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.
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Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Mapping a Novel

I don’t know of anything more difficult about novel-writing than pulling off multiple story arcs.  I don’t mean a main plot plus a subplot or three, which can be a little tricky – I mean when you have an ensemble cast of major characters, for all of whom you have to shape a transformative change worthy of a novel-length storyline.

Personally, this is one thing I can’t do without an outline – at least a rough one – to guide me and help me keep track of the big picture.  It’s easier to keep everything in mind with a concise reference to help solidify it.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to color-code everything, which means I get to use markers or colored pencils, which is always a plus, IMHO.

In a way, it’s easiest if I think of it as a map of the book, rather than an outline, and I have to plan a route for each character to reach the destination of the climax, whether that’s the same place for two or more of them, or totally separate towns.  Then it’s just a matter of travel planning so I know what they’ll encounter on their journey.  Physical battles?  Confrontation with someone they thought was an ally?  An abrupt and ugly revelation about him/her self?  What do I want each person’s story to be about?  How can I bring them to their finest moment within that?  How can I bring them to their worst impasse or their ultimate failure within it?  And of course, where do the different characters’ paths cross?  Do they trip each other up, or spur each other on?  In what ways, and why?

Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.

Forcing the Issue

Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to.  I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand.  I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.

I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”.  Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded.  Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.

Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write.  Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.

Now, I think both sides have a point.  Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck.  Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing.  That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go.  Which of those do you pick?  Whichever one makes the story better.

Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story.  Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader.  Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*).  Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff.  Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot.  Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it.  You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.

There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices.  From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too.  You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her.  You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.

Reflections on NaNoWriMo 2010

I have mixed reactions to my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short, NaNo for shorter).  For those who are unfamiliar with it, the idea is to write 50,000 words or more in 30 days or fewer.  Generally, it’s advised to write at least 1667 words per day (which will get you to the 50,000 goal if you stick to it every day in November).

My preparations for NaNo were woefully inadequate for helping me get through the month’s word count.  I know there are some writers who wing it in November and do just fine, but, although I shy away from a strict outline process in favor of spontaneity, I have a lot of trouble holding the middle of a novel together during my first stab at it.  Without a clear sense of how things get from point A to point C, my brain goes into a death spiral of doubt, confusion, obstinacy, and just plain childish frustration.  Normally, I can take a step back and spend a few days working out the big picture before I have to force the story on toward a conclusion, giving me a chance to regroup, as it were, and find the logic of the next few steps – like looking at the whole chessboard before you make your move.

In the frenzy of NaNo, there was no way I was going to have the leisure to take such a tactical approach – the whole point, as I understand it, of NaNo is to push yourself and trust the process to produce its own results in the long haul of the month.  So, I pushed myself and watched to see what would happen.  I don’t feel I’ll know exactly how much or how little I got out of the NaNo approach until I start my rewrites (not anytime in the next two weeks, at least, I’ll tell you!) but I will list some of the pros and cons as I see them now, in the immediate aftermath:

  • + I have an entire rough draft of a novel that didn’t exist a month ago
  • – I have a great deal of housework, shopping, and errands to catch up on after neglecting all other aspects of my life for a month
  • + I discovered some character vulnerabilities and inner conflicts that I never would have thought of if I’d sat around trying to come up with them, but in desperation to find something to churn out words about, I essentially stream-of-consciousnessed them into existence
  • + I found unplanned and unexpected characters and subplots that will contribute a great deal to the main storyline, which if I hadn’t been in a hurry to get a word count out, I would’ve refused to add in out of fear of further complicating an already complicated novel
  • – I felt mostly like a crazy person through the better part of last month
  • – This is the worst rough draft I’ve ever written.  It’s not cohesive in the least, has almost no middle, and isn’t even in any kind of order.  I think I could’ve done a much better job on it if I’d had more time to think it out
  • + I have the basics of the entire plot laid out, and I feel like the middle will be much easier to fill in now that I know exactly how the book ends (I wrote the final scene on my last day of NaNo)
  • + I feel like a superhero for having accomplished this insane feat!

Looking over those, I think the pros far outweigh the cons, although I doubt I would’ve said that a week ago, in the throes of whiny inner-artiste agony and despair and with almost no food in the house because there wasn’t time to shop and do my word count.

All in all, it was worth a month of feeling sideways, living cooped up in my own head, being out of touch with almost everyone in the world, and never really being able to relax.  Yes, it was hard work, and yes, I felt stressed out and at times seriously questioned my sanity and adulthood because of how crappy I felt being stuck at home all the time.  But one month of suffering is well worth having a great starting point for a novel I’ve wanted to write for the past twelve years.  Not to mention the ego boost of finishing.  Ha!

Subplotting

Subplots are a tricky issue sometimes.  Without them, your plot can come off stale, impersonal, simplistic, and boring.  In fact, without subplot, there really can’t be any character development (unless the resolution of an internal conflict is your main plot).  Too many subplots, and you can spread yourself too thin, confuse the reader, get lost in tangents, and generally make a mess of things.

Paying attention to what works for me as a reader, I’ve decided that the best subplots are the ones which play off of the main storyline.  Preferably, a subplot not only stems from the main events of the book, but also, in return, affects the main storyline.  A sort of feedback loop of cause and effect, each building off of one another.  Get a few subplots like that going at once, and your story will practically write itself (and everyone will think you’re brilliant for pulling it off (not that I’ve experienced that part as a writer, just noticed as a reader which books I find brilliantly put together)).

George Elliot and Terry Pratchett (who probably never would’ve expected to be compared within the same sentence) are both masters of interweaving an overall plot with smaller storylines.

The last book I wrote was so narrowly focused (intentionally so) that in the rough draft, I left out all subplot, just making notes to myself of subplots that occurred to me.  Anything that didn’t hold together or any characters that weren’t coming across as full, rounded-out people, I worked through in the second draft by stirring in a few of those back burner ideas from my notes, and that’s how I knew what subplots were actually needed to carry the story off.

I won’t be so lucky with my NaNoWriMo novel in November.  It’s a huge storyline with multiple conflicts playing off one another and a cast of thousands–no, I exaggerate…only hundreds…er…well, dozens, anyway.  And all those characters have their own issues and their own parts to play, and things to overcome that will affect everybody else.  It’s rife with subplots and potential for more to pop up as I go along, and frankly, I’m a little intimidated by that.  But I’ll take a page out of my own book (haha, I make funny) and in the rough draft use only what I know I need, making extensive notes for things I’m not sure about.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Hah!  Wish me luck!!

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

The Interplay of Strength & Weakness

When it comes to creating well-balanced characters, one of the ways I like to think of it is that every character is a double-edged sword.  Any trait in any character has its positive and its negative potential, which can be drawn out, played with, used to create internal conflict, and/or increase external tension between characters.

For example, let’s say you have a character with a lot of determination.  Determination is good, right?  But what do you call determination in someone who is determined to do something you would rather they didn’t do?  You call it stubborn, hard-headed, contrary, or possibly stupid, depending on what the person is set on doing.  Double-edged sword.

A character with a lot of confidence – confidence is good, right?  It means charisma, leadership skills, self-assurance.  That character better watch out, though.  Confidence can become cockiness, and that opens up a lot of potential problems for your character.  Even if he has a healthy sense of his own limitations, maybe other characters perceive him as cocky and dislike him for it – confidence in one character can lead to jealousy in other characters.  Double-edged sword.

Turn the tables on your characters.  The things you admire or hate about a character, try to see from another angle.  What’s the opposing force in the equation?  What extremes would pull an attribute toward being a flaw, or a flaw toward being an asset?  A character’s greatest weakness can transform in to her greatest strength, or vice versa.  If a character isn’t very self-aware, he’ll be in constant danger of losing himself to the negative side of his own personality.  If he’s hyper-aware, that’s an issue in itself, and he’s going to question himself incessantly (hello, Dostoevsky).

Does your character have another trait that somehow keeps check on one of her double-edged aspects?  She’s confident, but doesn’t get cocky because she also has a strong sense of humility.  Uh-oh!  Humility?  That might slide into meekness if her confidence is down for some reason.  Your character’s internal struggle and the external dynamics have even more potential now.  This is great stuff for plot material, even if the story’s focus isn’t strictly about a character’s personal growth.  Characters should grow in any story, for it to be truly good writing.  Spy novel or literary fiction, science fiction or mainstream – a story will always be better for character development.

Let your heroes screw up.  Let your villains always try to do the right thing.  Let your characters be full, rounded people, in spite of labels like “hero”, “villain”, “protagonist”, or “antagonist”.  We don’t have those labels in real life, and stories with characters who transcend those labels are the ones that keep me, at least, coming back for more.