In Part 1, we took a deep look at using your characters as a diagnostic tool for your pacing.
Pacing is the reader’s experience of the story as brought to life by the characters and scenes you’ve chosen.
If pacing is a factor of the reader’s experience, and if your reader enters the story through the character’s viewpoint, then perhaps your characters can help us out.
Today, we’re going to look at two additional diagnostic tools:
- Story, plot, & scenes
- The mysterious reader
If you think story, plot, & scenes are the same, you’re not alone.
A small detour, but this is important to your pacing. Trust me; I have candy.
There’s so much overlap here, that it’s not always helpful to get up in someone’s grill and demand, “Do you mean story or plot?!”
But for today, use the following definitions.
STORY. First we’re only going to be talking about story that is appropriate for fiction and not “stories” about your day or stuff that happened and went nowhere (lacked unity).
In the case of fiction, story has 1 or more characters engaged in some interesting story goal and/or conflict and/or event that is resolved in the end (usually).
PLOT is the sequence of motivated events and impacts – how the story unfolds to the reader or listener.
SCENES are the real-time (with sections of summary or flashback) dynamics of the characters who are enmeshed in details of the plot, in service to the story.
Confused? Just think of all the different film versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
- You’ll notice that the same story can be told using different details, different dialogue, and still be the same story and the same plot (but the scenes are modified, added, deleted, etc.).
- The same story can be brought to life (dramatized) using a different sequence (plot).
- And the same story can be transported and transformed even more by using different characters, different set-up, different situations, different historical context, etc. to inform it.
Because of this, a great story can be told in a thrilling way that brings it to life or in a sub-standard way that disappoints. Great scenes do not guarantee a great story. And having great material (story) does not automatically mean it will be carried off well.
If all three elements must work in concert, then your pacing must work on all levels as well.
CANDY REWARD: Here are some additional resources on the difference between story and plot, check out:
Back to pacing….
Pacing Diagnostics Tool #2: Story, Plot, & Scenes
Readers ultimately have one question: “Do I want to read on?”
Story, Plot, & Scenes control the reader’s experience of story and how it unfolds, from the large-scale understanding and meaning of events upon the characters, all the way down to what’s happening RIGHT NOW, on the page.
When your pacing is working to your advantage, readers are getting the full impact of a great story, dynamic plot events, and dramatic scenes.
Pacing won’t save these things if they’re not great, but if they are great and your pacing is off, it will absolutely hurt the impact on your reader.
Here are questions you can use to diagnose your pacing woes. You might want to do a pass for each level – story, plot, and scene.
- Are the story/plot events/scenes unfolding via the introduction/revelation of fresh (new) information that matters to the reader?
- Do story/plot events/scenes contain riveting information, details, revelations?
- Do the story/plot events/scenes create a strong sense of meaning, importance, fallout, and consequences?
- Are the story/plot events/scenes unfolding dramatically in the story time of “now”? Are the important events happening on the page?
- Are the story/plot events/scenes causing a chain reaction of events, where there’s “no going back?”
- Do story/plot events/scenes create a world of uncertainly, where the outcome can not be guessed and the goal is in jeopardy?
- Do story/plot events/scenes create personal, emotional, and or spiritual reactions and a driving need to see how it “turns out?” Are expectations exceeded or dashed? Do powerful and unexpected forces send story/plot events/scenes into startling (yet believable) directions?
- Are the story/plot events/scenes designed to showcase the effects of stress and change as they unfold, using techniques of conflict, expectations, obstacles, and character investment?
Of course, the problem with questions like these, is that it’s easy to answer, “Yes,” then justify your answer. It’s even better is to ask,
“How can each point be made bigger, more meaningful, more emotional, more impactful?”
The other problem is that there’s a feeling of vagueness to these questions. You’ll need to put them into specifics.
For example: In pages 23-24, where Jill learns her mother is gone and never coming back, does she have a strong emotional reaction? What does she do? Is there an aspect of the unexpected? Does it cause a chain reaction? Does that chain reaction impact the scene? The plot? Does it tie powerfully to the story? Just because she’s sobbing and grief-stricken, does that mean it’s riveting? Is there a better way of designing this section so that I get a bigger impact and make the reader say, “Wow!”
Pacing Diagnostics Tool #3: Your Reader
Is it possible to ever put yourself truly in your reader’s shoes?
For some writers, the answer is yes. They develop the ability to detach, to set aside what they want the reader to experience, as well as what THEY experience when writing and when reading what they’ve written.
For most writers, I believe there’s a disconnect.
One solution is to have critique partners and beta readers. That’s great, and you should. But for many reasons, this may not be enough, as it relies on their skill to expertly identify reader miscues and your ability to accurately translate their concerns into a rewrite.
So it’s hopeless?
No, not at all.
Do the following:
1. Identify actual paragraphs on the page where all the pacing elements come together.
Pacing Elements Reminder:
Fresh (new) & Riveting Stuff that Matters (consequences and emotions)
Happening in Real Time (even if it’s just learning about something)
That Causes Immediate Reaction
With an Unknown Outcome
That Changes the Game
For at Least One Character.
If you’ve done your job creating highly compelling characters and story/plot/scenes, and if you can point to sections where all the pacing pieces come together… MARK THEM. (And congratulations.)
2. Now look and the paragraphs, pages, and chapters between these marked sections. Take a good, hard look.
- Often what you’ll find is characters and scenes are taking up space, doing just a little work, just enough to stay in business.
- Other times, it looks like everything is working. Except… there’s this one missing piece. Maybe no character reaction is on the page. Maybe it’s just the same reaction, a big one, but given over and over. The same ol’ thing, nothing fresh.
- Go through the definition, piece by piece, and really look at why you couldn’t mark every page.
Not because this is your goal.
But because you want to understand what’s on the page. After all, this is the only information a reader has. Their experience of your story comes from how you tell it.
3. If you can’t find sections to mark in #1, then start looking for what’s missing. This is KEY information to have.
- Is your character receiving new details that fall short of being riveting?
- Or is it that there’s just no new details (that matter) being added for long stretches?
- Or maybe everything’s good, except the outcome is never in doubt. You know exactly what will happen next and it does (and not in a good way).
- How can you shake that up? And so on.
And next? Practice noticing pacing. Play with improving your pacing. Become your own pacing expert, of course.
It’s the best thing to do.
This article is the 12th 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
- BONUS: Don’t Hold Back – Pacing Advice by Literary Agent Donald Maass
- BONUS: Using Major Turning Points – Pacing Advice by Christopher Vogler
- FREE OFFER (closed)
- 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 Twists, and Reader Engagement
- How Do You Know Your Pacing is Working? Part 1
- How Do You Know Your Pacing is Working? Part 2
- 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire