Writing Advice #33: Q&A Pt. 4 – Pacing

Before I start this week, I just want to point out that Laurie Halse Anderson is causing trouble AGAIN. This woman just will not leave me alone. Clearly, she has issues. I urge you NOT to click on the following link and NOT to read her eminently sensible and reasonable discourse on dialogue — it will only encourage her, and who wants THAT?


All right, now that that’s out of the way… Back to Q&A! This week, the question is about pacing:

I’ve been reading your blogs and they’ve been helping quite a bit, but I was wondering if you have tips on pacing? See whenever I write a story, it all seems to happen in a few days, I can’t make the days past faster. Or time for that matter. Is there something you do specifically to pace the story evenly? I have a second question too, (Are we allowed more than one? xD) I want to write a story out of order, it’s strange but it works with my concept. But I have no idea how to go about writing it. I figure it’s based on what I want my audience to know and when, but that’s about all I’ve got. Any ideas of how I can make a non linear plot line work? Thanks in advance, you’re awesome. Take Care Heather

Hey, Heather — you’re awesome, too. And I’m glad these blogs have been helping you. Let’s hope I can keep that streak going right now.

Pacing is tough, no question about it. I struggle with it all the time, and I totally feel your pain. If you look at my first book, the whole story takes place in about a week’s time, with every single day accounted for. Boy Toy takes place over a few weeks, as does Hero-TypeGoth Girl Rising is something like a few days! So, yeah, I know what you’re talking about.

In the case of my books, part of the problem is that the stories are told in first-person present tense. I chose to write them that way because I like the immediacy of it, but it also has a tendency to make the author feel as though he or she has to describe everything and every single day. When you’re writing in the past tense, it’s easy to say, “A week passed and then…” because you’re looking back on the story from the present. So it makes sense that the narrator would just skip over things.

But when you’re in the present tense, you feel this compulsion to describe each day one after the other because, well, that’s the present, right? If you’re living in the moment, then you don’t have the perspective to retroactively edit out the things that don’t apply to the story, so everything seems equally important. One moment after the other in a straight line. It feels somehow awkward and disingenuous to say, “A week passes and then…”

Now I don’t know if you’re using present tense or not, but hopefully the hints and tips I’m about to describe will help no matter what.

First of all: It may FEEL awkward to say, “A week passes and then…” but it really isn’t, as long as you do it skillfully. What you need to do is wrap up a scene with a sense of something that is to come and then pick up the next scene with that something.

For example, in Boy Toy, I wrote a session with Josh’s therapist wherein Josh is worried about going to prom with Rachel. At this point, prom is still a couple of weeks off. The therapist coaches Josh, tells him not to worry and — as the chapter ends — tells him to have a good time.

So now the reader is thinking of prom, thinking of Josh’s reactions to it. The reader is not thinking, “Gee, this story is in present tense, so I wonder what happens when Josh leaves the therapist’s office?” And when the reader turns the page to the new chapter, he or she see this:

Chapter 17:

As much as I try to make it not happen, despite my best efforts to bend the space-time continuum with the force of my brain alone, it happens: prom arrives.

I’ve now leap-frogged over the intervening time and put us exactly at prom. At the same time, I’ve clued the reader in to the fact that in the time that has passed, Josh hasn’t become any less freaked out about going with Rachel. When I first wrote this bit, it felt strange and artificial to me. It felt like cheating. But you know what? The book has been out for a couple of years now and no one has said to me, “Man, you sure copped out with the weeks before prom!” or “What happened to Josh between his session with Dr. Kennedy and the prom?”

Readers have internalized the conventions of fiction. They understand when you jump forward in time. They subconsciously “get” that nothing of substance has happened in the intervening time, unless you tell them otherwise. So it’s fine to do.

Second of all, realize that you are not duty-bound to show every last event in a story. I’ve said this before in this series and I’ll say it again now: A story is not every single thing that happened; it’s every IMPORTANT thing that happened. When you plan your story, don’t approach it from the position of “OK, here’s what happens on Monday and here’s what happens on Tuesday…” and so forth. No. Approach it from EVENT TO EVENT, not from day to day.

I see this mistake a lot. Writers read about plotting a book and planning and being detail-oriented, so they go ahead and they micromanage every last instant of the story, basically setting up a schedule for their characters. But the job of your story is not to provide a recitation of the timeline of a character’s life — it’s to show us an important sequence of events in that character’s life. Keep that in mind when you’re plotting — you don’t have to fill up every day. You just have to get us from A to Z (start to finish) in the most interesting way possible. When you start thinking in terms of events and not in terms of time, you’ll find that your pacing improves and your timeline will probably stretch and contract a bit more naturally.

Last of all, consider this: Maybe your story is MEANT to take place over a few days. There’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of interesting things — life-changing things — can happen in a very short period of time. Again, Fanboy takes place over about a week. It’s not all that crazy to imagine that Fanboy could meet Goth Girl and go to a comic book convention and a party over the course of a week.

As to your second question: There’s nothing wrong with writing a story out of order. See the movie Memento for a great look at this. Or re-read Boy Toy, which starts five years in the past, jumps to the present, then jumps six years in the past, jumps back to the present, then jumps five years in the past again before wrapping up in the present.

The most important thing to keep in mind when telling your story in non-linear fashion is to play fair with the reader. If there’s something a character should know in the present, but you haven’t revealed it in the past yet, you can’t just ignore that the present-day character knows it. You can play coy about it and you can have reasons why the present-day character doesn’t talk about it or act on that knowledge, but you can’t just pretend the present-day character doesn’t know. This is sort of similar to something that bothers me about Lost, which is one of my favorite TV shows. The characters never seem to tell each other specific pieces of information or ask intelligent questions when given the chance! This is mainly because the writers aren’t ready to have those questions answered yet, but it’s a clumsy way of handling this problem and it makes the characters look like idiots sometimes. (It’s a testament to the otherwise-high quality of the writing on Lost that most of the time I’m willing to overlook this flaw.)

Another pitfall to be aware of when writing out of order: Don’t let jumping around in time substitute for real tension. Tension comes from conflict, not from coyly hiding information. Don’t lead up to a big revelation and then suddenly do a time-jump to avoid revealing something too soon. Don’t have present-day characters mysteriously referring to “that thing that happened” in oblique language. Real people wouldn’t talk like that. Again, I’ll use Boy Toy as an example — from the get-go, you knew that Josh had been molested. You didn’t know the particulars, you didn’t know how or when or why, and you didn’t know how Josh really felt about it, but you knew what had happened. I didn’t hold that back. The tension of the story arose from the slow revelation of how and when and why, and the decisions Josh makes as a result. I feel like this is playing fair with the reader. I didn’t wait until the end of the book to say, “Guess what the big secret is? Ta-da!”

So when you’re writing out of order, be very careful with how you dole out information. Don’t have your characters constantly refer to some kind of big secret and never talk about it until it’s convenient for the plot, especially if it would make sense for them to talk about it earlier. Find other ways to ramp up the tension and the conflict — telling a story non-linerarly should be done because it contributes to the telling of the tale, not because it’s a cheap and easy way to fake out the reader. Because believe me — it IS a cheap and easy way to fake out the reader, and most readers know it and will ding you for it.

That’s all for this week! Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it — enjoy the long weekend, and I’ll see you all back here next week. Remember: If you have a question you’d like me to tackle in Writing Advice, ask it below in the comments!

Leave a Comment