From Weronika’s Archives: On Compactness

Note that fiction’s role is to give accounts of things that are and things that happen, as well as things that might be or could be! Below is a diverse array of excerpts from novels of diverse kinds in the young adult (YA)/teen genre.


This post was originally included in the 2011 WriteOnCon faculty series. The online conference is no longer hosted.

Disclaimer #1: As with any discussions on plot and pacing (see one here), the suggestions made in this post are not all-encompassing.

Disclaimer #2: All conference attendees whose excerpts are pasted here gave permission by posting to a specific thread on the WriteOnCon forums.

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Writers are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t read query letters and instead jump straight into the enclosed pages. My reasoning? Even the best queries won’t persuade me to sign novelists whose writing needs work, and 94% of the fiction in my query inbox isn’t ready. Another 4% is good but not right for me; another 2% I request. I offer to represent even less.

Among qualities such as strong voice, plot and characterization is, of course, good writing, which can be defined by an array of different elements—lovely, lyrical imagery; conciseness; originality; pitch; pacing. Whether it’s the overall storytelling (a blend of characterization and plot) or the language that is more important to the writer, one quality remains consistent in determining what is well written: compactness.

Compact writing manifests when the writer puts words on the page with courage, direction, and intention; when every word is critical to and organic in the building of the scene, and ideas are introduced quickly without overwhelming readers. The best writers layer each of their scenes, considering the framework of their chapters, and then they undergo harsh line edits to rid their works-in-progress of all unnecessary components. Compactness is not a matter of words alone, of each sentence having purpose. It’s also a matter of storytelling—the rise of events and tension in each paragraph, scene, chapter, and part, and in the novel as a whole.

Compactness is tough to teach outside the sentence level. It’s the writer’s vision that matters—the tightness to the story as it plays out, with practice, reading, and more practice as the main reasons behind these writers’ successes. Like with all things writing-related, to teach is to spend a lifetime discussing.

For this post, I’ve taken the route that makes most sense to me: I’ve analyzed what I hope is a wide array of examples, both published and unpublished.

I hope that readers will see similarities to their own work—and will self-edit—or will be inspired to try new frameworks as they rewrite and revise. Remember that I do not know the context for any of the unpublished novels, and you are the master of your own work, so take this feedback with a grain of salt. My critique is not meant to reflect upon ability, but rather the compactness of the excerpt in relation to what I suspect comes next.

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Pretty much every single one of the published excerpts I’ve included here still blows me away, leaves goosebumps on my skin, sucks me right back into the story and the minds of characters I adore—so be prepared.

CONTEMPORARY

Excerpt from FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster, 2011):

I gaze at the small, crisp, burned-out black husks scattered across the chipped white paint of the windowsills. It is hard to believe that they were ever alive. I wonder what it would be like to be shut up in this airless glass box, slowly baked for two long months by the relentless sun, able to see the outdoors—the wind shaking the green trees right there in front of you—hurling yourself again and again at the invisible wall that seals you off from everything that is real and alive and necessary, until eventually you succumb: scorched, exhausted, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. At what point does a fly give up trying to escape through a closed window—do its survival instincts keep it going until it is physically capable of no more, or does it eventually learn after one crash too many that there is no way out? And what point do you decide that enough is enough?

Wow, wow, wow. Wow. Wow, wow, wow—you know?

This first paragraph (162 words) from the novel FORBIDDEN shows an incredible ability to write compactly. Suzuma first establishes a connection to the real world by showing readers the dead flies lying along the windowsill, and then packs an entire philosophical idea into the same paragraph: What does it mean to live? To fight for survival?

She has complete control over her writing. While the sentences are long and complex, there is a purpose here, a sense of urgency. As a reader, you can’t stop. She pulls you forward; the current threatens to wash you away. Absolutely not one word is wasted. The primary reason that we’re able to process all of these ideas without being thrown for a loop is the relative simplicity with which the paragraph grows; Suzuma gives readers room to breathe, and then takes them in the direction she considers best. That direction is logical and the pieces connect.

I don’t know how you can read the paragraph and not buy the book.

Excerpt from THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson (Dial Books/Penguin, 2010):

Gram is worried about me. It’s not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn’t contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots.

Gram has believed for most of my seventeen years that this particular houseplant, which is of the nondescript variety, reflects my emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. I’ve grown to believe it, too.

Across the room from where I sit, Gram—all six feet and floral frock of her, looms over the black-spotted leaves.

“What do you mean it might not get better this time?” She’s asking this of Uncle Big: arborist, resident pothead, and mad scientist to boot. He knows something about everything, but he knows everything about plants.

Nelson is an equally talented writer. In this excerpt (137 words) from THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, she has introduced three main characters and their ever-quirky characteristics. More importantly, she has opened multiple doors into conflict—we are first drawn forward by these characters, who charmed me right off the bat, and also by a sense of curiosity and tension regarding Bailey’s death, the potential for sexual promiscuity on Lennie’s part, Gram’s health, and Uncle Big’s existence.

In other words, Nelson has layered magnificently. Notice how each topic is compact—just a few words here and there to establish conflict and character—and notice how the transitions are completely natural, as if this scene were written in stone before Nelson put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys). Nelson doesn’t expect readers to process huge, unfamiliar details—everything that she includes is common sense in this world.

I loved this book, too, heart and soul.

Excerpt from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins(Dutton/Penguin, 2010):

Here is everything I know about France: Madeline and Amélie and Moulin Rouge. The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, although I have no idea what the function of either actually is. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and a lot of kings named Louis. I’m not sure what they did either, but I think it has something to do with the French Revolution, which has something to do with Bastille Day. The art museum is called the Louvre and it’s shaped like a pyramid and the Mona Lisa lives there along with the statue of the woman missing her arms. And there are cafés or bistros or whatever they call them on every street corner. And mimes. The food is supposed to be good, and the people drink a lot of wine and smoke a lot of cigarettes.

I’ve heard they don’t like Americans, and they don’t like white sneakers.

Perkins charms readers in a different way than Nelson—in this 149-word excerpt from her debut ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, she has totally established Anna as a silly but real character. Her choices as a novelist both make the character and compactness, as every single sentence introduces a fresh idea, a new element of France; a new connection to Anna, the main character. It’s a list, so it’s easy to follow, but the meaning of the list is what creates rhythm and interest.

In general, Perkins is one of the most compact commercial YA writers I’ve ever seen—each of her sentences sings with humor and depth and fun. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Anna, if you’re open to characters—people—like her.

This is another book I love dearly.

Excerpt pulled from the thread:

Hilltop Manor Nursing Home wanted to kick my grandma out for biting a nurse on the arm.

Again.

That’s why I found myself inside the lobby of the two-story nursing home in downtown Detroit the last week of my Christmas vacation. I could be eating pizza rolls and watching old Christmas movies with my best friend, Silvia Nunez. I would’ve sold my soul to lie on her bed and paint my toenails. And I hated painting my toenails. But no. I stood next to Mom as she smoothed the creases in her pants for the millionth time that morning.

The linoleum in the hallway shone under the fluorescent lights as a breeze from the heater lifted the end of my ponytail off my neck. I wrinkled my nose. Though the janitor had tried to mask the smell of the place with some lemon-scented disinfectant, it hadn’t worked. There were layers to the smell.

Lemon. Pee. Lemon. Old people.

At 158 words, this is a great example of an almost-there YA—I have a sense of conflict and voice, tension and family dynamics, in a small space, without any confusion. I really enjoyed it, and I’d keep reading. I do think that the writer is letting a few details distract from the flow of events forward, though—remember how in all the excerpts each sentence matters, each detail contributes necessary information.

My suggested revision, which brings the word count down to 125 words:

Hilltop Manor Nursing Home wanted to kick my grandma out for biting a nurse on the arm.

Again.

That’s why I found myself inside the lobby of her two-story nursing home the last week of my Christmas vacation. I could have been with my best friend, eating pizza rolls and watching old Santa movies. I would’ve sold my soul to lie on Silvia’s bed and paint my toenails. And I hated painting my toenails. But no. I fidgeted next to Mom as she smoothed the creases in her pants for the millionth time that morning.

Though the janitor had tried to mask the smell of the place with some lemon-scented disinfectant, it hadn’t worked. There were layers to the smell.

Lemon. Pee. Lemon. Old people.

Do we lose any critical information? I don’t think so. As with any other shared excerpt here, details could have drowned the basics, the voice, the pace—but they didn’t.

Always cut what isn’t quite necessary.

Overall, this was good—the writer is giving us basics setting-wise, and likely moving readers forward in the next few paragraphs.

Excerpt pulled from the thread:

BAM!

My elbow whacked Chris’s forehead for the fourth time that day. He grunted and caught me before I hit the ice. Though I’d skated over half of my nineteen years, I’d never had so many collisions. Of course, until a year ago, I’d never skated with a partner.

I cringed and touched Chris’s sweaty brow. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He brushed his hand through his thick dark hair. “A little head trauma never hurt anyone.”

I laughed wearily and arched my neck, stretching the sore muscles. The cold air radiating from the ice wasn’t helping to loosen them. Looking up, my eyes honed in on the red, white, and blue banner above the rink:

Emily Butler and Christopher Grayden–2000 National Silver Medalists

Only four months had passed since Chris and I placed second at our first national championship, but it seemed like a lifetime.

This excerpt (147 words) needs a bit more focus, and as I read it, I thought more than once of the excerpt from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS—Stephanie Perkins introduces an entire topic, an entire country, objectively. With a sport like this—and with an additional layer, that of dancing with a partner versus alone—the writer is introducing a lot of elements that are tough for readers unfamiliar with them to process, especially in context of the occurring events. It’s too much.

S/he has also introduced background information already without quite hooking us onto the activity.

The challenge, I think, is to take this piece by piece, making sure readers grasp onto one aspect completely—or without having to question it immediately—and then move onto another piece.

HISTORICAL

Excerpt from MILKWEED by Jerry Spinelli (Knopf/Random House, 2003):

I am running.

That’s the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from my dream or memory, my legs are tingling.

This entire excerpt from MILKWEED (96 words) makes up the first chapter in Spinelli’s wonderful historical set in Poland. While I think the second paragraph could have been a tad more specific in setting, it works just right the way it is written—we know that the narrator dreams he is a thief, and this creates tension, a physical kind of awareness for him (“my legs are tingling”). Spinelli introduces more concrete tension in a small space than most other writers I’ve included by hinting thrugh an action shot of a villain beyond the character’s immediate control. Again, no words are wasted, and while there are unknowns, there are no confusions.

This is a highly recommended historical.

Excerpt from CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon & Schuster BFYR/Simon & Schuster):

The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. That’s when they can hear us true, Momma said. That’s when ghosts can answer us.

The eastern sky was peach colored, but a handful of lazy stars still blinked in the west. It was almost time.

“May I run ahead, sir?” I asked.

Pastor Weeks sat at the front of his squeaky wagon with Old Ben next to him, the mules’ reins loose in his hands. The pine coffin that held Miss Mary Finch—wearing her best dress, with her hair washed clean and combed—bounced in the back when the wagon wheels hit a rut. My sister, Ruth, sat next to the coffin. Ruth was too big to carry, plus the pastor knew about her peculiar manner of being, so it was the wagon for her and the road for me.

I adore Laurie Halse Anderson’s historicals, and this excerpt (146 words) from CHAINS is evidence of why—we are introduced to the setting (in such a beautiful, beautiful way), local myths, multiple characters, and the current actions of those characters. There isn’t a huge sense of tension just yet, though first-time readers are surely grasping for further information regarding the clues offered here (“sir,” the pastor, the time period).

Most importantly, there is forward movement. Despite the introductions of the more general, overreaching concepts, Anderson makes sure that the characters are doing, making decisions, interacting. Every sentence contributes to knowledge that is necessary, to information that plays a role in the remainder of the scene—just look at that remarkable compactness.

This is just a fab, fab novel.

CRIME

Excerpt from THE HEIST SOCIETY by Ally Carter (Disney-Hyperion/Disney, 2010):

No one knew for certain when the trouble started at the Colgan School. Some members of its alumni association blamed the decision to admit girls. Others cited newfangled liberal ideals and a general decline in the respect for elders worldwide. But no matter the theory, no one could deny that, recently life at the Colgan School was different.

Oh, its grounds were still perfectly manicured. Three quarters of the senior class were already well on their way to being early-accepted into the Ivy League. Photos of presidents and senators and CEOs still lined the dark-paneled hallway outside the headmaster’s office.

But in the old days, no one would have declined admission to Colgan on the day before classes started, forcing the administration to scramble to fill the slot.

This is a wonderful beginning to a commercial novel. The first sentence is pitch-perfect, and I like that we’re starting with a “big picture,” which I think is easier to nail—and often more powerful—than starting in the middle of an action scene.

We get a great sense of voice (“Oh, it grounds were still perfectly manicured”—love that line!), and the last line in this excerpt (128 words) of THE HEIST SOCIETY raises so many questions and tensions. The entire Colgan community is characterized, and now we want to know who the book is about, and what the main character’s role is in context of the school as explained above. Again, not one word is wasted, and the set-up is very easy to follow.

THE HEIST SOCIETY is such a fun, smart novel.

Excerpt from PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (Knopf/Random House, 2010):

The pastor is saying something about how Charlie was a free spirit. He was and he wasn’t. He was free because on the inside he was tied up in knots. He lived hard because inside he was dying. Charlie made inner conflict look delicious.

The pastor is saying something about Charlie’s vivacious and intense personality. I picture Charlie inside the white coffin, McDonald’s napkin in one hand, felt-tipped pen in the other, scribbling, “Tell that guy to kiss my white vivacious ass. He never met me.” I picture him crumbling the note and eating it. I picture him reaching for his Zippo lighter and setting it alight, right there in the box. I see the congregation, teary-eyed, suddenly distracted by the rising smoke seeping through the seams.

Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if I loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?

The voice here—oh, god, the voice. The laugh-out-loud, pitch-perfect-in-its-grief voice. The emotional arc and primary conflict are established in a snap of the fingers in this excerpt (157 words) from PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ. And all the details—from the McDonald’s napkin, to the Zippo lighter, to the note and the attitude—capture readers’ attentions. I think in this situation it was probably easier for King to structure a shorter chapter than a long, drawn-out scene, as her goal is to offer this information in a way that raises questions and garners sympathy; she didn’t push the scene development.

This novel is amazing—and the rest is as compact, as considered, as well paced as this.

Excerpt pulled from the thread:

The woman ran through the dark woods in nothing but a white towel – definitely the wrong outfit for outrunning a homicidal maniac. She tripped and crashed to the ground. The killer stood over her and adjusted his grip on the machete. He raised his arm. She screamed as he swung the blade at her head.

Something bumped my arm.

I yelped and dropped the remote. I glared at Maximus, my seventy-pound mutt taking up more than his fair share of the couch next to me. “Geez, Max, you tryin’ to give me a heart attack?” He gave a soft woof that sounded suspiciously like a yes and pawed my arm again.

“Please don’t tell me you have to go out.” His answering whine was a definite yes.

“Can’t you hold it? We’re almost at the best part.” The woman was about to turn all badass on the freak.

I don’t this is as compact as it could be—we don’t get a sense of voice until the last line, really; everything else exists in the middle, and the first paragraph especially is very toneless. Refer to the example of PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ here—instead of saying “Charlie died, and the congregation missed him,” King digs deep into the personalities of those involved. We sense both voices, both characters, as if they were real people.

To make the most use of the space here, the writer should pick apart the scene—possibly even cut it entirely—and let us process the film clip by clip, increasing the character’s tension, especially since this is narrated in first person and we as readers need to follow the character’s emotions as much as possible. Include only what is necessary, and notice that none of the published examples included herein spent more than a phrase on day-to-day references.

SPECULATIVE

Excerpt from LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2009):

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.

Them.

The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Like Kizzy.

This is another one of those excerpts that blows me away. How can you not want to read the entire book after this prologue-like introduction (109 words) to LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, a trio of novellas?

It is compact, compact, compact like few fantasy introductions are (it helps that there isn’t an immediate alternate universe): The entire concept as it is executed here tells me more about the world than paragraphs of poor exposition would—goblins exist and goblins want particular types of girls (the contradiction between the two types is so spot-on—it feels familiar, immediately). The writing is drop-dead gorgeous but never, ever extraneous. It has a sense of mystery and melancholy that raises tension and captures readers’ hearts, and never pushes information. Taylor maintains a bit of a distance, feeding us the scene before we delve further into the stories.

Fantastic. I can’t wait for her next.

Excerpt from THE KINGDOM KEEPERS by Ridley Pearson (Disney-Hyperion/Disney, 2009):

He found himself standing next to the flagpole in Town Square, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom. In his pajamas. How he’d gotten here, he had no idea. His last memory was climbing into bed—it felt like only minutes earlier.

Gripped by a sense of panic, awed by the sight of the Cinderella Castle at night, Finn Whitman briefly recalled that he’d had other, similar dreams recently—always in the Magic Kingdom, always at night. But in his thirteen years, none so real, so vivid as this: he felt a breeze on his face; he smelled the wet earth of a flower bed not far away; he heard the distant whine of traffic and the buzz of a motorboat on the lake behind him.

In a way, this excerpt (126 words) from THE KINGDOM KEEPERS reminds me of a comment I made above, regarding the first chapter of MILKWEED: It wouldn’t have hurt to be slightly more specific. But specificity doesn’t quite matter in an example where the writing is quick and engaging, and the scene comes alive. Immediately readers are placed in the setting, in their pajamas, with the sounds buzzing around them.

While it’s not quite sympathy that we feel for the main character (yet), we are intrigued by his interpretation of these events, and are eager to see what happens next—eager to see what the heck is going on. Again simplicity is key—there is no confusion, just what we’ve been told.

Another really fun novel.

Excerpt from EAST by Edith Pattou (Graphia/Harcourt, 2005):

Ebba Rose was the name of our last-born child. Except it was a lie. It should have been Nyamh Rose. But everyone called her Rose rather than Ebba, so the lie didn’t matter. At least, that is what I told myself.

The Rose part of her name came from the symbol that lies at the center of the wind rose—which is fitting because she was lodged at the very center of my heart.

I loved each of her seven brothers and sisters, but I will admit that there was always something that set Rose apart from the others. And it wasn’t just the way she looked.

She was the hardest to know of my children, and that was because she would not stay still. Every time I held her as a babe, she would look up at me, intent, smiling with her bright purple eyes. But soon, and always, those eyes would stray past my shoulder, seeking the window and what lay beyond.

This is an example of an epic fantasy beginning.

In the above excerpt (164 words) of EAST, Pattou doesn’t complicate the scene with world-building elements. She lets it grow organically from framework that is important to her theme and novel, and maintains the scene as universal and accessible. We have sympathy for this father, who very clearly loves his daughter—Pattou is sure to establish that—and we also feel a twinge of sympathy, mystery, and foreshadowing when this darling little girl—with purple eyes!—looks past him to the shoulder. Oh, man, oh, man is this well done.

This is one of my favorite novels. Very highly recommended.

Excerpt pulled from the thread:

Chrissy was porting as Joel walked into the bar she asked him to meet her at. It was great for Chris that the whole city of San Francisco was wired to port at anytime now. She used to have to narrow her choices of where they drank, ate, or peed to places that had access. Chrissy was one of the addicted but that didn’t matter to Joel, she was hot and he would do whatever it took to be with her.

Joel slowed and let himself drink her in as he walked to the corner booth she had secured for their meeting. Her short red hair was sticking up all over the place, probably an accident of neglect but it suited her. She had her ice blue wireless port plug implanted into her temple and her pink button lips were moving furiously commanding code and building worlds for her to play in until she became bored. Then she would sell the experience or just delete the world. Chrissy was a perfectionist and a destroyer of worlds.

This is an example (176 words) of a beginning that needs to be completely reworked because it lacks significantly in compactness and fluidity. The writer is introducing a bunch of unfamiliar elements without describing any of them, without showing them work, and so whereas there is a lot of information being produced within space, very little of it makes sense, and very little of it involves the readers and lets them fall in love with the story.

We also are told versus shown an array of dynamics between the characters without being emotionally involved by either part—rather, it’s unclear which of the characters is supposed to be the narrative focus in this scene, which makes it even more confusing, and further contributes to a lack of grounding.

Excerpt pulled from the thread:

My best friend watched me in the mirror. Like all the other times I’d seen her in these past three weeks, tears streamed down her once beautiful face. Shivering, I closed my eyes, willing her to disappear. I wanted nothing more than to wipe those tears from her eyes, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t help her—no one could.

Rainey was dead.

A knock sounded from the bedroom door. “Karina, we should leave soon. Are you up?”

I tentatively opened my eyes. Relief washed over me. I was alone. I took a calming breath. “I’m coming, Mom!”

After an uncomfortable breakfast, we rode in silence to school. I glanced at my mother. Her forehead was so wrinkled it looked like tiny waves rolling across it. The thing was, we’d been through this time and time again.

I didn’t want to go back to school yet—possibly never.

This excerpt (148 words) also needs some work in terms of compactness—way, way too much happens here. Notice how the published excerpts I’ve included here do one of two things: 1) spend approx 150 words discussing a single topic or 2) cover a lot of ground generally (ground that can be covered generally because the specifics don’t matter).

The writer here is trying to cover a lot of ground that needs specifics, that needs to be drawn out—it’s a matter of pacing what is important. I don’t think death can be discarded so quickly—see the PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ excerpt—unless it is deeply contextualized within a framework that makes it relevant but not the sole focus of the scene—see the THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE excerpt.

I also worry that this kind of one-by-one “seeing the dead best friend” element might be a bit cliché, a bit tiring. Writers should always consider what unique approach they can take to add a unique flair or execution to their text, keeping it compact and accelerating.

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Main Rules For Compactness*:

  1. Never waste a word. (Line edit like a banshee.)
  2. To prevent waste, frame the novel top-down, whether in outline or in revisions—think strategically about the arc, as well as each scene, paragraph, and sentence. What is the purpose of your first scene? Your second? Is there any way to connect their roles into one scene?
  3. Effective forward rhythm—story acceleration—is key to connecting various ideas within one scene.
  4. Consider pacing and the role of a particular plot element—the introduction of a paranormal twist, a character, a conflict, a question. Spend time on the smaller, subtler aspects of your novel if they are important. Consider the role these various elements play within your text versus they way they are typically portrayed or paced in the genre or sub-genre. Why do you want to move past a particular event quickly? Not so quickly? These answers and the execution will determine how successfully compact your writing is—whether everything is portrayed just right.
  5. Voice—even in plot-driven stories—is your savior. You can spend time on explanations or introductions even when they’re not typical if you can make them interesting. Just keep them tight and specific.
  6. Don’t be afraid of shorter scenes. Start scenes as late as possible and end them as late as possible—if you have something that needs to be said, say it. Introduce it. Frame it. (Look to the LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES excerpt—that is one scene, one introduction to the remainder; it is brief but informative.)
  7. Keep in mind your reader: What does the typical reader know about the topics you’ve chosen to include in your story? Is it necessary to introduce them at all? If so, how early do you need to do it? What is the minimum number of details you need for explanation?
  8. Try not to include any backstory—or very, very, very minimal backstory—in your first chapter. Think, Forward movement, forward movement; acceleration.

* Rules always have exceptions.

From Weronika’s Archives: A Brief Glance into a Novel’s Plot & Pacing

This post was originally included in the 2010 WriteOnCon faculty series. The online conference is no longer hosted.

Like most of the faculty at WriteOnCon, I’ve read and edited many unpublished manuscripts. The process of reading and editing has become second nature in my time as an assistant/intern to editors and agents and now, most recently, as a literary agent myself. I also write. I’ve been in the business a short time in comparison to others, but it’s been long enough to recognize a pattern in major flaws often embedded deeply in manuscripts. The two largest problems are usually underdeveloped characters and/or structural flaws related to plot or pacing.

The writing of characters, the spinning of humanity, is a mystery unto itself; the two books on writing from literary agent Donald Maass—Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction—offer some of the best advice I’ve seen on the topic of characterization.

When it comes to plot, though, and—as a result—to the interwoven topic of pacing, we get into a question of strategy and form. I’ve always looked upon plot as if it were a game to play: we have an end goal and we have rules, but they can be broken. There are templates out there to use when plotting and there are time-proven techniques with which writers can check plot and pace. It’s my goal to cover in sufficient depth those templates, some plot- and pace-related techniques/strategies, and additional resources for writers to check out.

So, plot and pacing? Here we go.

PLOT TEMPLATES

Pantsers, brace yourselves for what I’m going to say next, and please read on—I hope that you’ll find you agree with me by the time I’m done. Like with any topic as huge as this, I have to follow a bit of a formula so that Elana doesn’t make me cut this whole post (which would be the size of a novel) into pieces. Insert grin here.

The most effective way to plot is to outline. When I say ‘outline,’ however, I mean a very particular kind of outline—it is a customized version of a plot template, which does not have to be a step-by-step list of scenes or chapters. With this template, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to explore the story arc of the novel without writing any of it. Story arcs, of course, are the overarching framework of the manuscript—the steps from the event that opens your novel, through the rising action, to the climax. Story arcs are meant to be vague before the novel is complete; they don’t require you to figure out the exact page on which your two characters are going to meet for the first time and the page on which they will become friends. Those things will change.

This playing with templates really allows you to do two things:

First, you will figure out the story framework (the story path), enough of it to help guide your character through the novel.

Second, you will figure out the frame of the novel, and this is slightly different than the story framework. The frame of the novel consists really those first fifty pages or so in which you set up a series of events and you introduce us to a cast of characters that set the novel’s tone and mood.

At the very minimum, I think that every single writer—whether a pantser or an outliner—should undergo this process: the playing with templates before starting to write. There are different ways to go about doing so. Many writers will sit down to write their novels with some notes and not an actual outline. Those notes, whether structured or unstructured, have resulted from a lot of time spent writing about the novel (in a synopsis- or mini-novel format, in a journal format, in an ideas/brainstorming format, etc.). In that time, a story arc has arisen and the writer has a general idea of where the story will go. This writing of scripted notes is one option. If writers aren’t writing notes in such a format, they can take the templates and plot down different events in the novel—more of an outline, and this option requires a bit more structure, however.

The playing with templates before writing is important.

More important, however, is the playing with templates and key structural points after the novel has been written. Everyone has heard of the problem of the ‘sagging middle,’ and one of the reasons the (usually beginning) writer can’t fix that problem is because he or she hasn’t been introduced to the more formulaic end of writing. Formulas, templates, key plot points, etc., are necessary in genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and some romance. In others, they offer assistance to writers as they begin to plan revisions.

Very few writers manage to plod ahead in their writing without doing this kind of test at some point. Stephen King is the one exception that comes to mind; he writes based on scenarios and sometimes he keeps very general notes about different characters, but otherwise it’s a go-ahead, and some readers complain that he gets too wordy . . .

Regardless, it is strategic, on the writer’s part, to make sure that there aren’t any significant ‘outliers’ in her novel that threaten to decrease or increase pacing, for example, where the pacing needs to be picked up or slowed down.

Let’s talk about these templates for a little bit.

The most common template, at its basic level, is the three-act structure, drawn from screenwriting. (You should notice, by the way, that a lot of plot-related technique is drawn from screenwriting, which is far more formulaic than fiction.)

The three-act structure looks like this:

WriteOnCon1.gif

The three-act structure consists, obviously, of three acts.

I am going to give everyone a very generic breakdown of how this template would transfer to a 60,000-word manuscript and to a 300-page novel.

ACT I –

0 words – 15,000 words

0 pages – 75 pages

ACT II –

15,001 words – 45,000 words

76 pages – 226 pages

ACT III –

45,001 words – 60,000 words

226 pages – 300 pages

In addition to these three simple points separation, there are three other important pieces related to the novel: the inciting incident, the first plot point, and the climax.
In more detail:

The inciting incident is the event that signifies the beginning of the novel’s major conflict. A lot of writers struggle with the inciting incident. It doesn’t always need to happen so close to the beginning, but there is usually a significant downfall to keeping it for later in the first act—the beginning will be too boring.

I’ve seen three types of problems arise in relation inciting incidents. Sometimes, first of all, writers will not have a major conflict or question that drives the entire story; their novel will jump from subplot to subplot. There needs to be one major conflict that motivates the character the entire way through; subplots can threaten to take the protagonist away from the path of the conflict, or may help push the character onto it, but the conflicts/major plot/subplots need to always be interlinked and, well, sub to the main plot.

Second of all, the main conflict and novel question may switch the middle of the way through (this may be an accident on the writer’s part or the result of a big reveal, etc.). If not done on purpose, one half of the novel needs to be rewritten to fit the actual major question. If it’s done on purpose, that’s fine. What needs to happen, however, is the writer needs to plant clues from the very beginning that somehow, whether in backstory or in events that happen in the early stages of the novel, fuel and add layers to the reveal.

Finally, and third of all, a lot of writers will fit this inciting incident into the right word or page count, but they will have wasted a lot of time before it without anything else happening. The key to good plotting is adding layers to your scenes—if you can introduce two characters in one scene instead of two, do it. If you can bring two secondary characters into a scene and have them dump secrets or information or requests or whatever on the main character (keeping it natural, of course), do it. Don’t be afraid to make that huge scene as close to the novel’s beginning as you can—you can even open your novel with it and use backstory later to establish the status quo.

The first plot point is the first external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event requires the main protagonist(s) to make a choice—will they face the conflict head-on or will they be cowards? (All questions posed in novels are usually a derivative of that one, be the novel historical, romantic, fantastical, etc.)

For example:

In a novel about a girl who finds out that she is a faerie and must now become Queen of Faeries to keep humans from destroying the faerie race, the inciting incident would be the scene in which this girl finds out she is a faerie. This changes her status quo. The first plot point would be the appearance of the Faerie Godmother, telling the girl that, in one week, humans will send out a blast that will kill all faeries, including her, and if she wants to save the faeries, the girl must join the Faerie Godmother and travel to the faerie underworld. This establishes the major plot question of the novel—Will the girl be able to save the faerie race?—and, as a result, establishes the “public” life-or-death stakes (the death of all faeries). Another level could be that, if the girl doesn’t accept the Queen of Faeries potion, she will never know who her real father was (and this creates a “private” stake).

It is definitely possible to do both the inciting incident and a plot point at once. If you do combine those two things together, though, in terms of the three-act they then constitute only the inciting incident, and another plot point would need to arise by the end of the first act—for example, the humans take the girl’s mother hostage to keep the girl from going to the underworld.

The climax is the last—but definitely not second—external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event is the major showdown between your main protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). If your novel has any internal conflicts—depression, artistic obsession, madness, self-deprecation, self-confidence, whatever—the climax will be the strongest if you connect both the external and internal climaxes in one showdown, in one appearance.

Continuing my example above:

The climax would be the girl making a choice: Should she accept the humans’ offer to free her mother and stop fighting for the underworld, or should she risk her mother’s life to save all faeries? The scene (or scenes) in which this choice plays out would constitute the climax.

Just from this breakdown, we as writers are able to identify a few things: we should spend ¼ of our novel establishing the status quo and sending the novel into action—within 15,000 words of a 60,000-word novel. We need to layer that first ¼ of the novel with different levels of threat and stakes, be they personal or private—there needs to be enough to thrust a character on his or her ‘journey.’

I gave a pretty generic example. There are many novels in which a scenario similar to the one I outlined exists. It is important, as a result, for writers to play with their story arc—there are millions of different questions that writers can raise in their stories and, by connecting and playing with different questions as well as different events in which those questions unfold, many unique and—hopefully—fresh stories can arise. Those stories can follow pretty similar story arcs, too.

Now, let’s bring out another template. This one will help us better consider the middle and the end of the novel. This template is called the eight-point story arc. Let’s go into full detail about it here.WriteOnCon2.gif

The actual eight points on the story arc, labeled ‘officially,’ with brief descriptions, are:

  1. Stasis – once upon a time
  2. Trigger – something out of the ordinary happens
  3. Quest – the protagonist is forced to seek something
  4. Surprise – things don’t go as expected
  5. Critical choice – the protagonist must make a difficult decision
  6. Climax – the choice has consequences
  7. Reversal – the result of the choice is a change in stasis
  8. Resolution – and the characters live happily ever after (or not)

Let’s break each down individually.

You have approximately 12,000 words, if you’re going for an approximately 60,000-word novel, to really focus in on the stasis, the trigger, and the foundation for the quest.

  1. Stasis – This is the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, the sooner you begin setting up the potential drama, working in details and foreshadowing, the better.
  2. Trigger – Something out of the ordinary needs to happen.

Before you determine what this is, you need to make sure that you know in what direction your character is heading. This means knowing two things:

  • the character’s personal stakes: What will be explicitly/tangibly/concretely at stake for your main character? What, after the incident occurs, will she need to do in order to keep her status quo, to keep her life, to keep her happiness? All of those things are very general. You need to hone them and relate them to very specific instances in the book.
  • the public stakes: What will be the stake for the public, the people who are somehow linked more universally with your main character? What, after the incident, will change for the public, whether it realizes it or not?

The best triggers are the ones that connect the public and the private stakes. A typical format is as follows: The main character is told that she has to do U, V, W, within X amount of time, otherwise Y happens to the public. Then, the second she begins to do U, V, or W, it turns out that Z (something personal this time!) will happen if she continues with the original plan.

Regardless of the path that you choose, this incident needs to establish ‘the quest.’ In other words, this is the question that will follow through with the rest of the novel. Questions like ‘Will the hero save the heroine in time?’ are effective because they transcend the novel and are universal, so create a conflict that really digs deep.

This is your ‘big bang.’

  1. Quest – Your protagonist needs to seek something. This quest usually has two parts. The character makes the decision to go on this quest, and the character actually sets out on the quest. The key thing here is that your characters are proactive and don’t allow for the world to affect them; they try to affect the world.
  2. Surprise – Things don’t go as expected.

This needs to happen pretty quickly into the middle of the book, those 38,000 words (perhaps a bit more) we have to play with the entire plot.

This needs to be pretty drastic, but not extraordinary. Remember, you have to place your character into the worst possible scenarios. Donald Maass, writing teacher extraordinaire, recommends that writers place their protagonists and antagonists face-to-face five different times during the novel. I don’t think you need to do something that drastic in the YA novel, but four or five huge setbacks is a very good goal to go for, four probably ideal for the 60,000-word novel.

The critical choice below—#5—is the critical choice that occurs almost right before the conflict, which means that everything from the surprise right at the beginning of the middle, all the way through right before the climax, is all yours to play with. I’d say that this stuff in the middle will be right around 25,000 words, probably—the other 13,000 words is the actual surprise, the critical choice, and the climax.

This is where we get into the idea of rising action and crises. You need to, with every crisis, raise the stakes. You can make the danger worse. You can cut the time that your MC has to solve a problem. You can introduce a character into the mix that will somehow hamper the progress of the plot. There are a lot of ways to do this.

  • The best way to create depth is by doing something to the character that is permanent, irreversible. Create the possibility of failure. And torture your character. Her success in the end will be worth it more.
  • Public stakes really need a lot of work. People need to be affected by your main character’s conflict; secondary characters are the strongest when we see the effect of the plot on them too.

Along the entire journey, this is the format that your story should hold:

  • minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax
  • minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes)
  • minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes more)
  • minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes even more)
  • minor quest (this is the quest that will take us to the novel’s critical choice)
  1. Critical choice – The critical choice forces the protagonist to make a difficult decision. There should be multiple of these throughout a manuscript, but the most important one is the choice that drives us to the climax.

The most effective ones are the ones in which both decisions that a character has are viable. It’s questions like that that drive us to the climax, the scene that has a lot of depth because it combines all of the stakes.

  1. Climax – The climax occurs, and it has consequences, preferably even one or two bad consequences that are present, even though they underwhelm the positive consequences.

Oftentimes climaxes are strongest when they occur in the toughest possible circumstances, so bring forward secondary characters with differing viewpoints, move the climax to a publication location, etc. Connecting the private and the public stakes in one climax is the way to create the most powerful climax.

  1. Reversal – This changes the stasis.

In other words, the climax is done, the character returns to the status quo and observes, perhaps reacts to, the changes.

  1. Resolution – “They lived happily ever after.” (Or didn’t.) Resolutions require a very explicit solution to everything that has happened thus far in the novel. Find a way to tie all of the events in the novel together.

The goal here is to challenge your character, to throw rocks at her, and I guarantee you—I guarantee you—that, even if you have a beautifully rewritten and polished manuscript in front of you, ready to query, which an agent might sign and even sell, you could have challenged your character more. There are, of course, limits; no one wants to read about death and destruction and mass murders when the story is about a sixteen-year-old high school teenager. But you probably haven’t reached those limits.

There are some questions for you to consider, either as you plot or as you reread previous drafts, and they include:

– Have I put my character into the most challenging circumstances—into circumstances in which she was paralyzed with fears, in which what she held most dear was threatened, in which what she held most dear was taken away, in which she was physically hurt in an irreversible way? Did I put her into a position she can’t get out of?

– How have I timed my conflicts, my surprises, my mini climaxes? Do they happen at the worst possible time? (This is where subplots can be particularly helpful—have the hot villain appear when your protagonist is in a conversation with her crush, or something like that.) Make things uncomfortable. Make things awkward and sad and scary and emotionally captivating.

– Have I interwoven my main conflict with subplots? Have my secondary characters, whether on purpose or not, done something to raise the stakes? Have they put themselves at risk? Have they put the main character at risk by doing something stupid (or smart, if they’re one of those back-stabbing meanies)?

Those are just three possible sets of questions. There are many, many more—the key is to look at your novel as a puzzle and work to fit things together in ways that make it seemingly impossible for your character to get to his or her goal. Hurting your character isn’t always the best way out (but that doesn’t mean you take it easy on him or her).

Plot- and Pace-Related Techniques/Strategies

It’s painstakingly obvious by now how pacing results directly from good plotting. There are two kinds of pacing I’m going to mention briefly:

– Scene-based pacing

– Novel-based pacing

The strategy here is to think of each scene as a novel in itself—scenes should have their own inciting incident, rising action, and climax. I’m going to borrow from Maass again and reference what he calls inner and outer turning points. In each scene, two things should change: something on the inside of the character and something on the outside of the character. Obviously that’s not going to happen in every scene, but the strategy here is to ask yourself whether each of your scenes is moving the novel forward and changing anything for the character. Your pacing will align if something is changing; most likely, the faster to slower will fall into a natural rhythm as you move to and fro your larger, more overarching conflicts.

In addition, always, without a question, start your chapters and scenes as late as possible and end them as soon as possible. There is at least one chapter in your novel that starts a sentence, a paragraph, a few pages too early, and ends a few pages, a few sentences, too late. Go back and cut. Cut, cut, cut. Layer scenes if you have to.

The novel is tougher, and it really depends on the story that you’re telling, and I wish that I had a set of tools I could give you that could guarantee the right pacing. These are some simple suggestions that I can offer based on what I’ve observed in my own writing and in reading others’ work.

Whether you outline or not, the key to good plotting and pacing is adding layers to your scenes—if you can introduce two characters in one scene instead of two, do it. If you can bring two secondary characters into a scene and have them dump secrets or information or requests or whatever on the main character (keeping it natural, of course), do it. This will guarantee your pacing is quick where it needs to be quick.

Then, it’s important to remember not to throw a large amount of backstory into your writing. This slows down the pace and instead of moving the novel forward, the story becomes suspended. Chances are that most of the background you give is unnecessary to the conflict. That should always be your question—is this backstory about the family necessary? Is this backstory about a previous relationship necessary? Will it at any point change how the reader perceives a scene in the book? Probably not. Don’t be afraid to cut; if in your next reread you don’t notice anything missing, it was a good choice to cut.

As the story continues, the intensity picks up and the stakes are higher. Keep the tension tight as you move toward the climax. That last scene, the scene surrounding the choice, should be all action, all change, all mystery—don’t let your characters breathe.

Finally, and I’ve seen this a lot, too, don’t disappoint your reader with a fast solution ending. You’ve introduced us to a wide array of characters, most likely, and now we need to see one last time again those characters that are relevant. I’ve already mentioned the importance of secondary characters—when we see the effect of the plot on them, it becomes more universal; the same goes for the ending, where we should see a moral arise (not explicitly, of course—that ‘moral’ or theme to the story should be clear, and your message as an author should have come across).

It all comes down to the length of your chapters, your paragraphs, and your sentences. The greater the tension, the shorter the scenes should be—move forward, push things forward, let us see the multiple characters (if you have them) as they all head toward this big moment.

In addition—

If you do outline:

Frame the novel before you plot, and then ensure that the framing holds true as you begin to place events. As long as your conflict follows the path of your template, you’re nearly guaranteed correct pacing.

If you don’t outline:

Reread your drafts very carefully—after a long time of not looking at the draft at all—and be very honest about yourself: where are things happening too fast? Where are you losing your characters? And where are you bored out of your mind? Cut and write, cut and rewrite, write and rewrite.

Additional Resources for Writers

Over the years, I’ve found a particular set of resources to be incredibly helpful for me as I plot, outline, and consider the novels I am writing, as well as resources for pushing the writers I work with to add complexity to their novels.

Check out:

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, Donald Maass

THE FIRE IN FICTION, Donald Maass

WRITING SHORT FILMS: STRUCTURE AND CONTENT FOR SCREENWRITERS, Linda J. Cowgill

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson

The Dark Salon, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog