Thursday, August 27, 2009

Workshop: Perfecting Your Pace: Part 1

I've decided to pull up an old workshop I wrote about four years ago. I hope you find this helpful!

Perfecting Your Pace Part 1

by J.R Turner

Pacing isn't just about slowing down in certain spots and speeding up in others. It's not just about the length of sentences and paragraphs. Pacing isn't just about giving the reader a chance to breathe or getting them to turn the pages faster. The idea behind great pacing is to keep the reader turning ALL the pages ALL the way through the book.

We've all heard talk about peaks and valleys. Peaks: the climatic moments, turning points, black/darkest moment, and grand finale. Valleys: the descent from a climax, a breather, and the ascent toward the next peak. This is a legitimate way to explain pacing, but it's a visual model that doesn't show the importance of each aspect.

A deeply moving scene is not always a valley, but every valley should be deeply moving for the reader. A valley isn't the characters sitting down to eat because you suddenly realized they must be starving. A valley isn't the characters brushing their teeth because you realized they have to kiss someone. And a
valley isn't a scene where the protagonist is shopping for food, clothing, or an essential item because you realized they needed this item. These are segues, or transitions.

A valley is a dinner where the characters explore their own depths to learn the truth about themselves and about what the plot has made them see. A valley is a character brushing their teeth AND thinking about the person they want to kiss and how that person has changed them. A valley is a scene where the shopping is used as a tool for the character to avoid, confront, or debate the current obstacles in their path.

In other words, it has real meaning and moves the plot forward.

Peaks, of course, are all the scenes, both physical and emotional, where your character is forced to confront an obstacle. Whether the physical is overt or not, these moments generally show much more activity. Emotionally, the characters feel extremes-it is not always a deep feeling-but an 'in the moment'
feeling. Many times, after a peak, there is need for a valley scene where the feelings can be analyzed and used to decide the next course of action

There is only one time that the peak of a story must carry emotional depth, and that is at the climax. Until then, the peaks have intense, emotional impact at the moment, but the depth isn't realized until the valley. At the climatic peak, both occur in the same moment.

How to implement these peaks and valleys is another matter all together. This is where the peaks and valley's visual is really elegant. The rise of suspense toward the confrontation, the fall out after the confrontation, are easily seen in this visual. The only difference between fiction and true life is the characters should never, ever be allowed to rest.

As you build suspense (both physical and emotional) you must keep the pressure on. If you find you're writing something and you're bored with it, then the reader will be too. If you find that you're writing in a description or dialogue that doesn't confront the obstacle, then it might be better paraphrased or
deleted entirely.

This is where transitions come in handy. Transitions are those moments when the character finally reaches the top of the peak (having overcome the obstacle) and stands there for a moment, breathing in the fresh air and preparing to descend. Or conversely, where they've come to the point of taking action and begin to climb.

The descent is trickier to handle than the climb, simply because it's not so important how the character comes down, as how they'll handle going back up again for the next obstacle. A descent can trick an author into slower prose, into getting to that valley too quickly, or skipping the descent entirely. While
this may not be a bad thing at times, it is most often when the hook for the next peak gets overlooked-and when we inadvertently offer the reader a chance to close the book and return to their regular lives.

The trick with descents is to decide how fast or slow they need to be.


1) Pam won in court and will get the house, the car, and alimony from her ex-husband. (This is her peak)

2) She watches the courtroom empty and considers how she feels (This is the transition)

3) On the way home, she pulls the car over, hyperventilating. She can't believe she's free.

4) When she gets home, she discovers he's already called to threaten her.

5) She accepts the next phone call and reminds him of the restraining order.(This is the end of the transition and takes us into the valley.)

6) She decides to take measures to protect herself (This is the valley-preparing for the next obstacle.)

Through those six passages, you can see how logic and plot play a major role in deciding how fast or slow the descent should be. Sentences #3, #4 and #5 are how fast the descent works for this plot. Notice there are tangible, plot related events on the way down. Sentence #6, shows what happens in the valley as a direct result of the peak. Each plot will have it's own pace.

The single most important aspect of pacing, however, is writing for the reader. Instincts alone can't dictate to us what our readers will want to see next, though it is very important. It's equally important that we read the books our target audience reads now. This greatly improves are ability to understand what our instincts are actually saying to us.

Eating, sleeping, dressing, traveling (for the most part) are not elements that keep the reader wanting to see what happens next. They don't flip eagerly through to see what the character will wear to clean her house or go jogging. They're not real interested if she decides to have pancakes or cereal for breakfast. These are story adjectives, and like in sentence structure, if you use too many adjectives and not enough verbs or nouns, the sentence becomes shallow, flowery, and only a good example of purple prose.

Review your work for any descents that don't directly relate to the plot of the novel. Ask your characters what events, directly reflective of their personalities, they take next. If you find there is need for a change, it may not be necessary to scrap what actually occurs, but to add to it-to make it relevant and layer in hooks for the following valley and peak.

In the next part, we'll discuss how to hook the descent, valley, and ascent for the peaks of your story, as well as an exercise to offer some hands on experience in perfecting your pace. If you have questions, please feel free to ask. Enjoy your day!


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