I wrote Lined Paper after giving a short piece of advice on how to pace scenes so that they keep the interest of the reader:
Hey David, how should I think about control “tempo” in writing? I’m bad at explaining things but I’m trying to write my NaNo and when I go back and look at stuff, I see that the scenes I like have a lot more detail in them and come across as slower, and the ones I’m more unsure about almost look like summaries of what happened than being, uh.. “present” in what is happening? Sorry if that makes no sense. I probably just need to stick on more interesting scenes.
Two things – First, consider what is happening in a story. If a scene feels long to a reader, its usually because nothing interesting is happening. There is no tension or the plot is not shifting direction. The best paced books will have some sort of event every 2-4 pages that changes something. Plot points in this sense are either new pieces of information, revelations that re-contextualize past information, or an event that forces plans to change. It can be something as simple as a one character running into another in the hallway, creating an awkward moment.
Second, it could be that there is just too much prose or unnecessary dialogue. Lengthy descriptions can bog down a manuscript. Mention the things that really matter and consider cutting superfluous details. Also consider whether dialogue is providing or moving toward a plot point as mentioned above.
This got me thinking if I could write a quick, tense scene with these smaller plot points, specifically as what I suggested: one character running into another in the hallway, creating an awkward moment. So I wrote a scene. I doesn’t really have a “good” feeling resolution, but there is actually quite a bit of information provided through “indirect exposition” – that is, exposition that informs a reader through context rather than by just stating it.
Here are some of the ways I did it:
- Tension. The first sentence states that Jim is late. Right away we have something that must be resolved. Will he get in trouble for being late?
- Character exposition. Jim’s phone bugs out, and he curses aloud, showing he has a fragile temper. These are also familiar points to most people, who have been frustrated with technology not working at critical times.
- Point. Added tension. Jim bumps into a woman (Melissa) and feels embarrassed. He notices she is embarrassed as well.
- Problem. The papers are mixed up. Jim is late. Will he have time to sort them out.
- Point. Mystery. Jim impulsively looks at Melissa’s phone. He sees a disturbing text. An insightful reader will begin to wonder about gas-lighting or emotional abuse in the next few dialogue lines.
- Point. Revelation. Melissa has a boyfriend, and this makes Jim feel sick. Here we reveal that he may have feelings for her, and that the text in context worries him.
- Added tension. Will reminds Jim he is late to a meeting.
- Point. Resolution. Jim says he doesn’t really need the papers as the information he needs to communicate is on a powerpoint.
- Exposition. Resolution. Jim arrives at his destination. Will teases Jim a little, revealing their place in the company and what they are doing. Will reveals that Melissa is not the office “hot girl.”
- Point. Return to high tension. Jim is missing something critical. It’s so critical that he is willing to risk the entire point of the initial tension and conflict of the story – getting to the meeting – to go find a missing paper. It’s clear that his very job might be at risk.
- Character exposition. Jim curses himself as he runs, revealing what he thinks about himself.
- Tension. Exposition Melissa is not at her desk. An office mate reveals they don’t talk much, and she’s even unsure if Melissa has a boyfriend at all.
- Slight release. Melissa won’t know Jim has rifled through the papers.
- Point. Resolution. Jim finds the paper he was looking for.
- Point. Revelation. The paper was a letter to Melissa that he didn’t want her to read, about some feeling he held in secret. Remembering earlier points, the reader should contextualize this hint to know that it was a type of love letter, that Jim is secretly infatuated with Melissa, and that he is terrified of her rejection. Knowing she has a boyfriend only makes him more afraid to reveal his feelings.
- “Resolution.” Jim tears up the letter, resolving to never communicate his feelings to Melissa, and reveals more of his self-hatred. He muses on a theme – it was destiny for her to get the letter, even against his will, and he has defied it.
That’s as micro as I can get when it comes to pacing, exposition, etc. in a scene. If we were to place this scene in a larger story, say a novel, what purpose could it serve? What things could be expanded upon and resolved later?
- Jim could help Melissa to realize that she is in an abusive relationship, and could in effect “Save” her from it.
- Melissa could reveal at a later time that she did indeed read the letter, and Jim would be exposed.
An excellent post! I myself have worried over the pacing of scenes, but recently found my groove, due in no small part to your advice in the streams. Thanks David!