Tag Archives: pacing

Dissecting the Scene: plot points #amwriting

Scenes are the Legos, the building blocks of the story. We all loved building things with our Legos, but readers are impatient. For that reason, no scene can be wasted, written just to entertain us, the writer. All of those scenes are background and world building, and should be saved in a separate file.

We want to ensure that each scene has a function. When I am writing the first or even the second draft, I can find myself at a loss as to what needs to happen next to advance the story.

I keep a list of plot points that could be explored and try to nudge my plot forward by exploring one of these actions:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Reunion
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Deep emotions

Exploring each of these plot points alters the characters’ view of their world. Every change in a character’s awareness directly impacts the direction of the story and doles out information the reader and/or the characters require to advance.

I like to use a watershed scene from the book, the Fellowship of the Ring, as an example of this. If you have only seen the movie, the version you know is quite different. You haven’t seen the real story as J.R.R. himself told it.

So, toward the end of book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, we come to The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each character attending the Council has arrived there on a separate errand. Each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their various agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the ring of power. Each wants to protect their people from Sauron’s depredations if he were to regain possession of it.

This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond conveys information to both the protagonists and the reader.

It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy necessary information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Inter-racial bigotry and confrontation: A well-placed verbal confrontation gives the reader the context they need to understand why the action occurs.

At the Council of Elrond, long-simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Thus, we have action/confrontation in this vignette, followed by conversation, followed by the characters’ reactions.

The conversation and reaction give the scene context, which is critical. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated.

First, Tom Bombadil is mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see Sauron as a problem.

Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another.

Each justification Gandalf and Elrond offer for why these characters are wrong for the job deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This moment is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision about who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to one day.)

The arc of the story is supported by smaller arcs. These arcs of conflict and reflection are scenes.

The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions; the scene ends, and with it, so does that chapter.

Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. This rhythm of action – reaction – action – reaction is how we adjust the pacing. Pacing is how we affect the reader’s emotions.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist is shaped by experiencing events and receiving needed information through action and conversation.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel.

By creating small arcs, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel at the same time as the protagonist does. This is how we give the reader a sense of immediacy.


Credits and Attributions:

Facade of the Cathedral of Milan, Italy, in February 2009, after its cleaning.  MarkusMark, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Thoughts on narrative perspective part 2: closeup on the antagonist #amwriting

For scriptwriters, the closeup is an essential aspect of pacing. It focuses on one character and shows us details about them and their role that they (the characters) might not be aware of. This importance transfers over to how we show scenes in our written narratives. To get the most out of our words, we who write stories must frame our scenes the way scriptwriters do theirs.

We vary the narrative distance, which is our best tool to show humanity in our characters. The wide view shows the protagonist and their companions as they move through their environment.

Then we narrow the focus, perhaps take it down to a conversation between two people. One person drops out of the conversation, and we are left with the closeup view of our protagonist.

At our closest to them, we are in their heads. We hear their mental ruminations in real-time. By listening to this voice, the reader sees what the characters believe is at stake and how weak or strong they consider their position.

When we are drawn into a character’s head, we view them through the mirror in which they see themselves.

What we, as authors, have to consider is how that mirror is distorted. Never forget that all self-reflections are skewed, often to the positive, but usually toward the negative. We see flaws in ourselves that no one else does, so we don’t usually see ourselves as heroes.

This is because we subconsciously compare ourselves to others. We observe their abilities and are acutely aware of our own vulnerabilities in comparison. So, we strive to better ourselves.

Through manipulating the narrative distance, the author shows how the protagonist regards their companions, and what kind of people they are.

Sometimes, it raises the stakes if the author writes a chapter focusing on the antagonist. Take this opportunity to show us who the antagonist sees when they gaze into the mirror of self-reflection. Since nothing happens without a root cause, we can learn why they oppose the protagonist, and what their strengths are.

Now here is where we can make things interesting. What if the antagonist isn’t trying to be wicked? What if they are fighting for what they believe is the right thing? What if, in their view, they are the heroes who have the moral high ground?

Think of how much evil has come out of civil wars in humanity’s history. Then consider how firmly the opposite sides believed in their moral superiority, and what was lost or gained in the end. All interpersonal disputes are wars, just on a lesser scale.

How will you choose to show this on a smaller, personal level? The closeup shows us who the antagonist believes they are and why they have the right to oppose the protagonist.

Sometimes, if the writer shows little sympathy for the devil, it raises the emotional stakes.

Readers want to understand why the action is happening. Both sides need an opportunity to explore what they perceive as the conflict’s fundamental cause.

Authors show this through internal dialogue, moving out to a broader view with conversations, and expanding again to an external narrative.

As a reader, having hints of what is at stake for the opposition makes me care about the outcome. With the relationship established, we can widen the picture and show what is at stake for both sides. I want to feel a little compassion, or if not that, I want to understand how failing will change the losers’ lives.

Good pacing of narrative distance—moving in close, then widening out, and then moving back in—adds emotional power to the story. This tempo allows the reader to process the information and action at the same time as the characters.

Keep the stakes high and the emotions intense, and I will stay immersed in that book.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Before the Mirror.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Before_the_Mirror.jpg&oldid=462235289 (accessed October 6, 2020).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mirror of the souls.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mirror_of_the_souls.jpg&oldid=478982509 (accessed October 6, 2020).

7 Comments

Filed under writing

The Pyramid of Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle, and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or the way they write prose.

Scenes involving conflict are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author.

Stories that lack conflict are just character studies.

A story that opens with a teenager leaving her parents’ home, angry, then meeting a manager on a bus and being offered a gig as lead guitar player for a big-name band, and ending on that happy note lacks conflict. It is a case of authorly wish-fulfilment.

An angry, naïve teenager and a “successful manager” on a bus…what could possibly go wrong? The roadblocks and obstacles that happen between her leaving home and finally gaining success are conflict, and they are what makes a story more than just a character study.

First, if it is a violent confrontation, there must be a logical reason for the problem. Don’t insert a fight just because you can’t think of any other way to liven things up. Most people have to be pushed into angry confrontations. The emotional triggers that cause them to snap must make sense to a reader and be logical within the established storyline.

Long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. For that reason, I keep my violence concise and linear.

I’ve read books where the authors focused too firmly on the technical side of the fight. Too many words were spent on how they were dressed, who hit who with what weapon, in minute detail. Yes, these are necessary elements of the scene. Just remember that long paragraphs with too much detail can be confusing to the reader.

Conflict is not only fighting.

Conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Overcoming the opposition is the reward for sticking with the story.

No one is going to stick with a novel where random, convoluted quarrels and roadblocks happen for no good reason. The most important consideration in plotting conflict is need.

What does the protagonist gain by overcoming it?

Why did it happen?

What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?

Let’s look at Billy Ninefingers. Besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the opening fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals to accomplish with the inciting incident.

First, I knew one of the fundamental laws of writing; that plausible literary conflict is not random.

For Billy’s plight to be believable, the reader must see that the Bastard is jealous of his success and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. Because the conflict is not random, the reader must later be allowed to discover how the Bastard is manipulated, why he’s being used in this way, and by whom.

In the resolution of the initial scene, my intention was to demonstrate that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.

Billy’s resilience, his creativity, and how he overcomes one roadblock after another despite his maimed hand is the story.

In other words, conflict drives and forces the momentum of the story. It must stir emotions in the reader. The reader must feel the sense of justification or sorrow or triumph that the protagonist experiences with each interaction.

Tension is experienced during the build-up to an incident. The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another. In maintaining good tension, the author keeps the pressure on, raising the anxiety by always raising the stakes.

Pacing is the underpinning, the way the scenes are structured. As our narrative follows the arc of the story, our characters experience action and reaction. The story has a feeling of life, almost as if it is breathing. It moves forward, then allows a brief moment where the reader and the protagonist process what just happened, and then it moves forward again. The speed with which these things occur is called “pacing.”

Pacing allows the conflict to continue raising the tension yet gives both the reader and the protagonists a chance to rest between incidents.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing the first draft of any action scene is to ensure that each character remains a unique individual. A blurring of personalities is a problem that occurs when an author focuses too intently on the mechanics, the action and interaction of a scene, writing it as if they lived it.

For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense. But you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper.

Tension is heightened as scenes are connected to each other, and more deadlines and showdowns approach. This feeling of subtle anxiety is controlled by pacing.

Thus, the plot of any story is composed of a triangle formed by conflict and tension, set on a foundation of good pacing.

On the positive side, once we get the pacing right, it’s easier to use the conflict to ratchet up the tension.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: Revisions

Book- onstruction-sign copyI am in the process of making revisions on my next novel, Billy Ninefingers. This book was partially written in 2013 during NaNoWriMo, but was only recently completed. Now I am deep into revisions.

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

We can easily lose track of that arc when we are in the throes of writing our first draft.

Underpinning the larger story arc is another, more fundamental arc to consider. At the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is a scene.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.

If you discover that you have lost the plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happened to me in 2015 when I was trying to finish the book, Valley of Sorrows. The book was to wrap up Edwin’s story, but I became sidetracked with his father’s story. I ended up separating John’s story out of the book, and giving him his own novel, The Wayward Son.

In order to write Valley of Sorrows, I had to re-connect with what the story really was about, and place it in the context of the overall series:

  1. In the case of my derailed book, the series dealt with Edwin’s story.
  2. What was his problem? He was separated from his wife and child because of his task on behalf of the Goddess Aeos. He had endured losing a man who was a brother to him while he was in Mal Evol. However, things had happened in Aeoven during his absence (an attack on his family, his wife’s miscarriage and subsequent breakdown). Unfortunately, he had a task only he could do,which kept him away from his wife and son.
  3. Completion of his task took us to the 3rd plot point of the novel.
  4. Hunting  the acolyte of Tauron and the final battle in Aeoven resolved the story.
  5. What I had to remind myself was this: No conversation could happen unless it advanced the plot of Edwin’s story. Because the World of Neveyah is an ongoing series, anything that did not pertain to Valley of Sorrows could be cut, saved, and used in a later story.

While you are doing all of this, consider the length of your chapters.This is where pacing comes into play. Remember, pacing is the rise and fall of the action, the ebb and flow of conversations.

Courtney Carpenter, writing for Writers Digest, says “Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story.”

How long are the chapters in your novel?

lessons-from-a-lifetime-david-morrellIn his book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, action/adventure author, David Morrell (creator of the Rambo character, among others), says he tries to write short chapters, so that a reader can complete one chapter (or structural unit) at one sitting.

He bases his ideas on two essays by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle.”

Part of this is about pacing, because it’s about keeping the reader’s attention. Morrell says he keeps his structural units small in order to accommodate the reader’s bladder, TV interruptions, phone calls, a neighbor who drops in, etc.

Each chapter should be as long as it needs to be for your novel. Write what works for you, but as a reader I suggest you consider shorter chapters which can be read at one sitting.


For an excellent article on pacing, go to:

7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace, Courtney Carpenter, WritersDigest. com Apr. 24, 2012 (accessed Jan 29, 2017)

6 Comments

Filed under writing