Wednesday, August 11, 2010

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

This is the last segment in Weronika Janczuk's series on plot and pacing. Click here for part one. And here for part two.

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

There are some questions for you to consider, either as you plot or as you reread previous drafts, and they include:

- Have I put my character into the most challenging circumstances—into circumstances in which she was paralyzed with fears, in which what she held most dear was threatened, in which what she held most dear was taken away, in which she was physically hurt in an irreversible way? Did I put her into a position she can’t get out of?

- How have I timed my conflicts, my surprises, my mini climaxes? Do they happen at the worst possible time? (This is where subplots can be particularly helpful—have the hot villain appear when your protagonist is in a conversation with her crush, or something like that.) Make things uncomfortable. Make things awkward and sad and scary and emotionally captivating.

- Have I interwoven my main conflict with subplots? Have my secondary characters, whether on purpose or not, done something to raise the stakes? Have they put themselves at risk? Have they put the main character at risk by doing something stupid (or smart, if they’re one of those back-stabbing meanies)?

Those are just three possible sets of questions. There are many, many more—the key is to look at your novel as a puzzle and work to fit things together in ways that make it seemingly impossible for your character to get to his or her goal. Hurting your character isn’t always the best way out (but that doesn’t mean you take it easy on him or her).

Plot- and Pace-Related Techniques/Strategies
It’s painstakingly obvious by now how pacing results directly from good plotting. There are two kinds of pacing I’m going to mention briefly:

- Scene-based pacing

- Novel-based pacing

The strategy here is to think of each scene as a novel in itself—scenes should have their own inciting incident, rising action, and climax. I’m going to borrow from Maass again and reference what he calls inner and outer turning points. In each scene, two things should change: something on the inside of the character and something on the outside of the character. Obviously that’s not going to happen in every scene, but the strategy here is to ask yourself whether each of your scenes is moving the novel forward and changing anything for the character. Your pacing will align if something is changing; most likely, the faster to slower will fall into a natural rhythm as you move to and fro your larger, more overarching conflicts.

In addition, always, without a question, start your chapters and scenes as late as possible and end them as soon as possible. There is at least one chapter in your novel that starts a sentence, a paragraph, a few pages too early, and ends a few pages, a few sentences, too late. Go back and cut. Cut, cut, cut. Layer scenes if you have to.

The novel is tougher, and it really depends on the story that you’re telling, and I wish that I had a set of tools I could give you that could guarantee the right pacing. These are some simple suggestions that I can offer based on what I’ve observed in my own writing and in reading others’ work.

Whether you outline or not, the key to good plotting and pacing 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. This will guarantee your pacing is quick where it needs to be quick.

Then, it's important to remember not to throw a large amount of backstory into your writing. This slows down the pace and instead of moving the novel forward, the story becomes suspended. Chances are that most of the background you give is unnecessary to the conflict. That should always be your question—is this backstory about the family necessary? Is this backstory about a previous relationship necessary? Will it at any point change how the reader perceives a scene in the book? Probably not. Don’t be afraid to cut; if in your next reread you don’t notice anything missing, it was a good choice to cut.

As the story continues, the intensity picks up and the stakes are higher. Keep the tension tight as you move toward the climax. That last scene, the scene surrounding the choice, should be all action, all change, all mystery—don’t let your characters breathe.

Finally, and I’ve seen this a lot, too, don't disappoint your reader with a fast solution ending. You’ve introduced us to a wide array of characters, most likely, and now we need to see one last time again those characters that are relevant. I’ve already mentioned the importance of secondary characters—when we see the effect of the plot on them, it becomes more universal; the same goes for the ending, where we should see a moral arise (not explicitly, of course—that ‘moral’ or theme to the story should be clear, and your message as an author should have come across).

It all comes down to the length of your chapters, your paragraphs, and your sentences. The greater the tension, the shorter the scenes should be—move forward, push things forward, let us see the multiple characters (if you have them) as they all head toward this big moment.

In addition—

If you do outline:
Framing the novel before you plot, and then ensure that the framing holds true as you begin to place events. As long as your conflict follows the path of your template, you’re nearly guaranteed correct pacing.

If you don’t outline:
Reread your drafts very carefully—after a long time of not looking at the draft at all—and be very honest about yourself: where are things happening too fast? Where are you losing your characters? And where are you bored out of your mind? Cut and write, cut and rewrite, write and rewrite.

Additional Resources for Writers
Over the years, I’ve found a particular set of resources to be incredibly helpful for me as I plot, outline, and consider the novels I am writing, as well as resources for pushing the writers I work with to add complexity to their novels.

Check out:
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson
The Dark Salon, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog

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.

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