Logical Flow Propels Pacing

As we look at this item about pacing, it may sound familiar, because it is related to plot:

Events flow logically in cause-and-effect relationships.

That is, each scene doesn’t just happen after the prior scene, it happens because of the prior scene.

When events flow from one to the other in a cascade of causes and effects, you have a plot that is profluent. We did discuss this idea before, especially under the organic model proposed by Steven James in his book Story Trumps Structure.

Writing instructors don’t often use the word profluent, and it’s a shame. I learned it from John Gardner, who uses it in his book The Art of Fiction.

You’ll notice that profluent has the same Latin root, fluere, as fluid. A profluent plot is one that runs like a river down its course. Some stories are white water, and some are gentle streams. Either way, a profluent plot carries the readers along like leaves caught in a current. They will be drawn deeper into the story by the need to find out what effects will result from the causes you’ve set up in each scene.


Photo by Peter Mazurek • freeimages.com

At this stage of editing, examine your scenes to make sure they feed into one another like a series of waterfalls. Each plotline can be thought of as its own stream. Within each stream, make sure that the causes of each happening are at least hinted at in a previous scene.

You don’t have to dramatize every single cause before you show its effect, but beware of skipping over things the reader may care about. If the hero’s airline flight is cancelled, you might want to skip over his six-hour wait for another flight. But if the wait causes him to become short-tempered and start a fight with his seatmate, then we’ll want to see a hint of the frustration and temper building. If the fight comes out of nowhere, simply because it seems to serve the plot, it will feel unnatural, like a bucket of Gatorade suddenly poured into the stream.

You needn’t stay with each plotline continually. Flitting back and forth among them, like a bird visiting multiple rivers, is an excellent fiction technique, as it will build reader interest about what’s going on in the other streams.

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Tension Keeps Readers Turning Pages

Writing teachers often say there should be “conflict” in every scene. There’s a problem with this, because too many writers think this means everyone always has to be arguing with everyone else. As if no two characters can ever agree on anything.

There’s a difference between conflict and tension. We talked about that before, in the plot section.

In terms of Pacing, tension has a different use:

Tension is appropriate to genre and keeps reader turning pages.

That note “appropriate to genre” is important. Continue reading

Pacing is a matter of proportion

Pacing is one of the more difficult elements of fiction because it is so subjective. A reader who loves rich description will enjoy a scene that lingers over the setting details, while another reader will complain that it’s slow and boring. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of pacing we can apply to our novels to broaden the appeal to more readers.

Pacing is proportional. If you spend lots of time on the important parts of your story, and less time on the least important parts, you’re off to a good start. This means analyzing your first draft to see whether you have, as I once did, characters sitting down for lengthy conversations about “what happened back home after we left,” and then rushing through the fight scenes. Continue reading

Is your epilogue necessary?

Everything that’s true for prologues goes for epilogues as well.

Epilogue, if used, is necessary and engaging.

It’s not enough that your epilogue be sweet and show how your characters live happily ever after. It has to wrap up the story in a way that, if it were omitted, the reader would feel some loose end was left hanging.

Generally speaking, most of your loose ends will be tied up either right before the climax or during it. Whatever’s left is tied up during the denouement. The only good reason for using an epilogue is if there’s a big gap in time between the denouement and the last story question that needs closure. Then it might be appropriate to have an epilogue to close up that one last matter. Continue reading

Editing is like construction: seal the joints

When you’re renovating a house and you put up new drywall, you have to seal the joints with putty so that when the wall is painted, the joins between the drywall don’t show. Sometimes our first drafts need a similar treatment.

Vestiges of earlier versions have been edited into the current version seamlessly.

When writing the first draft—and sometimes the second or third—we often discover things about our characters that we didn’t know before, or new plot twists turn up, or we make new worldbuilding choices. The result can sometimes look ask if we built our draft out of scrap lumber rather than uniform drywall. Continue reading

Transitions are key to maintaining story flow

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist has to do with continuity:

Transitions clearly show how much time has elapsed and show how events relate to each other.

At the start of each scene, and especially at the start of chapters, give the reader some clues to where they are and how much time has elapsed. You don’t have to give exact dates unless you are writing historical fiction and they are important. You can use phrases like “Three days later, they arrived in the capital city.” Or, “The ship reached America shortly after midsummer.”

time transition

Illustration by magicmarie • freeimages.com

Subtler cues can work even better. If chapter eleven is set in the summer, and you open chapter twelve with red and brown leaves falling from the trees, the reader will know a few months have gone by. If years have gone by, you’ll need some more obvious signal, like a toddler in chapter eleven who’s ready for kindergarten in chapter twelve.

Often exact time frames are not necessary to your story, and leaving yourself some margin can be helpful. Exactly how long would it take to travel by horse from Savannah to Boston in 1855? Given the state of roads at the time, it could vary widely depending on the weather and other factors. If you’re not detailing the whole trip, it may not matter. You could just show the character arriving in Boston and saying something like, “That trip was so long I thought it would never end.”

You don’t have to be precise, as long as you give the reader enough to be grounded in the correct time and place each time there’s a shift.

Digital publishing does not impair sales

Pardon me while I take a break from the Elements of Fiction series to address this article published by the New York Times: “I Was a Digital Best Seller!”

The writer, Tony Horwitz, calls his story “a cautionary farce about the new media and technology we’re so often told is the bright shining future for writers and readers.”

The short version: Horwitz was promised a hefty advance to do a long-form investigative journalism piece about the Keystone XL pipeline. First the financial backer pulled out, and then his digital-only publisher ran into some trouble. Continue reading