I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:
Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?
There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.
In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.
First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening. When to speed up or slow down?
This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.
Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.
More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.
So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along. How to keep the sense of pace?
This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.
This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)
Where to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion
And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).
The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.
Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?
Yes and no.
Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.
Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.
There’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.
NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies
So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here. Follow this link and go to Facebook.
Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
This post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?
Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:
‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:
‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’
‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’
Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…
‘But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
3 and 4-act structure
In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.
Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.
Back to rules
… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.
This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.
Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler
Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?
How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?
The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…
What are we talking about?
Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).
Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.
Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)
How exact do these act points have to be?
If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.
Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:
Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around
They do indeed. And that’s good.
Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.
Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.
Equal but not equal
Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)
Act 1 contains set-up, which has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)
In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.
In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.
Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.
Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.
Novels aren’t movies
Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.
So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!
How do you end up as a fiction writer? Some people learn to use their word skills for a career, then also discover a strong creative calling. My guest today, Ann S Epstein, wrote psychology papers for many years and then discovered joy in writing fiction. Now she has a solid catalogue of published short stories, a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her fourth work of longform historical fiction, The Great Stork Derby is released this week. We talk about this – and many other moments that slowly added up to Ann S Epstein, author.
Ann, was your family creative in any way or are you an outlier?
I didn’t grow up in a creative family, although my mother taught us to appreciate art and music. My father liked to make things for our small Bronx apartment, but these were primarily utilitarian: radiator covers, storage chests, and step stools. (I come from a line of very short people.) As a child, I loved to draw and write, and continued these activities long after my friends abandoned them. However, the arts were seen as a “hobby,” not a means of livelihood.
My brother and I both became social scientists – he an anthropologist, me a psychologist – and we each produced a lot of professional writing, but not creative writing. And yet, at some point later in adulthood, he began to write poetry and I started to write fiction.
Tell me more about that.
I thought it would be fun to try writing fiction when I retired. Then I asked myself, “Why wait? Why not give a go now?” So, I did, and I loved it.
Have you taken formal instruction in writing?
I’ve taken a couple of classes and several workshops, but most of what I’ve learned has come from being a long-time member of two fantastic critique groups. We’re supportive and encouraging, but also honest in our feedback. Our participation stems from a need to improve, not to be patted on the back. (Or skewered.)
I learn as much by reading and giving thoughtful feedback to others as I do from receiving their input about my work. We celebrate one another’s successes and, perhaps best of all, commiserate over our inevitable rejections.
I’ve also learned from developmental editors who make me think about what I’ve written. Their ideas and questions push me to go deeper and wider.
You also have a PhD in developmental psychology and an MFA in textiles. What fulfils you about these disciplines?
My 40-plus years as a developmental psychologist were extremely gratifying. I was a researcher and curriculum developer at an educational nonprofit foundation whose mission was helping at-risk children and their families and teachers. One of my books, The Intentional Teacher (published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children) remains a bestseller in the field, and has been translated into several languages. I still hear from readers around the world about how the book affected their relationships with children and the adults who work with them. Knowing that the foundation’s work, and my contribution to it, made a significant difference in the quality of their lives reassures me that my chosen career was meaningful.
I actually got my MFA 10 years after my PhD. As I said, I never stopped making art. In addition to drawing, I loved working with fibre. While I was in graduate school in psychology, macrame was the big thing. (I’m still doing penance for creating knotted and beaded jute wall hangings and planters.) The local YMCA offered a class in weaving. I signed up and immediately knew I’d found my medium.
Do they find their way into your writing?
Psychology and art certainly do. My character-driven stories explore relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers and even the nameless people we cross paths with who make us wonder about their lives, and our own. I’m intrigued by the challenge of making an “unlikable” character sympathetic by humanizing them.
My immersion in art makes me attentive to imagery. And I love textiles because of how fibre feels passing through my fingers. The act of weaving — feet pounding on treadles, heddles clanking up and down, shuttles flying back and forth — establishes a noisy whole-body rhythm. Each type of yarn, plant or animal, has its own smell.
Ultimately, in art or writing, I try to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying whole.
What non-writing jobs have you done/ do you still do?
In college, I worked summers at an office and a bank. In graduate school, I was a research assistant and a teaching fellow. After I got the MFA, I changed my schedule at the nonprofit to four, 10-hour days, and used the fifth weekday (and weekends) to make art. I exhibited my work in dozens of shows, and sold several large pieces to corporate clients. Later, when I began writing, I kept the same schedule and shifted some hours from creating at the loom to the keyboard.
I’m also a firm believer in (unpaid) community service. In high school, I was a Junior Red Cross volunteer. In college, I was active in the civil rights movement and tutored youth from low-income families. I currently serve on the board of my Jewish community centre.
You have four novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. What makes an Ann S Epstein work?
My work is character driven, both inner and relational, but I’m also attentive to plot as the driver of each character’s arc. The people I write about might be called underdogs or outsiders, those who are discriminated against because of poverty, religion, race or ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, handicap or other otherness.
My characters come from diverse backgrounds (gender, religion, race and ethnicity, countries) and ages (very young to very old). I favour ambiguity over tidy endings; I want readers to keep writing the story in their own heads. I’m not a nihilist or pessimist, but I accept that people are flawed. Yet I believe that hope is a renewable resource. Many of my works are historical.
Any signature periods or settings?
They are set in the years from before WWI to after WWII, but bear messages for today. The novels often span several decades so that parts are more contemporary. I love researching the periods I write about, but my emphasis is on fiction, not history. Other than being a stickler for certain details (I abhor anachronisms), I invent people and events as long as they’re consistent with the time, place, and culture I’m writing about. I’m delighted, after finishing a manuscript, if I can no longer remember what is real and what I invented.
On your website you have a quote about Susan Sontag. To paraphrase: becoming a writer is a long process of apprenticeship and failure. You comment that you find this reassuring as you look at your own evolution as a writer. I can certainly identify with that. The first novel of my own that I published (after I was a ghostwriter) was a book I’d been incubating for about 18 years. I sent it to publishers and agents, who were encouraging, but really I was trying to write something I wasn’t ready for. Eventually I wrote that novel properly, and it taught me to be the writer I am now. So that’s what ‘apprenticeship’ looked like for me – and of course apprenticeship never ends. What did apprenticeship look like for you?
In the two decades I’ve been writing fiction, perhaps the greatest change was having the courage to write about things that were NOT part of my own experience. My early stories were inspired by the people and events that populated my childhood. However, I quickly learned the freedom of writing from my imagination, not my memories, although I’ll draw on the latter to add details.
Not having formally studied creative writing, my apprenticeship has meant incrementally mastering the craft, including how to write dialogue, where to start a story (endings are easier for me; beginnings are harder to nail), and when to kill my darlings. Like every writer, I’ve learned the importance of (re, re, re) revision.
Me too. I’m a total reviser. Revision is where I do my most creative work.
I also read differently than before I began to write. I’m not overly analytical (that would drain the pleasure), but I’m more aware of the mastery behind a passage that makes me stop in admiration, awe, and (I admit) an appreciative twinge of envy.
How did you end up at Vine Leaves Press?
In December 2015, I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers and sent a query for On the Shore. Two months later VLP requested the full manuscript and the following month they wrote that they wanted to publish the novel and included an amazing review by Peter Snell.
The bookseller Peter Snell! We’re good friends! I might even have introduced him to VLP/ (BTW, I feel I should mention our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer…)
Peter has also given the go-ahead to my two other VLP books, Tazia and Gemma and now The Great Stork Derby. Pending the response to this third book, VLP has also accepted a fourth. So, I’m among those fortunate authors who can laud and thank Peter for being our gateway to VLP publication.
An unexpected benefit has been joining the international VLP community. Not only do its members connect with a group of talented writers and staff, we support one another through every stage of the publication process, and cheer our individual and collective achievements in the literary world at large. I’m in awe of what Jessica Bell has created and continues to innovate and build upon.
Ann, tell me about your latest release, The Great Stork Derby.
Based on a bizarre but real event in Canadian history, The Great Stork Derby begins with a husband pressuring his wife to have babies to win a large cash prize. In 1926, an eccentric millionaire leaves most of his estate to the Toronto woman who has the most babies in the 10 years following his death. Emm Benbow convinces his wife, Izora, to enter the contest. His ambition becomes an obsession and Emm ends up disappointed by his large family and alienated from his children. Fifty years later, and now a widower, Emm is told by his doctor that he can no longer live alone. He can either go to a dreaded old age home, or move in with one of his disaffected offspring. The novel follows Emm as he tries living in turn with each of his adult children and attempts to learn that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.
That’s quite a concept.
The idea came when I stumbled on this weird event. As often happens with me, I knew there was a story, but the question was “What?” Or more accurately, “Whose?”
To find the heart of a story, I must first decide whose point of view to tell it from. An idea may incubate for years before that “aha” moment. My original short story covered the 10 years of the stork derby itself, written from the wife’s perspective. When I envisioned the novel, I knew it had to be from the husband’s viewpoint. As I said, I love the challenge of turning an unlikeable character into a sympathetic figure and Emm put me, and I hope readers, to the test.
The period from 1926 to 1976 was also fascinating to research. It encompassed the Depression, WWII, post-war boom, and emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements. So, another challenge was imagining how these societal developments affected the development of the Benbow parents and siblings. I had lots of threads to interweave in this book.
You’ve also written memoir essays. Has your memoir informed your work in fiction?
Both memoir and fiction involve storytelling. Character drives both. And creative nonfiction employs the structure and rhythm of fiction, that is, character(s) follow an arc or trajectory. They have desires, face setbacks, make discoveries, and either evolve or fail to change.
How do you think creativity operates in non-fiction if it must be based on fact?
I think of fiction as construction and memoir as reconstruction. Both mix fact and fiction. Fiction has elements of fact (such as details of time and place, the truth of human nature). And memoir is not strictly factual, but rather an honest attempt at recall. Writers and readers of memoir sign a contract in which they agree to accept that the events and people are described ‘as best remembered’.
To me, what makes memoir interesting is not a mere recitation of what happened, but the writer’s reflection and analysis. Unearthing what lies below the surface, letting the mind play with the message underlying the facts, makes the piece creative. And meaningful — to write, and to read.
Do you teach writing in any form?
For many years, I taught workshops on grant-writing, which I was very successful at; I brought in millions of dollars (public and private) for the nonprofit I worked for. The people who attended my workshops tended to be from small agencies in search of operational funds so they could serve their target audiences: children and families from low-income, minority or immigrant backgrounds.
I taught by putting students in the position of the people deciding who to grant the money to. I distributed five sample proposals that I had written, each with strengths and weaknesses, then had them debate who to grant the award(s) to. They learned from sitting on the other side of the table. I see this method as analogous to my saying we learn as much from critiquing others’ work as we do from getting feedback on our own.
You seem prolific as a short story writer. What’s your working routine like?
I don’t have a routine in the sense of sitting from X to Y o’clock at the computer, or producing a minimum number of words a day. That said, I write — or do writing tasks such as submissions or critiquing — pretty much every day, including weekends. Quite simply, I like to work! I’m an early riser, so I get an early start. I’ll usually knock off mid- to late afternoon to work in the yard, go for a walk or read. Around 5:00 PM, I head two blocks east for my daily playdate with my grandsons, aged nine and five. I keep paper and pencil handy during dinner (also at my bedside) to jot down thoughts that pop up. I think a writer’s mind never stops churning.
I mentioned I’m short. My work space where my laptop sits is an old oak kindergarten table (with child-size chairs) and I’m writing by hand at a child’s roll top desk (also antique).
Do you have any tips for submitting to literary publications?
Perseverance! You never know when something you’ve written will resonate with a reader or editor. I’ve submitted some stories dozens of times before they found a home. That said, don’t submit blindly. Learn what type of work each journal publishes and if/when you have a piece that fits (or are inspired to write one), send it in. And every time you get a response that says “Your submission wasn’t the right fit this time, but we’d love to read more,” take heart. I keep a folder labelled “Encouraging rejections.”
What question about writing do you find hardest to answer?
‘Where do your ideas originate?’ Occasionally I can trace when something I read or heard ignited a spark, but the path to the endpoint is too circuitous to pinpoint the exact source. As I craft each character or scene, I often ask myself, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’
No wonder the Greeks invented muses. Dipping into the creative well is like dunking a bucket blindly and seeing what you pull up. Thank goodness, my bucket has never come up empty.
An easy question, often asked by new writers, is how to go about writing. Should one write every day? If so, how many words? Is it best to knock out a first draft and revise it later? Should one make an outline or follow wherever the writing leads?
My answer is that there are no ‘shoulds’. My colleagues each employ a different method that suits them. So, I say, experiment and find what works for you.
Also on your website is another quote I love – from a personal essay by Peter Schjeldahl, which (in your words) ‘captures the “Did I really write that?” sensation. Writing is a present/absent process. One is at once fully immersed in the act, yet also removed to another plane’. Now you’re leaving The Great Stork Derby behind, what are your feelings? Do you want to linger with the characters and world?
My characters never leave me. Once I enter their world, I continue to occupy it. I think that’s why those with whom I’ve become deeply embedded migrate from a story to a novel. (And why they were great company during my solitary pandemic lockdown.)
However, once I complete a novel, while I may stop in to say ‘Hi’, I rarely linger. Recently, though, I pondered writing a prequel to a book I finished not long ago. The completed novel, which follows the seesawing friendship of two women from their teens to their 70s, touches on their traumatic childhoods as WWII orphans and I’d love to explore those early years in depth. The Great Stork Derby has a large cast of intriguing characters. Maybe someday, I’ll write about Emm’s death and the continuing lives of his many children over the next 50 years.
I’ve had this great question from a reader: Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.
I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?
What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.
First: expand your story ideas
A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.
Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.
I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.
You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.
Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.
Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).
And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)
So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.
Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)
In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.
As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)
And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.
You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.
I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng: I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?
Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.
Spinal Tap were hoping it would be bigger
How much do you plan?
Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)
Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)
Go the distance
When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.
Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)
What to enlarge
So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.
Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.
Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.
The wonders of revision
Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.
You can’t read much about writing advice before you trip over an essay about story structure, and how it works invisible magic on the reader. My guest this week has used sophisticated musical structures as the skeleton of his fantasy series, a series of nested reincarnation tales inspired by The Thousand and One Nights – and his influences range from Alban Berg to Frank Zappa. For him, music does not so much conjure up a scene or a character as an entire shape, of how an idea moves into a story and where it eventually goes. He is uniquely qualified to do so, as he is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the dance faculties of UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school (though he has not yet said if he is reincarnated). Stephen Weinstock is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
SHORT BREAK I’ll be taking a short break from blogging but will be back with a post on 30 November.
I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.
How is it done?
With constant development and change.
You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.
Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.
Video and music
If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.
Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).
Law of physics
So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.
How can we do this in stories?
1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.
2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.) Another type of repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.
3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.
4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.
5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.
Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …
I’ve had this email from Henry Boleszny, who is struggling with unwieldy back story:
My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster. I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins. This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.
The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.
Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.
Solution 1 – Try to simplify
DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?
I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.
From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.
Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?
If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.
Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).
Solution 2 – the opposite – expand and write the prequel
You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.
For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.
You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.
Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of AGame of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.
Solution 3 – add a newcomer
Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)
You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’sLyonesse series.