happened and then that happened, and now here’s a little excitement. The excitement is what gets readers turning the page, whether it comes from an unanswered question, a car crash or burning building, or a relationship gone awry.

The opening scene should not be bogged down with flashbacks, which slow down a story’s pace. Flashbacks retell what happened before the story’s action begins and should be triggered by something specific, such as a character seeing an object and remembering something because of it.

As the story unfolds from the point of the opening scene, the pace needs to steadily increase toward the climax. If it slows, there needs to be a reason.

The story’s pacing is the speed and rhythm of how it’s told.

The rhythm can be slowed with observations of the character’s environment or the character’s thoughts to emphasize a moment in time, allowing readers to experience the emotional impact.

Narrative slows the pace by describing the setting or summarizing action and dialogue.

Alternatively, dialogue can create a fast-paced conflict scene to speed things up as characters banter, argue or fight.

Action also intensifies the pace as things happen in a scene, such as a character running toward the burning building, wanting to save her laptop with all of her writing (that would be me).

The pacing alters depending on the dialogue, narrative and action of a story. It alters depending on how words are used and the sentences and paragraphs are structured, contributing to the momentum of writing.

By writing about pacing, I’m back in the saddle, to use a cliché, ready to gallop along with my love of writing.


Adding 3D to Descriptions

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 19, 2012 at 7:41 pm

The plot and character sketches provide the skeleton of a story, while description adds the muscle that makes that skeleton move.

Description carries the story along through the use of the senses, bringing life to what happens along the storyline.

But description can be overdone like eating too much, so that eventually the muscle loses battle against the fat.

There are a few ways description falls flat, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Saying that your character slowly walked across the room (here “slowly” modifies walked) does not give the reader as good of a mental picture as: “She shuffled to her bed, falling into it after working 12 hours.”
  • Writing in the passive voice, using “he was,” “they were” and the like. The passive voice slows down the action, while distancing the reader from what’s being said.
  • Using general words, instead of concrete details and specific nouns and verbs. Tree and bird are general nouns, as opposed to a birch oak or maple and a cardinal or robin.

Verbs are important in description, much less so than adjectives, which qualify a noun or noun phrase to provide more information about the object being described. The river spit onto the rocks is more descriptive than the bubbling river.

Adjectives, when used, should be kept simple.

Description is what fills the pages of a story. To keep readers interested, choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Use the senses, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing (sight is obvious), to let the reader experience what you are describing.

Voice: Talk on Key Writing Tool

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 12, 2012 at 11:00 am

It’s so familiar, yet it is effusive.

You hear it every day, but you don’t have complete control over it.

It is voice.

The way it sounds – the pitch, tone and accent – and how you choose your words as you talk is part of it.

Voice written down becomes more than word choice. It is how you put together words and sentences and paragraphs. It is how you choose to describe things.

Hemingway wrote short, crisp sentences.

Faulkner was effusive.

Dickens was a bit flowery.

The voices of the greats show how writers can capture the feeling and tone of their writing through word choice, syntax and phrasing.

Voice is how writers structure a sentence. It pivots toward boredom as a series of subjects and nouns without variety in where the words are placed. It becomes staccato in the even, unaltered rhythm.

To be exciting, voice uses varied sentences, becoming descriptive in places and action-packed in others, aware of the balance of the story structure and the plot needs.

Voice is how you transition between thoughts and ideas.

It is how you choose to tell a story.

It is the reason you write. It is you, reflected in how your heart unfurls into words. It’s what you choose to write about, revealing what you notice, what you care about, what matters in the world you’ve created.

It is what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch, but in your own words.

Voice is your style. It is the way you see the world and interpret events. It is you on the page.

In love with the word and the beauty of language.

Telling Dialogue in Stories

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 5, 2012 at 10:00 am

A writer good at dialogue doesn’t have to be good at conversation.

Dropping a conversation, recorded verbatim or that imitates actual talk, directly into a story would bore most readers.

Dialogue is one of those elements of fiction that if done poorly slows the pace of a story, distracting from the forward motion of the plot.

Unlike dialogue, conversations start with introductions and are peppered with fillers, like um, oh, sure, okay and other one-syllable words.

“Hi, Anna,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Good. It’s such a beautiful day.”

“Not for me. It’s raining,” said Amie (who lives in Seattle or Washington, D.C., where rain is the norm).

Not very interesting, but this is what happens when we talk.

Dialogue has a point and leaves out normal conversational natter, like the “hi’s” and “how are you’s.”

It edits out the repetitions, tangents and diversions that occur in conversation.

It economizes by skipping introductions.

It winnows down to the key words, removing the subject or creating an ellipses within the sentence. Dropping words adds to the impact of what the characters are saying.

In other words, dialogue must drive the plot.

It shouldn’t be used to tell back story, explaining the incidents that occurred before the story’s opening scene. It shouldn’t give exposition or drop in information better left to the narrative.

Dialogue, as well as facial expressions, gestures and movement, should be used to show what the characters are like. It should show who they are and how they are feeling in the moment.

Dialogue differentiates the characters, so that they don’t all sound the same.

In other words, dialogue communicates a lot using a few words. Conversation doesn’t really have a stopping point, but peters out or ends when someone has to catch a taxi, gets bored or has a very important date.

Dialogue is like butter, too much and that’s what you taste; too little and the toast is dry.