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Posts tagged ‘pacing’

Stories – Knowing what to leave out

“You need emotion to make a story compelling. But every story is really just a sequence of events that need to be told in the right order. Extraneous information slows a story down and can have people wondering about the ultimate point. It’s like telling a joke: You don’t go on detours about what the chicken was doing for the last three weeks before it crossed the road. You tell only the parts that propel the joke forward. The same applies to storytelling.” – Art of Charm

Campfires draw storytellers and audiences like moths to flames. The forest primeval, moon and stars, unknown animals hiding in the darkness, wind soughing through the trees, branches that snap, cries of birds, isolation from well-lit, safe, and civilized places, all these combine into a natural arena for the telling of tales.

If you read through sites like the Art of Charm, you’ll find many tips for telling a captivating story (with or without the campfire), including understanding that “Every story has an emotional core, and that emotional core is how the storyteller feels about the events they’re describing. Everything else is just window dressing.”

Don’t Duplicate Reality

Ineffective storytellers and those who can’t seem to tell a joke properly often think more is more. They not only put into too much window dressing but tell you how the windows were made and installed. The result is tedious because it’s not really a story, it’s a transcript.

While short passages of transcript-like, step-by-step narration can add impact, they usually destroy impact. They have all the excitement of a 24-hour webcam. The author and the storyteller must determine what’s not essential, what destroys the pacing, that dilutes the excitement and the fear and the derring-do.

Writing guidebooks frequently use the examples showing the difference between a recording of a real-life conversation and the same conversation as distilled by an author or a storyteller (because amateurs frequently believe that duplicating real life is the best way to convey a realistic story). While some say our lives are large-order stories, slices of life are not stories. For one thing, the reader/audience cannot spend the same amount of time reading or hearing a story as the same event took to unfold in front of that 24-hour webcam. Yes, you can say the webcam footage is real. But here’s the thing: real isn’t a story.

The successful author and captivating campfire storyteller will leave out most of that the webcam shows–or what their memories of the actual events they witnessed can recall. If you’re a reporter writing for a daily newspaper, you’ll take the most important moments of that webcam footage or that memory and put them first. Then you follow that up with increasingly minor details. That style is called the inverted pyramid because the most important stuff comes first.

Efficiently Moving from Beginning to End

The storyteller and the author do the exact opposite. They place the most important stuff at–or near the end–of their story or novel. As the story unfolds, the writer and the storyteller are very conscious about going from beginning to end in a dramatic way whether the story is driven by the plot or by a character. When thinking about what to leave in or leave out, the key is: does this fact, conversation, description, or thought propel the story forward? If not, it doesn’t belong there because it’s more transcript than art.

When a good editor says, “you need to tighten this up,” s/he means that the writer didn’t leave out enough of the stuff s/he should have left out and/or that even the important sentences are filled with extra words. When the Art of Charm says that the storyteller’s feelings about the story art important, we can take this advice in many ways. One way is that if the writer or storyteller doesn’t care, then neither will the readers or campfire audience. Another way is that when the writer or storyteller cares a lot, s/he will find it easier to pinpoint which “extra” scenes, descriptions, and dialogue weaken the tale-telling experience.

Knowing what to leave out is a true part of the art and craft of keeping the reader’s and listener’s participative attention.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

How to destroy the pacing of your story

thrillerNovelists trick us in multiple ways in order to ramp up the suspense of a story. Important facts are concealed, backstories aren’t revealed, and point of view is shifted from one character to another keeping readers outside the head of the person whose thoughts would reveal important clues.

One trick annoys me, probably annoys others, and disrupts the pacing of the story. Let’s call this “hurry up and wait.” Here’s an example:

The Bomb

Joe opened the suitcase. There is was: enough C4 to level the building and a timer with ten seconds left in the countdown. The timer was old, sounded like a plastic clock.

The tick tock, tick tock reminded him of summer evenings at the lake when Dad not only woke him at the crack of dawn, but kept him awake most of the night with a loudly ticking alarm clock. Every time it woke him, he lay there waiting for it to go off in an explosion of bells and sunshine. Before the left the old cabin, he threw that darned clock in the lake, hoping a gator might eat it. He had to smile in spite of the bomb in the suitcase. If Dad were alive and sitting here next to him, he would love the sound of that timer.

When a story is racing toward a critical moment, stopping the action for an absurd reason cheats the reader, for it builds tension where there should already be enough tension to cover the action.  In this example:

  1. No sane person faced with a bomb with just seconds to defuse is going to walk down memory lane in his thoughts. He will run, throw the bomb out a window, or defuse it.
  2. Some novelists don’t pay attention to the time it takes a reader to read a passage. I always note it. In this case, the bomb will explode before Joe finishes his thoughts about the lake and the clock simply because the thought takes more time than he has.

A similar sin, somewhat less grievous, is the insertion of backstory information into a scene where, in reality, there’s no time for it. Now, if you’re a reader or a writer who isn’t concerned with the amount of time thoughts and memories take to occur, this won’t bother you as much as it bothers me. Consider this:

The Highway

Sue lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out the open window of the car. Goodness knows, she was driving fast enough for the wind to draw everything out the window including her soft voice, her hair and the gnats that took over the car while they were parked at a rest stop.

“What are we going to tell our parents when we get there,” she asked.

“If you’ll slow down,” said Jim, “we’ll have more time to come up with an elaborate lie.”

She laughed, looked at him sideways, and punched his shoulder gently.

“I’m eight months pregnant,” she said. “What kind of elaborate lie do you propose.”

Other than how she happened to get pregnant, Sue was forever practical. He preferred jokes and delays and white lies. If he could think of a real whopper, he would resort to that. This road was a highway of lies because it connected their hometown with the beach cottages. Things happened at those cottages. Always had. The road home, lined with saw palmetto and scrub oak and a few longleaf pines, was a fertile ground for fibs, large and small. They literally fell out of the trees. If they’d been fish, they would have jumped into his boat. Sue felt uncomfortable with lies. That’s why she drove down this road faster than the law allowed.

“You’ve been overeating,” he suggested.

Okay, maybe there’s some relevance in the fact Jim uses the road as a time and place for covering up whatever he did at the beach.

  1. Nonetheless, this diversion destroys what was developing as a back-and-forth dialogue of short sentences. The pace one can create with that kind of dialogue gets derailed with the intrusion of a giant paragraph of information.
  2. Plus, I feel like asking the author exactly what Sue is doing while Jim has this multi-sentence thought. Yes, sooner or later such conversations have to end. But not before they’re naturally over.

Pacing can help a writer’s work or destroy it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of personal taste. If you read your stuff aloud, you’ll hear the pacing as surely as you hear the rhythm of a song on the radio. The pace not only needs to feel right, it needs to make logical sense. I think it’s illogical for a man defusing a bomb to think about something else, and I think most people having a conversation would be saying “Jim, Jim, Earth to Jim” before Jim finished his thoughts about the road and the lies he found on it.

Pitch-perfect pacing keeps the thrills in your thriller.

My two cents for a Monday afternoon.

–Malcolm