Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.
Advertisements

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Titles

As you may have noticed, I don’t even have a working title yet for my NaNoWriMo novel.  Titles are not my strong suit.  I hate coming up with titles.  How else can I say this?  Inventing titles for my books is harder for me than writing a book.

So much hinges on a title, for one thing.  It’s the first impression a critiquer, editor, agent, or reader gets of your book.  It’s your first chance at getting in a narrative hook and getting people interested.  It’s like deciding what to wear to your job interview – you want it to represent you and your work, but you also want it to have some pizzazz and professionalism.  Job interviews aren’t my forte, either.

Nevertheless, titles are a necessary evil of writing – if for no other reason than that you need to call your book something while you’re talking to your friends and relatives and writer’s groups about it, especially if you have more than one book.  Or, you know, if you’re a poet and don’t want to call all your poems “untitled”, thus confusing everyone, including yourself, on a regular basis.

Sometime I may try the dart board method of naming a book – just pin random words to a corkboard, throw a couple darts (preferably in a not entirely sober state), and name the book whatever gets hit.  Until I have a corkboard, darts, and booze at my immediate disposal, however, I have to try other methods.

In instances of successful titling, I’ve written out lists of brainstormed title ideas and agonized over which one to use until finally I decided I liked one best.  Or, in the case of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I used what was originally the title for the first chapter (chapter titles don’t scare me so much, so they’re easy to think of (go figure)) and pilfered it for the book title.  Then I renamed the first chapter.  Song lyrics are a good go-to for phrases that may or may not be made into good titles, although be careful about copyright issues on that.

And really, why am I posting advice on this?  I suck at this.  Why don’t you guys give me some advice?  Because I can’t for the life of me think of a decent working title for my upcoming NaNo novel.  Right now it’s Book One of The Trilogy.  Yep.  That’s some creative titling work right there.

Clearly, this is weighing on my mind.