Tuesday, April 10, 2012

9 Pushing Up Your Pacing for a Stronger Story Guest Post by Chris Eboch

Pushing Up Your Pacing for a Stronger Story

Guest Post by Chris Eboch
A strong story has conflict and tension. That’s often harder than it sounds, so many experienced writers have tools they use, such as the Complications Worksheet or the Goal, Motivation, Confict, Tension tips featured on this blog. I developed the Plot Outline Exercise in my book Advanced Plotting as a tool to help myself analyze the conflict (and other elements) in my writing, either at the outline stage or with a complete draft. (The Plot Outline Exercise is available as a free Word document download on my Kris Bock website and is also in Advanced Plotting with more explanation.)



But that’s just the beginning. Once you have a strong conflict, you need to make it as compelling as possible with proper pacing. This is where I’ve seen flaws even in published manuscripts.



I’m not talking about the big issues, like having enough dramatic material or making sure your character doesn’t solve problems too easily. (See the resources above for help with that.) Rather, I’m talking about line editing, tweaking your prose for the most impact.



As a general rule, shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences give a feeling of fast-paced action. The book is literally a page turner, as the eye moves more quickly down the page with lots of white space. Here’s an example from my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, where the main character is about to be caught spying. I could put this all in one big paragraph with long sentences:



            With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey but finally she reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the tree. She hesitated, wobbling on the edge, because the tree was more than an arm’s length out and if she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground. She glanced back at the stairwell and knew she didn’t have much time. Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall. From the stairwell, a head rose into view as Seshta let go and fell.



There’s a lot going on in that paragraph. Too much. It jumbles together, at worst becoming hard to follow and at best burying some dramatic details. Here’s the published version with shorter sentences and paragraphs.



            With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey.

            She reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the tree. But she hesitated, wobbling on the edge. The tree was more than an arm’s length out. If she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground.

            She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.

            Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.

            From the stairwell, a head rose into view.

            Seshta let go and fell.



This version is easier to follow, since there isn’t so much jammed into every sentence. At the same time, it feels more breathless with anticipation. It even looks faster, with more white space.



Be careful about overusing this technique. Imagine the paragraph above if every sentence had its own paragraph. It would feel choppy, and you’d lose the emphasis on the more dramatic moments at the end.



It’s important to have variety, with longer paragraphs of description and introspection. Here’s a chapter ending from The Eyes of Pharaoh where Seshta is waiting for a friend who may be in trouble. The slow description offers a moment of quiet, which then gives the single short sentence at the end of the chapter more impact.



            Seshta sighed. Once she knew Reya was safe, she could curse him for distracting her and get back to more important matters.

            Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.

            But Reya never came.



So short sentences and paragraphs can make your actions seem more dramatic. Don’t make the mistake of rushing through your action scenes, though. It may sound like a contradiction, but action scenes have more impact if you slow them down, making the reader wait to find out what happens.



To build up the drama, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is about to happen. Here’s a draft example from book 1 of my middle grade Haunted series, The Ghost on the Stairs. The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.



            At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

            Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.



The moment isn’t bad, but it could use some more buildup. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:



            At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

            She didn’t back up. She swayed.

            I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

            “Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.



The first thing you may notice is that the revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, slow the pace by using more detail. Focus on using sensory details with an emotional impact.



For dramatic action scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings, draw out the drama with emotional sensory details, and then try breaking long sentences and paragraphs into shorter ones. For more on pacing, see my series of posts on cliffhangers on my blog. Most of these techniques can also be used in action scenes that don’t come at the end of the chapter.



Conflict is key to a good story. Make the most of your conflict to keep your readers turning the pages.



Chris Eboch’s book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots and is available in print or e-book on Amazon or B&N. Chris’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or visit her Amazon page or B&N page. Check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.


9 comments:

  1. Thanks for the tips! I like that you included examples from your own work. It helps to see the process in action.

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    1. Hi Brandi,

      Thanks so much for stopping by. Chris wanted to post a response to you personally but is out of the office most of the day and couldn't get her computer to post the comment.

      Isn't her information great though?

      Martina

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  2. Great tips Chris, especially on how to break up a longer paragraph to raise the tension. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Natalie,

      Crazy how much just that one little thing can keep the reader's eye moving down the page, right?

      Thanks for coming by. We so appreciate your comments! :D

      Martina

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  3. Thank you for sharing, and for the wealth of info found on your blog! I've had a blast exploring it.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Beth,

      Thanks for stopping by. I loved Chris' post too, and loved exploring her blog as well.

      Martina

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  4. This is a terrific, helpful post. Thanks for putting this up.

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  5. Hi Chris! Wow, lots of great info here. It's amazing how just breaking up a paragraph and using white space can let a scene breathe and become more dynamic. And you make a super important point about not making things happen TOO fast; my critique partner just commented on that very thing in my WIP. I had to slow things down for more impact. The scene went too fast to display the bigger emotional moment. :)

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