Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pace Car

            Okay, first off, I’m afraid I need to have a shameful self-promotional moment. The Ex-Heroes series is Amazon’s Kindle deal of the month.  You can pick up digital copies of all four books for less than ten dollars.  So... there’s that.
            And now, moving on to our actual topic of the week...
            Last week I gave some more-or-less quick answers to a couple questions and requests folks had left here on the ranty blog.  This week I wanted to address one in particular that was worth a little more space.
            So... here we go.
            I'd love to hear your thoughts on plotting and pacing. I'm struggling with knowing when to do what plot elements so things don't drag and so they seem natural, and don't feel like the story is on rails.
            Okay, this is another tough one because every story is going to have its own specific pace. 
            One of the reasons a lot of folks end up worrying about this, in my opinion, is because of an often misunderstood writing rule that gets thrown at them all the time—start with action!  There’s a bunch of problems with this statement, many of which I’ve talked about before, but one key one is that it gives people a very skewed view of pacing.  If my story starts cranked up to eleven, it’s hard to make anything feel urgent after that point.  And if it doesn’t start at eleven, well, why is anyone going to keep reading, right?
            Part of this is about dramatic structure, knowing where things should happen in my story for maximum impact.  It’s also about compressing time so things don’t sprawl.  Yeah, maybe four hours passed while Wakko was pulling his turn standing watch, but do I really need eight pages of him standing around doing... well, nothing?
            I think that’s one of the biggest problems when people have “pacing issues.”  It’s not whether or not my chapter is slow or fast, if it’s filled with action or dialogue or inner monologues. It’s about whether or not anything’s actually happening.  When my story come to a grinding halt, it’s not because I’ve got characters doing research instead of kung-fu... it’s because the story’s come to a grinding halt.  It’s stopped moving forward
            A good way to check pacing is to go through my story and ask myself this—what purpose does this element/ scene/ chapter have in the overall story?  Is it forwarding the plot?  Is it forwarding a character’s story?  If it doesn’t do either of these things... why am I spending time on it?  As William Goldman said in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”
            Speaking of famous screenwriters, Shane Black once made a great observation about what he called “shoe leather” scenes in scripts.  If I have a scene where two guys are having a conversation and another scene where there’s a key news story on the television... why aren’t they the same scene?  A good part of storytelling is trying to accomplish two things at once rather than spreading things so thin they’re see-through.  It’s great to have a character scene, sure, but maybe those character moments could also advance the plot somehow.  I really want to use a lot of this research material, but could it advance someone’s story?
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m lucky and somewhat skilled, my audience might let me have one scene that doesn’t really do anything.  Maybe two.  But pushing it to a third means my story is dragging, and four is going to get eyerolls.
            Now, all that being said (yep, there’s always a however), there is still one thing to keep in mind for pacing.  Every story is going to start slow and pick up speed, yes.  And all those stories are going to be moving at their own pace. I need to be careful, though, when I try to slow things down, for whatever reason.  If you’ve ever driven a car with a manual transmission (or know of such things), you’ve probably heard the term downshifting.  It’s when I shift into a lower gear to help with slowing down (you’ve probably seen James Bond do it a few times).  It’s one thing to go from fifth gear to fourth, it’s something else entirely to go from fifth down to second.  Odds are that’ll going to leave parts of my transmission  (read—story) scattered behind me, possibly on fire.
            So if my story involves a lot of zero-to-sixty-to-ten-to ninety-to-fifteen pacing—yes, even though it’s still technically moving forward—I may want to rethink a few things.  And if it doesn’t involve any forward motion...
            Well, I may need to rethink a lot of things.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about how Darth Vader killed Luke Skywalker’s father.
            Until then... go write.

2 comments:

Ken Carter said...

First off, Peter, the wealth of information you--and many of the participants--shared at Mysterious Galaxy this afternoon was a much-needed dope slap for me--a reminder that "Fortune favors the brave," and for writers that means writing--every day. Avoiding writing, as I have done for most of the last four decades, equates with cowardice. No more, no less. So this retired firefighter/paramedic thanks you for that as well as your awakening me to resources and markets I had no idea existed.

Now, you asked for any suggestions related to pacing and structure. Structure has been the Holy Grail I was at first too ignorant and arrogant to know I needed (desperately) to find. Dozens of courses, books and workshop leaders spoke of, hinted at, alluded to its importance. But (perhaps because of my own Parsifal-like ignorance/foolishness) I never gleaned anything concrete about structure.

To make a long story a little shorter, last November I came across ed2go.com writing classes taught by Steve Alcorn. Steve not only speaks about (as you did) that Plot = the physical action, and Story = (mostly) the inner reaction of the protagonist to the plot, he lays out how they fit together in what he calls Scene and Sequel. (Steve mentions Jack Bickham's book Scene and Structure as a major source of his knowledge).

The Scene consists of Goal/Conflict/Disaster. The Sequel consists of Emotion/Thought/Decision/Action. A novel or screenplay can have 100 to 200+ of these scene and sequel sequences. There's far more in all of Steve's classes including a similar breakdown of all three acts. For me his clear parsing of the "dreaded" Act 2 into Crisis/Struggle/Epiphany is alone worth 10 times the price of admission.

Anyway, hope this may prove helpful. I gotta get some shuteye--handing out coupons at CVS in about 6 hours. The wages of cowardice is counter work. ;o)

Cheers,
Ken

p.s. In case you might be interested in the work/inventions of Wilhelm Reich (Orgone/cloudbuster) as well as learning a little more about the nature of that square and peace sign, check out educate-yourself.org and look up Don Croft or Orgone Adventures. Some interesting stuff on Tesla and others of his ilk on that site as well. Royal Raymond Rife is one of my personal favorites in the tragic heroes category.

Virtual Stranger said...

Hey, Ken,

Very glad to hear you enjoyed my babbling at Mysterious Galaxy. I still feel like I was winging it for most of the time... :)

As for structure... I think when most people talk about structure they're referring to the overall construction of the entire story, be it a book, screenplay, or short-story. While I agree with the basic idea of Scene and Sequel, I think approaching a story in such a way is going to end up with a very episodic story because the elements aren't being weighed against each other. That's what story structure's all about--not just making sure each pair of elements work together, but that all the elements work together as a whole.

There's a big three-part post on structure I did here a while back that goes over linear, narrative, and dramatic structures and how they all need to work together in a successful story.

Wow... that was two years ago. Might be worth revisiting that.

Anyway, if you're interested, the whole thing starts here with a discussion of linear structure. It's three pretty big posts, just warning you ahead of time. But I like to tell myself there's lots of good stuff in there.