Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes
Stuff That Matters
My Mom is a skimmer.
When she reads (and she has 70 years of reading experience), she’s seen it all, read it all, and re-read it if it’s any good.
So, when I hear her give an exasperated sigh and start flipping pages, I know what’s happening. She’s skimming. (She also reads the ending first, which I try not to hold against her. But it’s hard….)
It would be a mistake to think the writing isn’t any good. She’s not responding to the beauty of the sentences, the “goodness” of the prose. What she’s saying with her sigh is that, “What I’m reading doesn’t even matter!” And by matter, she means “to me or the character!”
This is a clear demonstration of pacing failure, because good pacing is about stuff that matters to the reader and especially to the characters. What you want is to write story in every scene that simply can’t be skimmed.
The Reader’s Digest Pacing Test
My mom introduced me to Reader’s Digest Book when I was very young, and I was an avid reader by 5th grade.
Reader’s Digest used to select bestsellers and books of note, cut a couple hundred pages (leaving “just the good stuff”) and publish several of them bound together into one gilt-edged Reader’s Digest edition. Ah, the nostalgia!
But this perfectly describes how my mother thinks all books should be edited. Just cut out the parts she has to skim anyway. The parts where her attention wanes and she feels rather put-out with the writer (no matter how well known!). The parts where the pacing sags.
If my mother ruled the publishing world, there would be a Reader’s Digest edit of every book ever published.
So here’s the test: Would Reader’s Digest cut out this page, scene, or section to create a digest version? You’ve just identified your pacing issues.
My mother’s here visiting me now. She just read a Jeffery Archer book for the second time, and I asked her, “So, did you want to condense it for Reader’s Digest?”
“No!” she said, surprising us both. “There’s nothing to cut out. It was all good.”
And those, dear writers, are beautiful words, don’t you think?
It’s all good.
The Good Parts
So let’s talk about how readers identify what NOT to skim and the Stuff That Matters.
Even if they don’t quite know why a story is working, to a reader (or my mom), Stuff that Matters has an element of..
- Consequence, &
There are many faces of Threat. Here are some:
- Change that is fraught with risk or exposure
- Interruption that overpowers or derails the character’s current goals and demands attention
- Any action or situation associated with worry that “this could turn out baaaad”
- Anticipation of an unwanted (and uncontrollable) behavior or situation
- Real or implied danger (emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental)
- Volatility, loss of equilibrium and status quo.
- The unknown, secrets, and lies.
- Vulnerability and the presence of innocence.
- A challenge to safety.
- Fear, panic, & worry in others.
- Knowledge of an unpleasant meaning inherent in an action or outcome.
- Conflict. All sizes and shapes.
But threat is not enough to create good pacing. Threat after threat after threat just creates a sense of exhaustion. What you also need are consequences and emotion.
Readers are always hoping that “this information is leading somewhere.” And frankly, they hate it when you feed them details that “go nowhere.” Nowhere Details are just in the way of the Stuff that Matters.
Threats have to manifest into action that carry that burden of consequences. Otherwise, we’ll catch on and ignore the threats. Yes, it’s skimming time.
Let’s dig a little deeper to understand consequences.
- Fallout. Consequences have ripple effects that impact and change the plot and the character’s goals and state of mind.
- Worthwhile. Consequences need to matter to the characters and the reader.
- Logical. Consequences can be surprising to the characters and/or reader, but they should be understandable and contain a sense of logic that is true to the characters, world, and plot (at least by the time the book is over).
- Alarming. Dread of consequences is a very good thing in fiction.
- Powerful. Consequences should pack a punch, even if the consequence is something very small (a verbal barb directed at a tenderheart, the flick of a gaze to dismiss an undesirable, the subtle smile of a guilty man being set free…).
- Inescapable. Consequences must be dealt with on some level by at least one character.
- Costly. Consequences have a bill that must be paid mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional currency.
The characters and the reader must care about the threat and the resulting consequences.
We writers do this by writing the experience of the emotion in a way that matters deeply to the character.
What’s important here is that you are…
- True to your character’s personality.
- True to your character’s goals and values.
- Focused on the character’s unfolding emotional experience connected to action and not just a commercial interruption for an emotion alert.
- Relatable. We need to be able to connect with the emotion, to understand and even sympathize with the emotion’s meaning to the specific character.
We’ll continue this discussion next time with questions to help you create “Stuff That Matters” in all your scenes.
This article is the 4th in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:
- How to Be a Pacing Genius
- Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)
- You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story
- Shot Through the Heart: Threat, Consequences, and Emotions Equal Pacing
- The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
- Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
- Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
- Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twits, and Reader Engagement
- Pacing that Matters: It All Comes Down to Characters
- Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
- 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire
She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it. Learn. Pitch. Sell.”