Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Writing Wednesdays - Varying Your Pacing For Dramatic Effect

But before we start, did you know that ONE GOOD DRAGON DESERVES ANOTHER, the sequel to NICE DRAGONS FINISH LAST, is now available as an audio book?! Well it is! And you should totally get a copy because the performance is amazing!! Go listen to the sample at least, you won't be disappointed!

I had a big NaNo post in the works, but it's not quite November yet (okay, it's barely the middle of October), and so, being the dug-in enemy of holiday creep that I am, I've decided to put the NaNo post off until next week and write about one of the most important and difficult to pull off aspects of writing: pacing. Specifically, I want to talk about how to vary your pacing to make your readers feel different things, sort of like pulling a lever on their emotions!

(Pause for evil author cackling).

Ahem. Moving on.

Writing Wednesdays - Varying Your Pacing For Dramatic Effect

Pacing refers to the speed at which things happen in your book and it is almost entirely governed by tension. If your story is very intense and your characters are rushing around trying to get things done, then your book is most likely going to be fast paced. On the hand, if your tension is driven by something softer—such as the complicated political maneuvering of two powerful houses, or the gentle, sweet change of friends to lovers—then your story will likely have a slower pace. And, of course, there’s everything in between.

If you're looking for a fabulous resource on pacing and tension (and the place where I got my chart below), check out this video about pacing in video games from Extra Credits. Yes, it's about games, but everything said in here is equally applicable to writing and the whole thing is just amazingly well done. Totally worth a watch if you've got the time!

Pacing in books functions slightly differently than the pacing in games or movies, but the mechanics of each are basically the same. Like action movies or games, fast paced books usually have short, intense scenes and chapters that transition quickly. The characters usually spend most of the book frantically solving problems while multiple tension elements light fires under their feet. Depending on the type of fast paced story you're telling, these fires can be hilarious antics or deadly serious fights. Whatever feel you’re going for, though, fast paced books tend to be high energy and make for quick, exciting reads.

By contrast, slower paced books gain their intensity through build up. Rather than rushing, they ease into scenes, keeping the pressure to a slow burn that gives both the reader and author a chance to really dig into the plot, setting, and characters, all of which will hopefully be complex and nuanced enough to warrant the extra attention. Where fast paced books thrive on hard, brutal, “OMG how are they going to survive this?!” tension elements like ticking time-bombs and crazy high stakes, slow paced books tend to favor mechanics that keep the pressure at a slow but steadily increasing burn such as a meticulously unraveling mystery or a slowly revealed conspiracy.

Neither pace is inherently better than the other. Both have their fans and their critics, and which pace you choose depends on your genre and the sort of story you want to tell. Some genres, like Thrillers, are famous for being lightning fast. Others move at a more relaxed speed. Epic Fantasy in particular has built such a stellar reputation for stately pace that allows the reader time to take in the nuances of all the plots, magic, and intrigue of a large, rich, secondary fantasy world that many fans of the genre read it just for that. They want to get lost in that other world without being rushed.

But just because a genre is known for having a certain pace doesn’t mean you have to write at that speed. There are plenty of very popular Thrillers that deliberately adopt a slower pace to really let the tension build up, and my own first series, The Legend of Eli Monpress, was a fast paced Epic Fantasy that was popular precisely because it was different from the rest of the Fantasy shelf. The fast paced humor and lightness I'd adopted because it felt right for my story also helped my books stand out in a very crowded genre, which was a big bonus! But while all of these pacing decisions are definitely good to think through, no book, fast or slow, moves at the same place all the way through.

One of the most common ways people talk about tension in novels is to compare it to a roller coaster. Just like on a good coaster, it’s the ups and downs that make a book exciting. If the story/ride rolled along at exactly the same pace all the way through, even if that pace was a frantic plunge straight down, much of the fun would be lost. Roller coaster designers know this, which is why all coasters—from million dollar experiences at Disney Land to the dinkiest little parking lot carnival rides—constantly vary their pacing to keep you, their audience, maximally entertained.

Think about it, what part of a roller coaster is the most exciting? Is it the loops? The turns? No, it’s the click click click right at the very beginning when you’re climbing that first huge ramp.
The moment when you’re teetering on the edge just before you tip over into the fast part of the ride is one of the most fun parts of any ride. It’s so exciting, in fact, that many coasters do it twice—once at the beginning and again in the middle. The reason this works is because anticipation of the excitement to come—the click click click of the climb, the wind as you look around at the view and realize just how high you're going—builds crazy levels of tension in the riders. This feeling is what roller coaster designers leverage over and over again to create a maximally exciting, and therefore maximally successful, riding experience.

This same logic applies to stories. When you look at a map of tension for a plot, you’ll notice that it looks a lot like that roller coaster. Let’s examine this super famous one for Star Wars: A New Hope.

As you can see, the tension in Star Wars looks a lot like a roller coaster. It doesn’t go straight up or straight down for long periods, but instead twists and turns and changes pace to keep the audience constantly on the edge of their seat.

This variance is key. In stories and rides, you never want to slow down so much that your audience becomes bored or feels like they can put your book down. At the same time, though, you can’t go hard and fast for too long or else reading/riding becomes exhausting or stressful. Good pacing--in roller coasters, games, and books--is all about finding the right balance between the climbs and the falls, the rev up and the pay off. You have to keep the tension and the stakes high, but you also have give your reader (and your characters) time to feel the emotions and deal with the fallout those stakes are causing. The more skillfully you can manipulate this experience, the better your book will be.

Sounds great, right? So how do we do it? How do we manipulate that tension lever like a pro and keep our audience enraptured?

1) Know How To Build Tension and How to Let It Go

Just as there are multiple ways to build tension in a novel—conflict, great hooks, mysteries, building reader investment in a character and then putting that person in danger, ticking time bombs, etc.—there are just as many tried and true ways to let it out again. The easiest way to temporarily drop your tension is to just let characters go to sleep or otherwise have downtime. You can also resolve a minor problem and give your characters a minor victory. This relieves the tension and lets everyone catch their breath before (of course) you reveal the larger problem.

However you make it happen, creating a pause is vitally important. Think of it as letting the steam out of the pipe. A temporary drop in tension allows your character and your readers to reset to base line, giving them a chance to recover before you start ramping things up again.

2) But Don't Go Too Far!

While it is critical to give your readers and characters a break from the action every now and then, you never want to actually stop the action or resolve any of the main action before you're ready to end the book. The reason for this is that tension is what keeps reader turning pages. If you stop it all together for any reason and let your reader feel safe putting down the book, they may never pick it up again, even if they were enjoying the story.

We've all had books we've put down and never picked up again. Looking back, we might still have fond memories of the story, leading us to believe we just got distracted and put it down. But there was a reason, and that reason was the author's failure to maintain proper tension. Don't be that author! Putting down your book should always be your reader's very last resort, so while you do have to make sure to vary your tension, you never want let it drop all the way to zero.

3) Keep the Ball Rolling by Trading One Source of Tension for Another

So we have to vary our tension, but we can't drop it all the way to zero or we risk losing readers, but what about when you have to take an extended break in the action? Or what if your climax requires a lot of room to build up, how do you keep your book from turning into one long incline?

This kind of thing happens all the time in books. No plot is perfectly tooled, and thus very few fall into that lovely roller coaster pattern without serious help. Fortunately, there are many more kinds of tension than just plot tension. So if you find yourself with an unexpected low tension area, and you're worried about losing readers, you can always up the stakes again by switching rails and building an entirely new, hither-to untapped source of tension,

A great example of this bait and switch technique is the classic action movie trope of including some kind of romance or love interest. This is partially because being irresistible to the opposite sex is as important a part of the action start lifestyle as shooting or jumping motorcycles over exploding cars. Mostly, though, the seemingly mandatory romance plotline in action movies is there to provide a tension swap. Script writers (who, by the way, are the most technically proficient writers when it come to story construction that you’ll ever find) know they can’t have a movie of non-stop explosions. Such a film would rapidly maxing out the audience’s taste for combustion and leave nowhere to go for the eventual climax. So, instead, they break up the action tension with sexual tension. This narrative slight-of-hand gives the audience the necessary brake to reset their appreciation for explosions wile ensuring their attention says glued to the screen as they watch the hero sweep his woman off her feet.

Cynical as that example might sound, the exact same logic and pattern happens in Romance, only in reverse. The constant sexual tension is interrupted by action sequences or plot drama, giving the hero and heroine time to cool down and pine before the author brings them smashing back together in the thrilling romantic climax.

It might not always be so glaringly obvious, but you can find this back and forth pattern in almost every story, and always for the same reason: it’s a perfect way to vary tension. By swapping out one type of tension for another, you can let your readers catch their breath without ever completely dropping either ball. You don’t have to use just two, either. Action and romance are a classic combination, but you can pile on as many different tension elements as your narrative can handle, sending your reader on a double helix crazy ride of drama and intrigue! The only thing that really matters is that you stay in total control of whatever tension elements you're employing. You don't want to have more cars on the track than you can manage, or the whole thing will turn into an absolute mess.

I’m not saying you have to go through whatever story you’re working on and label all the different kinds of conflict to make this work. These tension manipulations are so common in the stories we read and watch every day, most writers use them instinctively without even thinking. That’s fine most of the time, but I feel that knowing what’s actually going on at a mechanical level in your writing is always better than trying to fly blind on instinct alone. It’s also a huge advantage when things go wrong with your plot and you have to fix it. Knowledge is always power in writing. It might not give you the answer, but knowing what’s going wrong is a huge first step to fixing it.

Good Tension = Happy Readers!

If you switch and vary your tensions properly, you will be in total control of your reader's experience, keeping them pinned to your book from beginning to end. Good tension management is the key to keeping readers up well past their bedtime only to go squeeing about your book to everyone they know in a fit of glee the next morning. For me, this is the Holy Grail of writing, and it's the target I keep in my sights the entire time I'm working on a book. I hope these tips help you better manage the tension in your own stories!

And thus concludes another Writing Wednesday! Thank you as always for reading, and don't forget to check out the OGDDA audio book. It's my favorite thing in the world right now!!

If you enjoyed this post, I have a lot more! Just click on either of the writing tags at the bottom of the post for a full list. I also do new writing posts every Wednesday and a bunch of publishing business stuff in between, so be sure to follow me on Social Media (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+ or subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner) for instant updates.

Thank you again for reading, and until next time, happy writing!!

Yours always,


wonderfuloma said...

I really enjoyed this! I try to look at how other author's do this in there books---the good, the bad and the ugly---it's difficult and if they don't pull it off, I end up closing the book. Thanks!

Willie Kaminski said...
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