Monday, October 25, 2010

Use Pacing to Create Shape

Lately, I've been encountering two types of flawed stories. In one type, the contents of the story are great, but the emotion in them feels lacking. In another type, the emotion somehow seems to be there during the first read, but when I look back, I find that I've somehow been tricked into feeling emotion that wasn't actually there.

The first story suffers from lack of structure (in the stories I've been reading). All of the pacing is the same, or the pacing is working against the natural highlights of the story. A climactic scene, for example, is sometimes hidden away or summarized. A less significant detail is oddly magnified, calling more attention to itself than it probably should.

The second story, while lacking in content, will initially feel like it works because the structure has been manipulated in such a way that certain highlights exist, even if those highlights don't have any substance behind them.

What I've decided is that a solid structure, regardless of content, is sufficient in making the reader feel like they've been taken on some sort of journey. It can take a reader on an experiential roller coaster ride, including ups and downs, even if the actual writing isn't saying anything of meaning.

Remember Mad Libs?

Once there was a ___________.
But the _________ was _________.
It wanted ___________.
For many years the ___________ __________, but one rainy day, a _______________ arrived and ________________.
The ______________ thought that surely all hope was lost.
Then, suddenly, _____________________________!

Even though the stories that came from our random collections of nouns and adverbs and adjectives and verbs were almost always nonsensical, we felt like we had heard a complete story. I think that goes back to the solidity of structure and pacing that go to create shape.

Do you focus on story shape in your work? Has reworking the shape of a story given it more emotional impact?


  1. ha! love the mad lib reference. how clever (and true). I'm good at creating the emotion but lousy at creating the structure of story. It is something I constantly struggle with.

    any quick fix ideas?

  2. Davin, these are some great observations. I think I struggled with this a lot in my novels, both of which have gone through major rewrites at some point or another - because of structure.

    I think many times we writers feel the need to manipulate our readers with fancy structure to keep certain information at bay to up the tension, or we feel the need to stay away from a simple linear structure. I often feel that a simple linear structure is super boring to write and to read, but that is only because it was not written well or I did not write it well.

    Your Bread example is what I'm thinking of at this point - how you decided to put that flashback chapter as a flashback and not as the beginning of the story. You might do a post about that because I think it's a supreme example of why you chose one structure over another and why it works.

  3. @Domey - In some ways I'm challenged by structure in the long form. In short fiction, I find you can conceive inside out and then write outside in and it works out for everyone's satisfaction.

    While processing has that kind of freedom, writing and reading are much more linear by design and so the longer the work, the harder it is to get away from linear sequence. (Even most supposedly non-linear structures are, in the end, more properly modifications to or elaborations of linear structures, not truly non-linear.)

    The terrible thing is that, as I'm discovering with Sublimation these two elements are not really independent in the end, and my emotion is being killed by my failure with the structure.

    @Michelle - keep certain information at bay to up the tension

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. ;)

    I actually agree. I don't think not-knowing adds to tension. Tension usually comes from knowing without direct confirmation or from knowing more than a character knows and seeing their mistakes or dangers coming before they do. Ignorance isn't suspenseful.

    The challenging thing is when the story itself is conceives as a spiral. In that case, there are legitimate reasons to hold things, but, as you know, I haven't figured out the right way to do that yet.

  4. This pacing issue is a problem I have. I'm working right now to fix it. I'm charting and graphing and slicing. The bulking up of important things is yet to come.

  5. Tess, My guess is that if you are creating the emotion, then the structure is falling into place. I start to think that structure can often seem invisible, even when it's doing it's job!

    Michelle, I've had a lot of struggle with structure in the past as well, and I do think part of that came from me trying to be too complicated. I like complex, and it has been a good lesson to learn that complexity can come in different forms and doesn't have to come from structural play. What I'm finding now is that smaller structural moves, emphasizing some scenes, playing with pace, is an effective way for me to work. I'll have to think about Bread. I'm not quite sure how I arrived at that structure to tell you the truth!

    Nevets, It was a strange lesson for me when a writing teacher told me that structure dictated story. I didn't believe it for a long time afterwards, but now I do see that it is true. Structure has a lot of control over what information is given out, and that controls the story in many ways. Getting those two things to work together is often my biggest challenge. I recently read a book where I think the author was fighting his own structure to try and get it to tell a different story, and it was distracting to say the least.

    I like what you say about the linear narratives!

    Lois, I hope you make good progress with it! I've really tried to simplify things for my own writing. If the scene is important, I emphasize it. If the scene is not important, I blend it in more. That sounds so simple, but it's making a big difference in my stories, I think.

  6. Davin - I wish! It's nice of you to be so kind but, if it were true, I wouldn't have my agent say things like, "So, what is this story actually ABOUT?"


  7. Once there was a story.
    But the story was flawed.
    It wanted structure.
    For many years the tale languished, but one rainy day, a structure arrived and immediately fled.
    The story thought that surely all hope was lost.
    Then, suddenly, ninjas!

    Like the above mad lib, my novel's pacing is okay but could be better, and my prose needs more emotion. But, I am good at throwing in a surprise at the end to distract from my poor craftsmanship.

  8. @Domey - So true. Structure and story really are inseparable, and I find that structure by its very nature is the controlling force. I don't like admitting that, but I'm increasingly convinced its true.

    It's also the hardest mess to extricate yourself from, because it's so integral.

    In Sublimation I've realized recently that my characters and emotion are really being held hostage to my structure, and I've got to break them free of that.

    The elusive goal, it seems to me, is to tell a complex story in a complex way within a simple structure.

    Or figure out how to get my writing into a spiral. :)

  9. I am even now designing a 80,000 word Mad Lib program to write all my future books. THE FUTURE OF READING IS HERE!

  10. Nate, the awesomeness of your story convinced me this approach would work on a grand scale.

    Ninjas. Never saw that coming! But yet, somehow, it all makes sense.

  11. Totally agree - structure is like the engineering to make sure the story works. Scenes and events don't work in isolation - they work as revelations, as contrasts, as twists and triumphs. I know because I've been hacking my WIP to pieces in search of the most powerful order to show the events!
    Great post - and I love the mad lib.


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