Monday, June 27, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Pace

For those of you who’ve joined this discussion of layering a scene in medias res, this is part of a workshop I delivered last month to my area chapter of the Romance Writers of New Zealand. This week we’re talking about layering to increase the pace of a scene.

No question, the emotional impact of a scene is tied to its pacing. Pace equals conflict. In my first blog, I talked about making sure that the scene was set up to contribute to the conflict inherent in the plot. Now we’re going to take a magnifying glass to the scene.

First, check every paragraph to make sure it contains conflict. Get rid of what Margie Lawson calls “walking the dog”. “Walking the dog” are those bits of business (a theatrical term that means actions and activities) that don’t contribute to the conflict. Typical walking the dog segments include:
  • getting up and getting dressed or ready
  • eating a meal
  • travelling, entering, leaving
  • waiting (unless you’re able to show tension building)
  • bickering (as opposed to where the argument stems from the characters’ goals)
  • social conventions
  • polite dialog, such as when the host offers tea and the guest says, “No thank you” (and there’s no subtext that indicates she thinks she might be poisoned)
  • anything you wrote to fill pages while you figured out what happens next
The rule is get in and out of the scene as close to the central action as you can. Start the scene where the conflict begins. Show us the secretary asking for a raise from her stingy boss – forget the part where she drives to work. Get out of the scene as close as you can to where the protagonist achieves or fails to achieve his goal. Forget the polite good-bys the morning after they sleep together – but by all means keep the part where he says, “I don’t think we should see each other again.” (Lots of conflict there!)

 Next, highlight all lines of introspection -- you know, those places where your character is thinking. Introspection slows the pace.

 Scrutinize. Is it all necessary? Cut, cut, cut, right down to the bare bones. Then turn as much of the rest as you can into dialog, which is much faster paced.

 Closely linked to introspection is over-explaining. These are lines that look like,

     “The Apaches will attack at dawn.” He wanted his troop to be alert.

As if they’re going to sleep through the night after news like that.

 Not all lines of explanation are useless. Sometimes they add subtext to the story:

     “I’m on a diet.” She didn’t want him to think she was always this fat.

Now we know (a) she’s got a weight problem, or at least she’s concerned about her body image (b) she’s worried about what he thinks of her, perhaps as the first step towards a romance…

 Over-explaining merely adds padding to your text. Give your readers credit for their intelligence. Do you really need to explain this? They’ve probably already figured it out. Omit the repeats, and consider opportunities to add subtext.

 Backstory is another pace-slower. A whole blog – possibly a whole book – could be written on this. In an opening chapter, it can kill your sale.

 As a good writer, you probably know more backstory on your characters than you’ll ever need to tell.

 The rule for backstory is feed it to the reader only on a need-to-know basis. And only one line at a time. One speaker at last year’s RWA National Convention mentioned that in the first third of the book, there should be only one sentence of backstory per chapter. That’s not much.

 Look at it like this: your job in the first half of the book is to set up “story questions”, questions readers ask themselves that keep them reading to the end in order to discover the answers. You do that by dropping hints. For example, in the opening of my YA WIP, my first person narrator says,

     We haven’t had a lot of happiness.

Instantly the reader is going to ask “why not?” But not until several chapters later do they get the beginning of the answer. And then, only the beginning…

 There are two places where somewhat extended backstory will work:

  •  The prolog (if your editor will let you get away with one) – Prologs are designed to provide the necessary backstory to set up the plot. But you need to open with action, just the way you would in a standard opening. And, bad news, a prolog does not get you off the hook of having a terrific Chapter One. Editors still want to see an “opening chapter” that pulls readers into the book.
  •  A flashback (late in the book) – By that time, hopefully, you’ve dropped so many hints about what happened that you won’t need one. Warning: the minute you go into the past, you’ve taken the reader out of the conflict and the tension drops.
Research – historical or otherwise -- can also slow the pace with what editor Jennifer Enderlin calls “over-writing”. You’ve probably put a lot of time into making sure you’ve got the details right. You know your time period or your protagonist’s job details better than a real life person in your protagonist’s shoes. But, like backstory, you should include only enough for the reader to understand the plot.

Signs of overwriting include:

  •  The POV character says or thinks stuff everyone around her/him takes for granted or knows. For example, the stable master does not have to explain to the groom how to harness a horse.
  •  The tone changes. Suddenly it sounds like a college lecture. You’re no longer in the POV character’s head.
  •  It pulls you out of the action of the story.
Sometimes you need that bit of historical or technical explanation, so how do you work it in?
  • Introduce an “Expert” cluing in the newcomer/neophyte. For example, in the James Bond movies, this job of M and Q.
  •  Refer to it in a way that is natural for the context, making use of subtext. For example, in the movie Gosford Park, there is a discussion below stairs over who among the staff will serve those guests who didn’t bring maids/valets. The subtext intimates that (a) it is expected every guest will have a maid or valet to help them dress and take care of their clothes (b) staff are expected to do extra work when there’s an event like a house party.
A final suggestion for increasing the pace is to look at your white space, paragraph length and sentence structure.

White space always speeds up the pace.


So do short sentences.

And fragments.

On the other hand, long sentences, as much as we enjoy their rhetorical and structural intricacies, slow down the pace, which isn’t always bad. In an idyllic scene where your lovers are enjoying each other’s company, a slower pace enhances the tranquillity of the moment.

Notice the difference?

So go back one more time and look at sentence and paragraph length. Decide what pace this part of the scene requires and adjust your sentences accordingly.

Next week: the moral and symbolic layers


  1. I've been enjoying your series and have used some of your ideas when revising my WIP. I had one comment on this, though - I think that sometimes those "walking the dog" actions can reveal something important about a character. For example, in my new WIP, I have the vicar's wife rap smartly on the door to her husband's study and then enter without waiting for a reply - it highlights her no-nonsense character.
    Thanks for the work you're putting into this!

  2. Great post for editing a manuscript.