How to pace your story

No one has ever accused me of being too patient or of moving too slow on a decision. By my very nature I like short, sweet explanations and components that actually move.

My mother was the opposite. She lingered at the grocery store, took time to speak to everyone at church. She ate slowly, methodically and never allowed anyone to put her into a hurried state. As a teen I would ask permission to attend a basketball game or show and she always had to think about it. Think about it? Really? To say that we bumped heads is to put it mildly. Perhaps my biggest frustration was that she did not make my hurriedness her problem. Her pace was proper for her lifestyle and suited every decision she made. It would take me years to appreciate this virtue. And indeed it is a virtue that can be priceless when writing fiction.

When I first began to write fiction I felt compelled to get it all out there at once. I was concerned that my reader would get bored with the story if I took too long to get there. I was fearful that if they didn’t have enough story within the first few chapters they would yawn, close my book, promise to get back to it later, but would never do so.

 

Now, there was some validity to my concern. But my problem (which I now realize) was that I did not know the difference between dragging a story and creating suspense. Suspense by the very meaning of the word is to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty and our curious nature compels us to seek answers. And when it comes to fiction, the only way to get those answers is to continue reading. My problem was how to get them to continue on with the book and not give away all to goods only to be bored later. Here is what I found:

00-9-Quotes-2-Dont-Give-Up-Secrets-S_-King

Make the reader care about your character

 

Let’s face it—if the reader doesn’t care about the characters it won’t matter what they do. They could get hit by a bus and the reader couldn’t be less interested. But we care about things, people for one of the following reasons:

 

  • Wethink that we know them; it’s why you peek through the blinds when the cops show up at your neighbor’s house
  • We have some connection with them; friends and associates with whom we share the same interest
  • They are interesting; they may be over the top beautiful, smart or gifted. They may be completely narcissist or evil or high strung or funny.
  • They have something we wish we had

So I had to take time to develop my characters to make them compelling, interesting, keeping in mind the reasons above. I had to make the reader feel that there would be payoff if they just continued to read.

A_Dark_and_Stormy_Night


 

Create foreboding

Movies create foreboding all the time—that feeling that something is about to happen. They do so with music—when all know the something-bad-is-going-to-happen chords. They do so with lighting and close-ups. In writing we do it a number of ways. And here are a few:

  • Build a semblance of peace or tranquility and because it is a story we realize it is a set-up for something to disrupt this perfect peace.
  • Write short sentences to create a sense of urgency.
  • Use questions. She knew she’d closed the door and locked it—or had she?

Honestly we love foreboding even if we don’t admit it—but that is only if the payoff is worth it. Build them up, up up and then let ‘em have it.

Keep the story moving

There is nothing more grating than reading a long, lofty description that seems to go…well…nowhere. Descriptions are great when they are essential and become a true element of the story. Keeping the story moving becomes easier when we keep the point of the story in mind; when we constantly remember that there is a place that we are headed. If we get stuck in a place or scene then our reader is stuck too.

Save the best for last

Even as the story is moving remember that the reader wants a payoff. We all love a surprise element as we near the end. As readers, by the time we get to the last portion of the book we think we have it figured out. It is nice to get that twist, that final OMG. If it is crafted correctly, in other words, fits into the story line it works well as an excellent last ping.

To make sure your story is paced properly I believe that beta readers are invaluable. And what are the words you want to hear? I simply could not put it down.

 

The painful art of fiction writing

The painful art of fiction writing

Somehow, many have the notion that published authors have the answers–matters not the question.  If we put pen to paper then certainly we have this wealth of knowledge swelling up inside and if we don’t get it out quickly certainly we will implode and the world will be left wanting.

 

Ernest Hemingway_sitandbleed

This is not any truer than the statement that people pursue medicine because they possess the cure to the diseases of the world. Doctors pursue medical knowledge to find cures. We write because we need answers. Writing allows us to dissect our fears and face them with focus. It is with words that we can ask the questions through our characters actions and dialogue and by presenting theme.

Fiction writing ventures to touch the taboo, the things we were told not to talk about–the disease of the human soul. It allows us to explore the reasons and ways we survive the unthinkable, how and why we thrive and live extraordinary lives despite circumstances hell-bent on destroying us.

Agatha Christie

Writing is cathartic. In writing fiction we share our experiences, transferring our pain and disappointment onto awaiting blank pages. We can do so without being condescending or preachy; we can do so without guilt or shame. We can do it without knowing the answers to all of the questions.

The truth is, writing our stories often invoke more questions than they answer and that’s OK. It is unlike non-fiction—self-help books, biographies and the like. Fiction awakens giants– towering monsters of anger, hurt, jealousy and racism, the like of which, we were content to allow their resting place. There is a connectedness of the human spirit that seeks to know why we do what we do. It is human nature to want to know why we can be such complicated, unpredictable enigmas and at the same time easy and uncomplicated.

 

Zora

If it hurts write it. Confused? Write on. As you allow your mind to reveal its secrets you will find a release; a peace will unfold, but not before you inflict upon yourself intense pain, face terrors of the soul and expose old wounds which healed awkwardly, incompletely.

But then, the healing will come. And although you may not know the answers your questions will all point vertically to a God who has all the answers. He is the creator of the soul. And even then all won’t be revealed to you—at least not in one fell swoop.  But you will begin to see light and understand that sometimes you don’t have to know the answers but only that they exist.

 

Stay true to your character’s character

Stay true to your character’s character

A couple of years ago I heard someone say that people do not change. At first I was put off by this remark, seemingly so cynical, so dark. If people don’t change then what is the point in trying to live a better life? But it echoed repeatedly in my head since the moment I heard it. And soon I had to come to the conclusion that, for the most part people remain constant, true to their character. In other words who you are is who you will always be. Now mind you, this is not to say that what you do is what you will always do. Who you are and what you do are two different elements. Your nature, your personality, your true spirit will remain intact. Introverts will be introverts no matter how much public speaking they do because their internal dialogue will always outweigh the external. Extroverts will always have a need to express themselves socially, no matter how their tongues are bridled. You are who you are. And as your life progresses, the real you becomes more apparent.

 

Joe-Nicolas-Cage

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan

 

The same is true for characters of fiction. That is why character development is so essential. Establish in the beginning as much as you can about your character; know their upbringing, including those experiences that have tarnished them in so way. Know their deepest desires, their darkest fears and childhood experiences. Write out the time and place in which they were born. All of these things play a part in the makeup of a person’s character. It is possible that you may not mention in detail every aspect of their experiences—that could make for a tedious book, especially if you have a lot of characters—but it will add authenticity to your writing. As your story progresses it will be easier to see and feel which way your character should move, act and think. Don’t characters grow and learn from their experiences? You may ask. Yes, they do. But learning and growing is more about realizing and expressing what is already there, whether it is strength or courage or even jealousy. In the Bible when Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, this wasn’t a new character trait; he wasn’t less of himself. He was already selfish and absorbed with his own desires. This was apparent by the sacrifice he brought to God (which is what led to his desperate situation in the first place).

But then, perhaps in your story the character remains stagnant; he was a mean drunk in the beginning and remained a mean drunk until the end, as in the movie Joe starring Nicholas Cage. Gary Poulter played a rancorous, abusive, alcoholic and remained one until the end. But situations around him changed, other characters grew and developed and in the end what he was became more apparent, and obvious. His  personality became stronger and the intensity increased by the stark changes that were taking place around him.

What you do want to avoid is a character whose personality suddenly shifts, changes without an apparent reason. That is not the nature of human development. When I first saw the movie, The Godfather, it took me a minute to analyze Michael Corleone’s characteristics. In the beginning he is an enigma. He has just come home from military duty. He at this point is a man who honors his country and is determined to do what is right despite his family’s business. Later on in the story when he is completely entrenched in the very business he shunned it seems that he has lost it and taken a path so far from his truth. But let’s take a second look; Michael was dedicated, committed—common traits of those who commit to military duty. Michael also had a heart for his family, even in the beginning. You see that heart as he embraced their presence at his sister’s wedding. And then of course, we see those characteristics even more evident after the death of his father. And even as he becomes ruthless and cold those were not ‘new or unlikely character traits. They were dormant, breeding. He was, in fact a product of his environment. It was his intense commitment and dedication that lead to his perpetual struggle to remain dedicated to his family, mainly his father. He kept that commitment to his father even in death, even while destroying those who dared to block his path. That is why it is important to know your character to the extent that you can in the beginning. And as you write, your characters will talk to you and reveal themselves to you as their circumstances change; through tragedies, highs, lows, moments of confusion and despair they will whisper to you-revealing what you need to know. They will be true to themselves. It is up to you to be true to them.

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Write From the Soul

I recently began helping a friend write a screenplay based on her life. She had gone through some pretty horrific things in her childhood and was now ready to get it out there. Put it on paper. She’d hoped that it would not only be cathartic but an inspiration to all those who’d endure similar situations.

I was proud to be a part of the project. I knew that it would not be easy for her; it would drudge up faded memories and force her to go places in her mind that she’d tried to forget for the past 15 years. But it was necessary.

We decided that to protect certain identities we would write it as a fictional tale leaving, of course, the truest elements intact. Plus, we wanted to take some creative liberties with some of the characters. I was fine with it. Once we got started I asked probing questions. When ghostwriting you really have to do this. I was not there so you needed to get a real feel for the story. It was important to extract not only facts, but the spirit of the story. As author, E.L. Doctorow said: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” This is important. It is always important.

As the questions became more specific she would often break down in tears. This continued on for weeks. Her sleep was disturbed, the memories became like healed wounds being ripped open. At one point I wondered if she was really ready to do this.

You hear often, write from the soul. It sounds poetic and courageous. And indeed it is. It is also difficult and grueling. It is painful and tedious. It may badly hurt before it feels good. And that is OK. Let it pour, let it flow. When you are done your truth will be a refreshing spring to some reader with whom you share a like experience. The only difference is you were able to articulate it in a way that the reader could not. Truthfully, isn’t that the case with a gut-wrenching work? It could be a singing artist, writer, painter, or rapper. They are able to say what we can’t. This is what connects artists with their audience.

Write from the soul. Put it on paper without stopping to evaluate whether you have said too much. Simply write. You can edit later. Don’t worry about whether you will offend or embarrass. You can always change names, events, etc. Writing, especially fiction writing in its purest form transfers the reader from where they are to where the story takes place—you forget that there is a writer and can only see what has been written.
Today, when you take pen to paper, do it without fear. Do it without reservation.

 

It is never to late to write that novel

It seems we attribute the greatest accomplishments in life to our youth: having children, getting married, starting a business. As we get older we look at the younger generation with both admiration and disdain. They don’t know how good they have it, we say. If only I had that kind of energy, we lament. We forget that at one time we were that young and spent that energy as if there was an unlimited supply. Then as the years pass we often don’t look back in warm nostalgia but with regret. My motto is ‘no regret’. It is what it is. The relevancy is here. The important moment is now. Regret robs us of our future.

Fortunately writing a novel is one of those career moves that have no expiration date stamped to it, unlike having children or playing football. In fact some of our greatest works were produced by those well into their adult years.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, who penned the Little House series, began writing when she was well into her 40s, Frank McCourt wrote Angela’s Ashes in his 60s.

ernest hemingway

If nothing else (hopefully there’s more) with time, comes experience and a different kind of passion; it is a passion drenched in wisdom. It is not that you know everything but you have begun to comprehend the important things. Those things that seemed so relevant and necessary in youth have shifted in their place of significance. Sure, we can still write about the trite, create characters that are still struggling to find meaning in it all, with but you are doing it from a loftier position, a position of knowing—if only somewhat. The urgency in your writing is that which you have created or remembered.

person-writing

Writing at this point is not from desperation to launch a career, but a need to get it out, so to speak and to give life to the voice that has been haunting you and urging you to write. The truth is, sometimes the work of an older writer is clearer, more insightful. They’ve seen and lived multiple points of views the perspective is not obscured by novelty or neediness. Now don’t get me wrong, for as long as I live I want to find and discover new heights and fresh experiences, but they will add to what I already know.

I say if you have an urge or desire to write; if all you can think about is putting pen to paper, than get it out there. And yes, the game of book publishing has changed even within the past 10 years, but that’s OK. The thing to be concerned with right now is getting your story on paper. Go on, the world may be waiting to read the story told your way.