Shelley Widhalm

Archive for August, 2016|Monthly archive page

Pacing novels at the structural level

In Pacing, Writing, Writing Processes on August 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

Readers read stories and novels for the story and character, but what pulls them through to the last page is the pacing.

Pacing is the tempo or rate of the story’s unfolding and how quickly the events of the story occur. It varies from a fast and quick speed to slow, careful and unhurried.

It is, in essence, the story’s rate of movement or momentum, and it is carried out on two levels: structurally or the entire framework of the story, and at the line level in individual words, sentences and paragraphs.

Throughout the novel or in a scene, pacing shows the passing of time, or how much time elapses. Pacing is particularly important in particular places of the novel: the opening of a story, in the middle and at the climax that all need a fast pace to pull readers in, get them through the hump and make them want to finish to the end.

To get the story moving, the scenes and chapter beginnings need to introduce change and conflict. The main character encounters setbacks and failures meeting the main need or desire set up in the story’s beginning.

The story gets a push, too, when new characters arrive, characters receive new information, or the characters experience emotional turmoil, engage in an intense conversation or have an emotional reversal and see things in a new way.

Here are a few ways to quicken pace at the structural level:

  • Begin in the middle of the action.
  • Create scenes high in action with little description, few character thoughts and no tangents or back story—what happened before the current action.
  • Make sure the action in the scene unfolds as a series of incidents in quick succession or conflict between characters.
  • Shorten scenes, removing what doesn’t belong down to the essential details. Make sure the scenes fit and are important to the entire storyline.
  • Add cliffhangers at the end of scenes or chapters.
  • Make the dialog quick without any extra information, reactions, descriptions or attributions. Dialog with conflict and tension speed things up as characters banter, argue or fight.

To slow the pace:

  • Have the main character make observations of the environment or deep in thought or become introspective.
  • Engage the character in a flashback, which retells what happened before the story’s action begins and should be triggered by something specific, such as seeing an object and remembering something because of it.
  • Use large amounts of narration and description.
  • Describe the setting in detail.
  • Summarize action and dialog.
  • Employ digressions and small distracting actions not related to the main action.

Overall, 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.

(Next week, I’ll talk about pacing at the line level.)


Annoying first pages

In First Page of a Novel, Writing, Writing Processes on August 21, 2016 at 11:00 am

Novels that start with a quote or a dream usually don’t make me want to read anymore—maybe because I’ve been told that agents reject first pages for this reason.

But I think it’s a whole lot more.

There’s something about a first page that makes or breaks the contract between writer and reader. It’s the initial tease, the hook, the pick-me-up line, and it’s what promises the reader something slightly new and different and a reason to keep turning the pages.

I’ve slogged through a few classics, not liking the first page but knowing I should read them because they’re on the lists of what every English major reads. The ones that particularly felt like a chore had too much detail in the first page (and chapter) about the setting with just as lengthy character descriptions, as if setting the stage for the plot to get started pages later.

A great first page has to capture the reader—and it needs to happen in the first paragraph or line, particularly to reel in those who peruse the flap copy and glance at the first few sentences to make a decision on what to read next. The first page needs to hint at the inciting incident, what propels the action of the story forward, and it needs to set up the character’s big unanswered question.

To do this, a good first page needs to have tension, the stretch between what the main character wants but can’t have—at least not yet. The story holds the want back, so the character has to keep striving, resulting in conflict internally and/or externally. The tension increases as the character keeps hearing “no” but can’t give up the desire, though the desire may not be the need, or what that character needs for the world to return back to normal.

Here are other things to keep in mind for a great first page:

  • Avoid back story, but weave it in later in the novel. This moves the story backward.
  • Don’t have the character just reacting, but show that the character will act and take charge in future scenes and conflict. This gets the story moving forward.
  • Involve the reader emotionally, showing what’s at stake for the character. When the character faces difficulty, the character will emotionally respond to those events and situations. If life’s easy, the character will be bored or pleased at the same-old stuff, but there won’t be a story.
  • Set up the conflict, both internal and external, to create the tension.
  • Hint at the character’s fatal flaw, or what will make achieving the desire even more difficult. This provides even more tension.

A great first page gives character and situation, while grounding the story in a setting, including time, place, season and even weather. The basics need to be provided alongside the difference—or what makes this page, and this novel, worthy of hours of investment.

Running and Writing (and getting inspired)

In Writing Discipline, Writing Goals, Writing Inspiration, Writing Processes on August 14, 2016 at 11:00 am

Going for a run and sitting down for a writing session require the same grit.

The obvious reason is the discipline, showing up day after day to get fit and maybe lose weight or to sharpen skills.

Various writers approach that grit in different ways: by writing 1,000 words a day or for a certain length of time, going for writing sprints, setting writing goals and incrementally meeting them, and doing things like writing a short story a week or the rough draft of a novel in a month.

Writing the first few times may be crappy—for new writers, figuring out how to translate what’s learned about the elements of writing into structure or overwriting or underwriting a messy first draft. The first draft can be too much with too many details, repeated scenes, dialog that drags and too many characters not doing anything; or, it can be too little with scene jumps, jumps in logistics, a lack in transitions and underdeveloped plot, character, setting or dialog.

Running daily incrementally builds muscle, increases metabolism and improves lung capacity, while doing it here and there is nice, but won’t change the body in any noticeable way. I ran my way three sizes smaller and wrote my way into lots of copy, noticing how both become easier through time and practice.

The less obvious similarity between running and writing is that it can be a real pain to do both. I don’t always want to go for a run, particularly at the end of a long work day when I’m already tired. I feel like I don’t have any energy until I get into the third, fourth or fifth lap, and then muscle memory takes over. Oh yeah, this is how running works.

I don’t always want to write, particularly after coming off of a sprint, such as a National Novel Writing Month activity in April, July or November.

I have to force myself into the chair and say just write. It doesn’t matter the result, and then the looseness of freewriting without the annoying boundaries of the internal editor or the need to write something good fall away. Muscle memory takes over, and I count the laps and the words, getting somewhere just because I showed up.

It’s habit, discipline, practice and wanting to change shape—fit in body and fit in my writer’s hand—that gives me that running and writing grit.

Writing and Coffee (and providing good descriptions)

In Writing, Writing Processes, Writing Tips on August 7, 2016 at 11:00 am


My cute dog, Zoey, likes coffee, too!

I hate when I order a fancy coffee drink and the cup gets bathed in the overflow.

But I love that my drink has a flavor, an appearance and a texture inside the cup and that observing those details gets rid of the annoyance.

Observing, absorbing and noticing details are essential to writing, giving a caffeinated thrill to the development of plot, character and dialog. Describing the details is essential to storytelling instead of hurrying the story along through the action of the plot. Description brings to life what happens along the storyline.

To provide that description, use the senses and choose words carefully, making sure every word has a purpose. That purpose can be establishing setting, developing character or moving the plot forward.

Verbs are a key component of 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 and not layered, such as the “blue-eyed, blonde-haired, tongue-tied girl.”

There are a few other things to avoid in descriptions, such as:

  • Using adverbs, which weaken writing when they are not specific. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. For example, 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.

Description is what fills the pages of a story. Without it, action would fall flat, simplified into an outline of this happened, and then this and this.

That’s why I like my coffee fancy.

(Note: This is my 300th blog post!)