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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: pacing, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Pacing: Listen to Your Gut

By Julie Daines

I'm not much of an outliner. I've tried it before, and it just doesn't seem to work for me. I wish it did because it seems like a much better way to write. But no. For me, I just can't.

So, I'm constantly asked, how do you work out the pacing of your novel?

Good question.

I am now going to divulge my secret and never-before-spoken-out-loud trick.

I listen to my gut.

Here's how it works:

I'm writing a scene. It's going great. The dialogue is fun, the action intense, and the conflict building. Then suddenly, I get this wrenching, panicky feeling right in the middle of my stomach. It says, "Oh my gosh, this is getting too long. You're dragging it out. Something new has to happen. You've got to move on." My blood races and my fingers shake unsteadily on the keyboard.

"MOVE ON!" it screams.

I listen. I wrap it up and move on. On to the next scene and the next plot point.

Is this a scientific method? No. Will you find it on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat beat list? No. But it works--for me.

Our guts--our writer's intuition--can often be our best friend if we take the time to listen. Feed back from critique partners, from beta readers, pacing, character names, character reactions, almost any part of our novel will speak to us.

Take a moment, consider carefully all sides, and listen to your gut. It is your friend.

When have--or when do--your writerly instincts kick in and help you?

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2. Pacing

Get your story moving and keep it moving. 


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3. The Gap

Make your book a page turner by taking advantage of the moment in your characters' lives when the world acts in a way that surprises them. 


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4. Ticking Clock

One of the best ways to increase suspense in a novel is to add a deadline. 


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5. Momentum

There are many ways to speed up or slow down your book's pace. 


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6. Tension on Every Page

Here are some tips to put tension, even if only a little bit, on each page of your manuscript. 


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7. Tighten Your Writing

Improve the pacing of your manuscript by cutting out unnecessary words. 


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8. Timelines: Plotting


Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter
Start Your Novel by Darcy Pattison
  • 29 Plot Templates
  • 2 Essential Writing Skills
  • 100 Examples of Opening Lines
  • 7 Weak Openings to Avoid
  • 4 Strong Openings to Use
  • 3 Assignments to Get Unstuck
  • 7 Problems to Resolve
The Math adds up to one thing: a publishable manuscript. Download a sample chapter on your Kindle.

When you are deep into plotting a new novel or especially, a series, timelines are your friends. It’s a tool that will help straighten out the details and create order.

Obviously, a time line lays out the time period of your novel. Does it take place in 24 hours or does it span 24 years? Within that time span, you’ll want to slot events, reactions, and characters.

Backstory. Using a time line to plan a story probably means you’ll want to include back story events. You can do as much or as little as you need here. Maybe you want to include a character’s birth, baptism or bar mitzvah, high school graduation, or other major life events. You’ll also want to include other major events: parent’s divorce, house burned down, moving to a new school or city, first job and so on.

You can choose to do a separate time line for each person, but I like to have a master timeline where each character’s events are included. If you like, you can get fancy with this and do it on a spread sheet with each character getting a column or a certain color row.

Plot Events. When the events reach the story’s opening, it’s time to start imposing some structure. Dividing the time line into Act 1, 2 and 3 (and 4, if you use that paradigm), makes sense. You’ll want to make sure the story’s time line provides characters a great stage entrance, then introduces events that keep the story rolling. Here’s a great place to start tweaking the pacing of your story.

Ticking Clocks. Speaking of pacing, try introducing a ticking clock: some event must be completed by midnight or unspeakably bad things will happen. If Sherlock Holmes doesn’t solve the crime by midnight, beautiful Aurelia will be the victim of Poe’s pendulum (to mix up a lot of things!).

Edit and Revise. This is also a place where you should edit drastically. If you think up a scene, but can’t decide where to put it–cut it. It’s probably not important to the story anyway. Each scene or event should serve a definite purpose that pulls the reader toward the climactic ending. Some events will have a quiet purpose like characterization or setting p the next scene. OK, as long as there’s some purpose to the scene. Time enough later to Kill-Your- Darlings when you revise the novel.

Messing with the TimeLine. Now that you have the time line laid out, you can actually mess with it, if you like. You could present scenes out of order, with back story coming in as a flashback or even more drastic manipulations of time. The movie, Memento, is about a character with a short term memory problem, which lead to strange time manipulations. If you want to do this, be warned: the younger the audience, the more likely you are to confuse them. Telling a story with a jumbled timeline makes it harder for your reader to understand and enjoy. So, if you decide to go this route, use your best storytelling techniques. Read about flashbacks here or here.

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9. The Lion and the Bird

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucThe Lion and the Bird (Enchanted Lion, 2014)

by Marianne Dubuc

A lion and a bird are not the most obvious of friends. One big, shaggy, and growly, and one small, sleek, and flit-about-y.

But not these two.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucThis lion has rosy cheeks which are insta-endearing and wanders out to his work. Just a lion, working in the garden. That’s when he spots an injured bird.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucSame insta-endearing rosy cheeks.

The lion springs to action. The bird smiles, but the flock has flown away.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucMarianne Dubuc varies the art on the page. Some spot illustrations, some full-bleed. This paces the small, quiet action of the story – the spots create sequential scenes on one spread, moving us forward in time, a full-bleed image slows us down into one moment on the same physical space.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucThe Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucThe two spend the winter together, ice-fishing and fire-watching. It’s cold. But:

Winter doesn’t feel all that cold with a friend.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

No more spots, no more full-bleed. Only white space.

We slow way down. We worry about what’s to come.

But Spring has to come. The flock has to return.

The page turn here is filled with emotion. We see the lion saying a bittersweet goodbye. (How he’s holding his hat in honor is just the most beautiful thing.)The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucThe Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucAnd then, as if we are the flock, he gets smaller. Farther away. Lots of white space.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucTime goes on. (Sometimes the seasons are like that.)

But then.The Lion and the Bird by Marianne DubucA flock of birds. A single note in the white space.

Winter returns, and so does his friend.

In this book, white space moves the story and white space is the story. The moments that seem the most like nothing might actually be the moments that are the most something.

That bird’s solitary trill piercing the air reminds me a bit of this art installation. It’s a combination of movement, music, and art that leaves room for the story in the space left behind. This reminds me of the lion, waiting and listening and hoping.



PS: I’m heading to Las Vegas this weekend for ALA. Will you be there? Would love to say hello!

 Review copy provided by the publisher. All thoughts my own.

Tagged: enchanted lion, full-bleed color, marianne dubuc, pacing, page turn, picture book, spot color, the lion and the bird, white space

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10. Pacing: Racing vs. Spacing

We're excited to have author Charlie Price joining us today to discuss the ever-so-sticky wicket of pacing. Charlie works with kids in at-risk schools, mental institutions and psychiatric hospitals. He is also an executive coach and a consultant who conducts business workshops. He lives in Northern California, but went to high school in Billings, Montana where his most recent novel, THE INTERROGATION OF GABRIEL JAMES is set.

Pacing balances acceleration with aesthetics to make each story a trip worth taking. Writers decide whether a section is best served by speed toward a particular destination or a winding journey through evocative details. Paragraph by paragraph we choose the route, rate of travel, and scenery.

I recently finished The Interrogation of Gabriel James, a novel I had written and re-written ten or eleven times from various points of view, always in sequential fashion. The story had a quiet girl with a bizarre home life, racism and hate crimes, sports, arson, family drama, homeless heroes, police, mayhem, and even love! Still, something about it didn’t grab me by the lapels.

One afternoon while I was doctoring a particular scene, an idea bobbed to the surface. What if I could tell the story as a day’s interrogation? Ten weeks, collapsed to six or eight hours in a room with two detectives? And further, what if their questions would not only be answered in real-time dialog, but would also open zip files in the protagonist’s memory? We would spend the day with the kid, and the law officers would force the whole complex tale out on the table.

Since, once the interrogation began, I was going to rocket into the story’s events, I could afford a more leisurely, almost literary, initial approach: a cold and lonely graveyard scene on the buffalo plains of Eastern Montana seen through Gabriel’s eyes.

“I stood at the back of a small crowd in a bleak cemetery north of the Yellowstone River, the second funeral I had attended this week. . . . I knew enough to wish that time could collapse like an old telescope, that some events once seen in greater detail would disappear from the horizon, gone for good. Gone forever.”

Then, after a single space break, the Interrogation:

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” The deputy folded her hands on the table between us.

“I’m not sure what the beginning is,” I said. It was true. I never cau

8 Comments on Pacing: Racing vs. Spacing, last added: 11/23/2010
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11. Who Won Charlie Price's Latest Book?

Congrats, Jessica Souders!!!

Many thanks to Charlie Price for helping us develop better technique pacing our writing, as well as this awesome giveaway!

Happy reading and writing,
Martina & Marissa

3 Comments on Who Won Charlie Price's Latest Book?, last added: 11/28/2010
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12. Pacing

What not to do if you want to keep your novel moving along.

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13. Over Expressed Emotions

Because this blog is all about flexing our descriptive skills, I wanted to touch on something I see from time to time when I critique: too much emotional showing.

Emotions can be the most difficult to convey (this is why Becca and I built the Emotion Thesaurus!) Not only do we need to express without telling, we have to show the emotion in a fresh way, make sure it feels genuine and have it match the character's expressive range. Add that to highlighting action and minimizing internal sensations and thoughts? It's a lot to juggle.

Common ways to show emotion:

Physical action (beats): gestures, movement, ticks & tells that express emotion
Internal sensations: bodily reaction known only to the POV character
Thoughts: reactive & emotionally charged thoughts caused by stimulus
Dialogue: revealing emotion verbally (and sometimes showing by what is not said!) 
POV Narrative: internal musings/reflection delivered by a POV character toward a situation or setting

A balance of these elements creates a satisfying window into the character's emotional state, but too much causes an overload of sensory information. It slows the pace, creates melodrama and disrupts the reader's belief in both the character and the events unfolding.

Over-expressing occurs when we try too hard to reinforce an emotional state to the reader. Here's an example of how this can happen. First, we need an emotion. Let's go with GUILT.

Mrs Henderson lifted her day planner and rifled through the papers on her desk. "I don't understand--the stapler was here right before lunch. Did someone use it and forget to put it back?"

  Amanda slid down in her seat, heat burning through her. Stupid! Why did I take it?

A very simple situation--not a lot is needed to get into Amanda's emotional state, right? Internal and external cues work together.

So what if I did this:

Amanda fumbled her library book open and shoved her nose deep into the pages so she wouldn't have to look at the teacher.

Okay, again, this works.

One more:

Amanda shifted in her seat, grazing her knee on the bottom of her desk. What if the teacher knew? What if she asked everyone to pull out their desk trays?

Yep, still showing guilt, blending external cues and thoughts, which give her guilt a paranoid edge.

Now...what if we put it all together?

Amanda fumbled her library book open and shoved her nose deep into the pages so she wouldn't have to look at the teacher. Shifting about, she slid down in her seat and her knee grazed the bottom of her desk where she'd hid the stapler. Heat burned through her. What if the teacher knew? What if she asked everyone to pull out their desk trays? Stupid! Why did I take it?

WAAAY too much showing for this simple scenario and a medium level emotion, isn't it? Can you imagine if I'd chosen a situation rife with stronger emotions, like a character running for their life or witnessing a murder?

The trick

36 Comments on Over Expressed Emotions, last added: 3/3/2011
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14. Diane Muldrow: pacing the picture book

Diane Muldrow
Diane Muldrow is the editorial director at  Golden Books/Random House, editor of Little Golden Books, a sweet, classic line for preschoolers, and the author of the smart and elegant WE PLANTED A TREE (as well as many books about Barbie, Bambi, Pinocchio and other favorite characters).

She started off our intensive session on picture book pacing by sharing a little of her background, including the fact that she was once a professional dancer who performed au naturel on a famous New York stage.

“Anything is a cakewalk after you’ve performed naked,” she said.

Anything, perhaps, but picture-book pacing. During the three-hour master class, she shared a terrific list of tools we can use to make sure our manuscripts unfold in the right way on the page.

Pacing is a central challenge of picture books.

"You have to fit information and good storytelling and beautiful pictures into a very specific format."

Trade picture books are usually 32 pages, while Little Golden Books are 24, for example.

She encouraged us to take a trip to the bookstore or library and really study the formats, taking ownership over what we're writing.

“This is your lump of clay when you’re working on it. It belongs to you because it’s your idea. What I want to see more of … is when writer hopefuls don’t take enough ownership of their idea, let alone their manuscript," she said.

Once you've figured out your format, think in pictures, and don't be shy about including art notes that are essential to conveying your vision. (Non-essential ones are coincidental details, such as the color of a character's shoes when that is not of thematic significance.)

The best picture books come from thinking visually, she said--something most writers don't really do.

In addition, keep the page turns at the top of mind. “In a picture book, it’s all about the turning of the page,” she said. That's what gives a story its building sense of suspense, and what keeps the child on the lap--the one we're writing for--engaged.

As you work, consider using these tools:
  • Start your story with an opening spread (putting all the title information on that right-hand page).
  • Consider paging the story out as you go. Tip: The illustration should be of whatever is the first line of text on the new page.
  • Have images in mind and write to them. No talking heads. If you can't see the art, that's maybe a cue there's not enough happening visually in your idea.
  • Write in a way that reaches a very young ear.
  • If you get stuck as you're writing, figure out your last line? You want one with impact: beauty, humor, or some other thing.
She handed out the text for a Golden Books story called THE MERRY SHIPWRECK and gave us 45 minutes to paginate it and make thumbnails using a 24-page dummy. The task was hard enough that I had to give myself a little break for blogging, lest my eyeballs melt down my cheeks.

But it was challenging as the exercise was, it's a revolutionary way for writers to take their work to the next level. If you have a chance to take a master class with Diane, do. She's a master of the format and a compelling teacher as well.
15. Novel Revision: 4 Goals to Polish Your Story

It seems like all I am doing is printing out my WIP right now. Of course. Revising a novel is always a circular process.

Get it Right the First Time

Some authors get it right the first time; others claim to get it right the first time. For experienced writers, who are used to editing, it may be possible for a first or an early draft to be near perfect. Lucky you!

Creep up on Right

I am fairly experienced at novel revision and editing a text. But editing my own work is a matter of circling back, round and round, in a seemingly endless circle. I make changes here or there, but it’s hard to keep track of the flow of the story. Do those changes really do what I hope they do? Have I gone too far or not far enough?

The only way to know is to read the story again from the beginning. Or later in the novel, I can pick a chapter to read from, but it needs to be 2-3 chapter ahead of what I just edited.

Consistency. I am looking for consistency in voice and tone, and those can only be assessed when you look at longer passages.

Holes. I am also looking for holes in the story. If I indicate in Chapter 8 that a beggar is one-legged, does he suddenly grow a leg in Chapter 12. Again, I need to look at longer passages for these types of details.

Tension. I am always checking to make sure the story’s tension is as high as possible. Maybe a stronger verb will evoke stronger emotion, or maybe slight rewording will help. I’m at a fairly late stage of revising (it’s gone through several major revisions already and I’m confident of the overall structure by now) so I doubt it will need major re-structuring. Instead, this is probably some early polishing.

Pacing. I am also monitoring myself: do I get bored at any point? Where did I stop paying attention to the words? If I bore myself, then I will bore the reader. Yes, I realize that part of the boredom is that I’ve read this novel upteen times. But there are parts that I happily read multiple times; and there are parts where I struggle to read it again. It’s those places that I evaluate for pacing issues: can I omit something to speed up the story? Can I reword it to speed it up?

These are not conscious, check-off-a-list things I do, just what I try to keep in mind as I endlessly print, read, edit, print, read, edit. . .

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16. Trinity Faegen: 2k11

Random Acts of Publicity DISCOUNT:
$10 OFF The Book Trailer Manual. Use discount code: RAP2011 http://booktrailermanual.com/manual

Debut Novel: Spreadsheets Used for Plotting and Revising a Novel

Introduced first in 2007, debut children’s authors have formed a cooperative effort to market their books. I featured Revision Stories from the Classes of 2k8 and 2k9 and this feature returns this year with the Class of 2k11.

Trinity Faegen, THE MEPHISTO COVENANT, YA, Fall 2011

Revisions: Literary Fast Forward

Guest post by Trinity Faegen

Ironically, I’m writing this just after receiving the editorial letter and line edits on my first YA novel. The editor has an issue with my timeline and asked me to extend it.

How long is your story from beginning to end? A day? A week? A year? Mine is about a week, and he feels this is too short, that I need to extend it to ten days or even two weeks, but how can I lengthen the timeline without adding extraneous scenes that read like filler?

The answer is the literary equivalent of fast forward.

First, I’ll find one or more areas within the manuscript that are already transitional, such as the end of a scene that draws a subplot to conclusion, or one that ends a dramatic confrontation. I’m fortunate because one of my plot elements involves a character’s need for information, which can’t be had quickly. I will find a scene ending that lends itself to a lapse of dramatic action until things begin to happen again. I’ll add a few paragraphs to the beginning of the next scene, in the appropriate point of view, to let the reader know time has passed, but nothing happened off-screen. The characters ate, slept, went to school, lived their lives, until now, when we are picking up the pace again.

The paragraphs might read something like this:

“After her miserable first day at Telluride High, Sasha didn’t think it could get worse. She was wrong. As the lie Brett told about her spread, it morphed into something even he, in his twisted, pervy little mind, couldn’t have dreamed up. Not only did everyone believe she had sex on the Internet, they now thought she did it for money. She was like a leper, always alone, everyone avoiding her as if she was contagious.
By Friday, her fifth day in Hell, she’d had enough. Somehow, she had to turn the tables on Brett, and since she had not one single friend to help, she’d have to do it alone.
First period began like always, Mrs. Redmon calling on another victim to read from The Metamorphosis. Sasha could feel Brett’s eyes staring at her, knew he was smirking, smug and pleased with him

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17. KM Weiland on Reverse Outlining + GIVEAWAY

I am THRILLED to feature writing guru K.M. Weiland on the blog today to discuss Outlining. As a reformed panser, I have seen my writing evolve by embracing outlining techniques. And while I'm not a full outliner yet, it is a tool that helps me at certain stages during the writing process to form stronger story structure and character development.

Katie's book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success guides writers with a step-by-step approach to developing and writing a novel. One of the story mapping techniques is Reverse Outlining, a creative approach to help writers build a strong, cohesive timeline in their novels. Read on for an excerpt straight from the book!

Reverse Outlining

When you think of outlines, you generally think about organization, right? The whole point of outlining, versus the seat-of-the-pants method, is to give the writer a road map, a set of guidelines, a plan. An outline should be simple, streamlined, and linear. An outline should put things in order. So you’re probably going to think I’m crazy when I tell you one of the most effective ways to make certain every scene matters is to outline backwards.

During the outlining process, we have to create a plausible series of events, a chain reaction that will cause each scene to domino into the one following. But linking scenes isn’t always easy to do if you don’t know what it’s supposed to be linking to. As any mystery writer can tell you, you can’t set the clues up perfectly until you know whodunit. Often, it’s easier and more productive to start with the last scene in a series and work your way backwards.

For example, in my outline of a historical story, I knew one of my POV characters was going to be injured so badly he would be unable to communicate with another character for almost a month. However, I didn’t yet know how or why he was injured. I could work my way toward this point in a logical, linear fashion, starting at the last known scene (a dinner party), and building one scene upon another, until I reached my next known point (the injury). But because my chain of events was based on what was already behind me (the dinner party), more than what was away off in the future (the injury), my attempts to bridge the two were less than cohesive.

Had I outlined these scenes in a linear fashion, squeezing in the injury might have become a gymnastic effort instead of a natural flowing of plot. Plus, the fact that I had no idea what was supposed to happen between the dinner party and the injury meant I was likely to invent random and inconsequential events to fill the space.

My solution?

You got it: work backwards.

Starting at the end of the plot progression—the injury—I began asking questions that would help me discover the plot development immediately preceding. How was the character hurt? Where was he hurt? Why did the bad guys choose to do this to him? Why was he only injured, instead of killed? How is he going to escape?

Once I knew these things, I knew how I needed to set up the scene, and once I knew how to set up the scene, I knew what to put in the previous slot in the outline. Eventually, I was able to work myself all the way back to the dinner party. Voilà! I now had a complete sequence of events, all of w

117 Comments on KM Weiland on Reverse Outlining + GIVEAWAY, last added: 2/1/2012
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18. 5 Things You Don’t Need To Include When Writing Summaries

novel writing techniques | laura whitcomb authorOne of the challenges writers face when writing a novel is balancing scene with summary. Today’s tip of the day focuses on what you should not include when summarizing a scene or event. Plus, try your hand at writing summary with a free exercise from Novel Shortcuts.

When To Write Summaries Versus Scenes

Writing summary does not mean starting at the moment the last scene ended and covering everything that happens up to the moment the next scene begins. You only need to include those things that are significant to [the story]. There is a lot the readers will assume.

5 Things You Don’t Need To Include When Writing Summaries

  1. Uneventful travel. People walking out of rooms or riding, walking, or flying to a new location. Unless there’s something important about the way they got to the next place, leave it out.
  2. Home-life maintenance. If you don’t say what happened the rest of the night, readers will assume that normal things took place: sleeping, reading, and watching television.
  3. Workday maintenance. We know that the lawyer will probably have meetings, take phone calls, and read briefs. We’ll assume the teacher will give lessons, grade papers, and have coffee in the staff lounge. No need to even skim over that stuff unless doing so helps your story.
  4. Relationship maintenance. If you skip how your hero kisses his wife and kids when he gets home, what he says to them, and the look on this face during dinner, readers will assume that his relationships are rolling along as before.
  5. Ongoing emotions already stated. If you describe your protagonist being depressed and skip telling us her frame of mind between breakfast and dinner, readers will assume she continued to act depressed. No need to repeat or fortify this idea unless it helps the story.

Try This: A Summary Writing Exercise

Take a year of your life and try summarizing it into one paragraph. See if you find the most significant aspects to highlight. What changed that year? What would someone need to know in order for the next year of your life to make sense? Read it to someone else and see if they get a sense of that shortened journey through time. If you have trouble with a year of your own life, try summarizing a year of someone else’s life, a season of your favorite TV drama or comedy, a season for your favorite sports team. Repeat until ease sets in.

This excerpt comes from Laura Whitcomb’s book, Novel Shortcuts. Learn more about her book on novel writing and read an exclusive author interview. Plus, don’t miss out on these online writing workshops that focus on the novel:

19. Critiquing? Revising? 10 Writing Style Elements to Check

Yesterday we looked at nine elements to check when doing a critique of your own manuscript or someone elses.  Today we are going a step further by reading with Writing Style in mind.  I want to thank Anita Nolan for writing these ten writing style elements up, so we can refer to them while critiquing a manuscript.

• Voice: Strong? Too passive?

• Any problems with point of view? If there are multiple points of view, are the POV changes handled well?

• Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the dialogue of each character distinct, or does everyone sound the same?

• Does the dialogue move the story forward?

• Were there too many “he said” dialogue tags, or awkward substitutes for “said?” (snarled, hissed.)

• As to back story: Is it woven into the story, or are there any info dumps or “As you know, Bob”s (use of dialogue to dump information into the story.)

• Is there too much narrative? Too many flashbacks?

• Are the sentences clear, or do they need to be reworded to improve clarity?

• Is the story well-paced, or does it slow in places?

• Is there plenty of white space, or is the writing dense? (In other words, are the paragraphs short and interspersed with dialogue, or are they long blocks of type running a half page—or more.)

Tomorrow, we’ll go over what to check, when reading a synopsis.  You can find Anita Nolan at: www.anitnolan.com

Talk tomorrow,


Filed under: Advice, authors and illustrators, demystify, need to know, Process, revisions, Tips Tagged: Flashbacks, Manuscript Critiquing, Pacing, Voice, Writing Style Check List

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20. Building Suspense: Meeting Readers In The Middle

When thriller author Donna Galanti contacted me about guest posting here at The Bookshelf Muse on building suspense, I was all over it! As a writer on the dark side of Middle Grade and Young Adult, suspense is as alluring to me as the scent of bacon in the pan. And suspense isn't only about Thrillers and Who-dun-its...every book and genre has it's own brand of suspense, meaning catching and keeping the reader's attention requires some serious skill. Donna has 8 great tips for building suspense...I hope you enjoy this post as much as I do!

Writing Suspense: Meet Them in the Middle and They Will Come

I’ve learned so much about suspense since writing my first book. One thing I’ve learned in fiction, and movies, is that surprise can be over-rated.

Surprise is the two-seconds of “Boo!” Suspense is the ten-minutes of “Oh, No! Will she die or not?” We’ve all heard go for suspense when you can–and for a reason. It keeps the reader turning pages.
This means the reader needs to know a few things (without giving it all away) so they can predict things, and feel smart. Readers love feeling smart. Don’t we all?

I’ve discovered that if we meet the reader in the middle and let them feel smart, that they will stick with you. 

But how can we, as writers, meet the reader in the middle to create suspense?

Tease them with only a few descriptive details

In Harry Potter we all know what Hogwart’s Castle looks like, don’t we? But if you go through the book there are very few descriptions about it. It’s introduced only as a vast castle with lots of turrets and towers. When Harry enters it we’re teased with brief images of flaming torches and a magnificent staircase. That’s it. The reader must fill in the rest with imagination.

By giving the reader flashes of the setting here and there we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense.

Introduce questions early on

Not just one, but many. Drop them here and there. Don’t make it tidy. Make it mayhem with meaning. But make sure those drops do have meaning.

If a knife appears hanging on the wall in the beginning, the reader will question why its there and believe that the knife has importance down the road. (So make sure you show its reason…later.)
Make the reader ask: What happens next? In Watchers by Dean Koontz we witness a depressed man who goes off to a canyon to commit suicide. Will he go through with it? Then he meets a highly intelligent dog and fears for his life from an unknown stalker. Through the dog he meets a timid woman he is intrigued by.

Now we have more questions. Who is this dog? Who is this stalker? How are they connected? Who is this woman? Why is she so shy?

Provide readers with knowledge

New novelists can often be afraid of revealing their best stuff early on. I used to feel the same way. There are tons of pages to fill, after all. That fear can make a writer hoard their best stuff for a surprise–later. But the reader can get bored with waiting, and surprises are overestimated.

Hitchcock, the master of film suspense, used this to build his tension in his movies. He gave the audience information the characters knew and didn’t know, such as the bomb located under their desk.

Tick tock.

Will the character die? Yikes! Maybe, if we’re given all the information we need to suspect death is looming. What makes this suspenseful? Because we spend ten minutes hoping beyond hope the character we love doesn’t die! In the movies or on the page.

Look at the big picture

Movies can provide great visuals for how writers can create suspense. Multiple setups can lead to one big suspense payoff. It’s the knowing what’s about to happen, and then it happens.

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone plans to kill the two mob leaders he meets for dinner. We see the murder planning. The discussion of where to meet. The finding of the gun in the bathroom as a weapon. The wondering of whether Michael will or won’t do it. The knowing that his life will be forever changed if he does.

Creating suspense with a big picture buildup can also create surprise. Here is where surprise can work if everything that led up to the surprise is exposed in a new way.

The big moment at the end in The Sixth Sense isn't just a surprise–it re-arranges everything we know about the events we've seen beforehand in a new way. Did you guess it coming or were you totally surprised?

Set the mood

Provide a suspense setting that creates feelings of heightened anxiety. Give the reader the portent of doom. The setting of a scene can make a large impact on its mood. Use sensory details to build on those feelings–a sudden wind, a stormy sky, a rising stench, a jarring noise. Use world building to create suspense.

Here’s an example of how I aimed for this in my suspense novel, A Human Element:

The sky darkened suddenly. She looked up. Black clouds, thick and angry rolled overhead. Her heart raced faster. The bad feeling screamed again inside her. 

"Let's go inside for now." Laura tugged on her mother's sleeve. They would be safer in the house. She just knew it. 

"But we can't let our chores go." Fanny's fingers flew across the peas. Slit. Pop. Slit. Pop. Wind whipped around the corner of the house. It knocked over Laura's basket.

Do you think something bad is coming?

Go slow

You’re saying whaaat? Yes. Slow down real time to show the full 360 degrees of the scene. In real life action happens fast. But it’s our job as writers to not show real life. That would be boring and over with in a flash. Show all the angles of the scene to build suspense. Use all the senses. Add complications.

I just read Robert Goolrick’s, A Reliable Wife. In it he moves achingly slow to build suspense. In the beginning scene a man waits at a train station. Nothing is happening. But so much is happening. And so much is to come.

His first paragraph tells us:

It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. The world stood stock still, four o’clock dead on. Nothing moved anywhere, not a body, not a bird; for a split second there was only silence, there was only stillness. Figures stood frozen in the frozen land, men, women, and children.
Oooh, right? Look at his words. Bitter. Electric. Dead. Still. Frozen. Besides going slow he’s also setting the mood with his word choices. These are not soft words. We have a sense of doom. For eleven pages at the train station Goolrick goes slow to build suspense and tension all by focusing on one man’s thoughts and the people who flow around him.

Think that’s going slow? The master of suspense, Dean Koontz, builds suspense over seventeen pages in Whispers with an attempted rape scene.

And don’t forget to create characters to care about

This doesn't mean they shouldn’t be flawless. Giving them flaws makes them more appealingly human, but you won’t create suspense if nobody gives a hoot about your characters.

Suspense is emotional. It’s about revealing some, but not all.

And if the reader cares they’ll go out on that limb and meet you in the middle. Build it halfway to create suspense, and they will come.

Donna Galanti is the author of the paranormal suspense novel, A Human Element, called “a riveting debut that had me reading till the wee hours of the night” by international bestselling author M.J. Rose.

She’s lived from England as a child, to Hawaii as a U.S. Navy photographer. Donna lives with her family in an old farmhouse in PA with lots of nooks, fireplaces, and stinkbugs but sadly no ghosts. Visit her at her website, and on Twitter!

About A Human Element

One by one, Laura Armstrong's friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her special healing powers, there is nothing she can do to stop it. The killer haunts her dreams and leaves cryptic notes advising her to use her powers to save herself...because she's next.

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Your turn, Musers! What techniques do you use to build suspense? Is there an author you love because of their skill at drawing the reader in and keeping them guessing? Let me know in the comments!

ALSO, I hope you'll sneak over to the ever-awesome Shannon O'Donnell's  Book Dreaming where I'm chatting about Staying Motivated. I promise you will LOVE some of the links I'm sharing at her blog!

35 Comments on Building Suspense: Meeting Readers In The Middle, last added: 9/22/2012
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21. Master Plot for Pacing, Characterization and Action

Somewhere in your writer’s head is a Master Plot, an idea of what a story or novel should be like, how it should progress. For writers who don’t outline–the write-by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers–the Master Plot is hard-wired into their brains.

For the rest of us, the idea of a Master Plot is helpful.

Hero’s Journey. The hero’s journey can be used for anything from Star Wars to the middle grade classic, Bridge to Terabithia.

Christopher Vogler’s explanation of the Hero’s Journey is excellent. The basic stages, along with the corresponding character arc are these:

  • Ordinary World – Limited awareness of problem
  • Call to Adventure – increased awareness
  • Refusal of Call – reluctance to change
  • Meeting the Mentor – overcoming reluctance
  • Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
  • Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
  • Reward – consequences of the attempt
  • The Road Back – rededication to change
  • Resurrection – final attempt at big change
  • Return with Elixir – final mastery of the problem

You write comedy or humor and want a plot for a novel?
John Vorhaus, in The Comic Toolbox adapts the hero’s journey into a Comic Throughline.

Similar to the Hero’s Journey is Peter Dunne’s adaptation to a story in which two main characters influence each other, or one character drastically changes a second. The Emotional Structure details how the characters interact. This could be a sort of Rivalry story, a Love story, a Forbidden Love story, or even one of Pursuit, Rescue, or Escape. The main thing here is that two characters act upon each other. Dunne suggests that Acts 1 and 3 are about the outer plot, while Act 2 is the inner journey.

There are other “master plot” ideas, but in discussing the idea of master plots, I like one strategy that Jack M Bickham discusses in his book, SCENE AND STRUCTURE. His “scenic master plot” includes a three-chapter self-contained subplot in the middle of the story, something exciting like a chase scene.

“Chapter Seven. Hero viewpoint. He is embroiled in his three-chapter quest. . . an action sequence, preferably physical: a car chase, a face-to-face confrontation with violent words and emotions, perhaps even an attack on the hero’s life. . .The end of the chapter is at a new disaster which will allow no time for sequel [evaluating what just happened], or at some turning point in the middle of the ongoing scene. This chapter hooks instantly into the next.”

I’ve always thought this was brilliant. Right when the novel is in danger of lapsing into a sagging middle, you insert a subplot of action that resolves over three chapters, while keeping the reader engaged. Of course, it must feed back into the main story after those three chapters and be integral to the story. But it solves so many pacing problems.

Do you have a sort of “Master Plot” that you write by?

Where would you insert a 3-chapter, self-contained subplot that is mostly an action sequence?

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22. Setting Description...Writing More Than Just What You See

A new Muser, Soy, asked a really excellent question in Give Me Your Feedback and I thought it would make a good post. Her question was:What is the best way to describe a place in a really special way, without sounding too visual?I like this question, because it's what the Setting Thesaurus is all about. As writers, our first reaction is to transcribe everything we see in our head onto the page

15 Comments on Setting Description...Writing More Than Just What You See, last added: 3/24/2010
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23. Faith Hunter on Choosing Your Words

Here's some food for thought on word choice and pacing. The principles she illustrates are spot on. She also provides some interesting examples and analysis.


Pace yourselves when writing and eat some chocolate,


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24. The Art of Pacing

One of the many great sessions I attended at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference involved the concept of pacing in your novel.  Pacing doesn't need to be consistently fast, but it means there should be an overall smooth flow to your story. This often means that it's faster in some parts, slower in others, but always moving forward - like a river. It never stops.

Kelley Armstrong, the impressive #1 NYT bestselling author of the "Darkest Powers" YA trilogy, gave  some quick tips for checking the pacing of your story:

  • Active scenes should far outweigh passive scenes, and you shouldn't have too many passive scenes in a row.
  • Even passive scenes should be accomplishing something and moving the story forward (e.g. for me, this means not going on and on about the 'colorful wildflowers dotting the meadow' because I really don't care -- unless an intergalactic ship filled with space monkeys is landing on them. Then I care.)
  • 'Just do it.' In general, don't have your characters plotting to do something or analyzing how they're going to do something (unless there is inherent conflict in their plotting/analyzing). Just have them do it. 
  • 'Go in late, get out early.' If you find you don't have enough tension throughout a scene, it's sometimes because you started the scene too early and let it drag on too long. Start it later; end it earlier.
  • 'Taking care of business' can usually be left out of your manuscript. This often involves a character getting from Point A to Point B. (e.g. 'Bob put his key in the ignition and started the engine, then strapped on his seatbelt, checked his rearview window and pulled out into traffic to head toward the crime scene.' *yawn* You could just say that 'Bob arrived at the crime scene to find it splattered with Jello and spray starch,' and the reader can infer the basic mechanics of how he got there.
  • Dragging dialogue slows down your pacing. As a rule, you shouldn't have more than two pages of dialogue as that can slow down the pacing even more than narrative can -- this is when you end up with 'talking heads.' 
  • Don't re-hash events in your dialogue that the reader just read about.  (e.g., Bob sighed, "Mary Jo, did I tell you about the horrible day I had at school today?" Reader of book: Um, you told me in Chapter Six -- and I really don't want to hear it again.)
  • Be careful with your technical details. You want to ensure that your details are correct but don't overdo it just to show people how much research you did. A little Google goes a long way.
  • Too many flashbacks slow the pacing. Same with backstory, introspection, and narrative description. Use them sparingly.
  • Don't end your chapters after something has already happened - end them when something is about to happen. This makes the reader want to turn the page.
To sum up the gist of all these tips, when Elmore Leonard was asked how he keeps readers turning the pages, he said, "I don't write the parts that people skip."  Follow that little rule, and your pacing will be golden. Good luck! Any pacing tips that I missed?

9 Comments on The Art of Pacing, last added: 5/28/2010
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25. Save Some For Later

Now that we've been doing Tangled Fiction for a couple months now and I've had the chance to write two story starts for Natalie and Lacey to finish, I've made some discoveries about plotting and revealing information.

When you're writing something that someone else has to continue without knowing what's supposed to come next your first instinct is to put in enough details to explain what it is you're doing. But you soon realize that if you do that, the next writer either has nowhere to go because you already gave up all the cool plot twists and info, or is locked into your idea, which is the opposite of collaboration (unless you use James Frey's definition of the word) and what you've written is mostly telling and infodump with perhaps a side of interesting character.

You learn that in order to give the next writer a chance to shine, and to give the story a shot at being all it can be, you have to leave threads dangling and hint at things without explaining them. You have to trust your partners, and your readers to pick up on the subtle cues, and to want to keep reading to find out what they mean.

In a word, you're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing when you write a book all by yourself!

You know that feeling you get when you're starting a book, (or short story, or introducing a new character) where you feel like you have to get ALL the necessary info out so readers will get what you're doing and LOVE it? Well, that feeling is wrong. Those writing books - the ones that say don't reveal anything until it's absolutely necessary are right.

It took until I had to take an idea, set it up, and then let it go for me to really understand how that works. When I write an opening to one of our shorts, like my most recent one, KISS OF DEATH, I start with an idea:

What if there was a girl so beautiful that every boy who saw her was compelled to kiss her? What if her lips were poisonous?

Then I have to do some world-building, some plotting, and I have to make sure I leave something for the next writer. In the case of KISS OF DEATH I had A LOT of ideas. There was so much I wanted to (and did in the first draft) explain. I knew how Rosemina came to be cursed. I knew what she did all day while she was home alone. I knew what the Queen really thought about her. I knew what happened after my section ended. But I cut all of those things because they would work better if they were revealed later on or in an active way. I trusted that I had an interesting predicament (Everyone wants to kiss her. Everyone that kisses her dies. And because of that, people want her dead.) and that people would want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

This is the key when plotting your story and maintaining your pace. Drop hints. Dangle potential plot twists, make your reader excited and curious to see what happens next. Let them form opinions about why a character says or does something, and then reveal the info when it will be the most active, the most important, the most mindblowing thing that could happen at that moment. Save something for later. (And, as I always say trust your reader It's scary, but you'll be glad you did.

2 Comments on Save Some For Later, last added: 11/18/2010
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