Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Plot and Pacing, Part One by author/literary agent Weronika Janczuk

Dude, you guys. If you haven't "met" Weronika out there in the blogosphere, you're really missing out. She's been working in the publishing industry for a while, and she recently took a job as a junior agent with D4EO Literary. Today, she's here to discuss plot and pacing, and this is a long topic, so we've split it into 3 parts, which will be posted every 20 minutes.

A Brief Glance into a Novel's Plot and Pacing, part one:

Like most of the faculty at WriteOnCon, I’ve read and edited many unpublished manuscripts. The process of reading and editing has become second nature in my time as an assistant/intern to editors and agents and now, most recently, as a literary agent myself. I also write. I’ve been in the business a short time in comparison to others, but it’s been long enough to recognize a pattern in major flaws often embedded deeply in manuscripts. The two largest problems are usually underdeveloped characters and/or structural flaws related to plot or pacing.

The writing of characters, the spinning of humanity, is a mystery unto itself; the two books on writing from literary agent Donald Maass—WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and THE FIRE IN FICTION—offer some of the best advice I’ve seen on the topic of characterization.
When it comes to plot, though, and—as a result—to the interwoven topic of pacing, we get into a question of strategy and form. I’ve always looked upon plot as if it were a game to play: we have an end goal and we have rules, but they can be broken. There are templates out there to use when plotting and there are time-proven techniques with which writers can check plot and pace. It’s my goal to cover in sufficient depth those templates, some plot- and pace-related techniques/strategies, and additional resources for writers to check out.

So, plot and pacing? Here we go.

Pantsers, brace yourselves for what I’m going to say next, and please read on—I hope that you’ll find you agree with me by the time I’m done. Like with any topic as huge as this, I have to follow a bit of a formula so that Elana doesn’t make me cut this whole post (which would be the size of a novel) into pieces. Insert grin here.

The most effective way to plot is to outline. When I say ‘outline,’ however, I mean a very particular kind of outline—it is a customized version of a plot template, which does not have to be a step-by-step list of scenes or chapters. With this template, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to explore the story arc of the novel without writing any of it. Story arcs, of course, are the overarching framework of the manuscript—the steps from the event that opens your novel, through the rising action, to the climax. Story arcs are meant to be vague before the novel is complete; they don’t require you to figure out the exact page on which your two characters are going to have their first kiss and on which page they will have sex. Those things will change.

This playing with templates really allows you to do two things:

First, you will figure out the story framework (the story path), enough of it to help guide your character through the novel.

Second, you will figure out the frame of the novel, and this is slightly different than the story framework. The frame of the novel consists really those first fifty pages or so in which you set up a series of events and you introduce us to a cast of characters that set the novel’s tone and mood.

At the very minimum, I think that every single writer—whether a pantser or an outliner—should undergo this process: the playing with templates before starting to write. There are different ways to go about doing so. Many writers will sit down to write their novels with some notes and not an actual outline. Those notes, whether structured or unstructured, have resulted from a lot of time spent writing about the novel (in a synopsis- or mini-novel format, in a journal format, in an ideas/brainstorming format, etc.). In that time, a story arc has arisen and the writer has a general idea of where the story will go. This writing of scripted notes is one option. If writers aren’t writing notes in such a format, they can take the templates and plot down different events in the novel—more of an outline, and this option requires a bit more structure, however.

The playing with templates before writing is important.

More important, however, is the playing with templates and key structural points after the novel has been written. Everyone has heard of the problem of the ‘sagging middle,’ and one of the reasons the (usually beginning) writer can’t fix that problem is because he or she hasn’t been introduced to the more formulaic end of writing. Formulas, templates, key plot points, etc., are necessary in genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and some romance. In others, they offer assistance to writers as they begin to plan revisions.

Very few writers manage to plod ahead in their writing without doing this kind of test at some point. Stephen King is the one exception that comes to mind; he writes based on scenarios and sometimes he keeps very general notes about different characters, but otherwise it’s a go-ahead, and some readers complain that he gets too wordy
. . .

Regardless, it is strategic, on the writer’s part, to make sure that there aren’t any significant ‘outliers’ in her novel that threaten to decrease or increase pacing, for example, where the pacing needs to be picked up or slowed down.
Let’s talk about these templates for a little bit.

The most common template, at its basic level, is the three-act structure, drawn from screenwriting. (You should notice, by the way, that a lot of plot-related technique is drawn from screenwriting, which is far more formulaic than fiction.)

The three-act structure looks like this:
The three-act structure consists, obviously, of three acts.

I am going to give everyone a very generic breakdown of how this template would transfer to a 60,000-word manuscript and to a 300-page novel.

0 words - 15,000 words
0 pages - 75 pages
15,001 words – 45,000 words
76 pages – 226 pages
45,001 words – 60,000 words
226 pages – 300 pages

In addition to these three simple points separation, there are three other important pieces related to the novel: the inciting incident, the first plot point, and the climax.

In more detail:

The inciting incident is the event that signifies the beginning of the novel’s major conflict. A lot of writers struggle with the inciting incident. It doesn’t always need to happen so close to the beginning, but there is usually a significant downfall to keeping it for later in the first act—the beginning will be too boring.

I’ve seen three types of problems arise in relation inciting incidents. Sometimes, first of all, writers will not have a major conflict or question that drives the entire story; their novel will jump from subplot to subplot. There needs to be one major conflict that motivates the character the entire way through; subplots can threaten to take the protagonist away from the path of the conflict, or may help push the character onto it, but the conflicts/major plot/subplots need to always be interlinked and, well, sub to the main plot.

Second of all, the main conflict and novel question may switch the middle of the way through (this may be an accident on the writer’s part or the result of a big reveal, etc.). If not done on purpose, one half of the novel needs to be rewritten to fit the actual major question. If it’s done on purpose, that’s fine. What needs to happen, however, is the writer needs to plant clues from the very beginning that somehow, whether in backstory or in events that happen in the early stages of the novel, fuel and add layers to the reveal.

Finally, and third of all, a lot of writers will fit this inciting incident into the right word or page count, but they will have wasted a lot of time before it without anything else happening. The key to good plotting is adding layers to your scenes—if you can introduce two characters in one scene instead of two, do it. If you can bring two secondary characters into a scene and have them dump secrets or information or requests or whatever on the main character (keeping it natural, of course), do it. Don’t be afraid to make that huge scene as close to the novel’s beginning as you can—you can even open your novel with it and use backstory later to establish the status quo.

The first plot point is the first external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event requires the main protagonist(s) to make a choice—will they face the conflict head-on or will they be cowards? (All questions posed in novels are usually a derivative of that one, be the novel historical, romantic, fantastical, etc.)

For example:

In a novel about a girl who finds out that she is a faerie and must now become Queen of Faeries to keep humans from destroying the faerie race, the inciting incident would be the scene in which this girl finds out she is a faerie. This changes her status quo. The first plot point would be the appearance of the Faerie Godmother, telling the girl that, in one week, humans will send out a blast that will kill all faeries, including her, and if she wants to save the faeries, the girl must join the Faerie Godmother and travel to the faerie underworld. This establishes the major plot question of the novel—Will the girl be able to save the faerie race?—and, as a result, establishes the “public” life-or-death stakes (the death of all faeries). Another level could be that, if the girl doesn’t accept the Queen of Faeries potion, she will never know who her real father was (and this creates a “private” stake).

It is definitely possible to do both the inciting incident and a plot point at once. If you do combine those two things together, though, in terms of the three-act they then constitute only the inciting incident, and another plot point would need to arise by the end of the first act—for example, the humans take the girl’s mother hostage to keep the girl from going to the underworld.

Weronika Janczuk is a new literary agent with D4EO Literary Agency, a position she accepted after working in different capacities with multiple literary agents and editors on both sides of the business. She represents a wide array of commercial fiction and non-fiction, including romance, thrillers, horrors, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, and non-fiction that appeals to the general public, and is actively searching for new clients. Submission guidelines and contact information are available on her website.


  1. Awesomeness. Weronika always has good advise. I will be book marking this while considering my own edits :)

  2. WOW really GREAT advice Weronika--this is one to bookmark!

  3. You people are amazing. Hi Shannon.

    I critiqued your query on WOC Weronika, but honestly it was so good there wasn't much to say. Great advice you've given here. Thanks so much!

  4. Thank you for such extensive and honest advice. Extremely helpful post to all beginner writers (like myself). I'm printing this to read again and again!


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