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 •

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

Two flashback-like gimmicks to avoid

Last time we looked at how to use flashbacks effectively.

But in new writers’ stories I often see a couple of ineffective ploys akin to flashbacks. One is what I call the Pointless Flashback—it flashes back to something that happened within the span of the story’s timeline.

A flashback is a fully dramatized scene that shows an event that happened before the story’s timeline. So there’s no reason to use a flashback for something that happens during the story’s timeline.

Here’s what I think leads people to do this. Continue reading

Flashbacks useful if handled carefully

Many writing teachers and critique partners will tell you not to use flashbacks at all.

I’m never one to discard a potentially useful technique. It is possible to use flashbacks, and to do them well. You don’t want to use too many of them, or readers will start to wonder why you didn’t just start the story back then. They absolutely must be necessary to the plot, or why are they there? And they must be written in as engaging a fashion as the rest of your novel.

Flashbacks, if used, are kept to a minimum, are necessary to the plot, and are engaging.

Note that they must be all three, not one or the other. Continue reading