Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.31: How Do I Control the Reader’s Sense of Progress?

This month’s Master Class episodes focus on pacing, and we’re dividing the concept of pacing into two parts: the first is the sense of progress within the story, and the second is the sense of the passage of time. In this episode we tackle that first bit, and discuss how we communicate progress to the readers.

We talk a bit about the concept of “promises made to the reader,” which we covered in more detail during episode 10.14. You may want to refer back to that at some point.

Homework: The Magnified Moment: write two pages in which someone gets out of bed, walks across the room, and opens the door.

Thing of the week: Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu, narrated by Kevin T. Collins.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Pacing controls the flow of time and the progress of your characters towards their goals. Progress is an illusion that you control. You want an illusion of difficult progress toward a goal to create a satisfying ending. To control the reader’s perception of progress, control the character’s perception of progress. When characters feel as if they are moving, readers see progress. Characters that are trapped are boring. There’s plot progress, and then there’s things happening, even if they aren’t advancing the plot. Be cautious of things happening. Keep it interesting, and let the reader know why. Scenes should serve more than one function. A sense of progress toward a goal is critical. Make sure you know the promises that a reader is looking for, and that you are making progress on one of those promises. What effect does the reader expect your book to have? That’s the tone promise — mystery, excitement, romance, etc. The other promise is what the reader will see happen. Tone affects expectations about promises. For pacing, match your progress to your promises. 

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Do I Control the Reader’s Sense of Progress?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m… Dan.
[Howard] Getting there, eventually.

[Brandon] So this comes from one of my lectures, this idea of a sense of progress. It’s one of my big things about pacing. This month, we’re going to be talking about pacing. Pacing is that method you use in your book to control the flow of time and the progress of your characters. We’re going to break this concept down into these two topics. Our next podcast on pacing will talk about controlling time flow. This one is about this idea that progress in your book is actually something ephemeral. It’s something you have complete control over. If you think about it, you can make a moment pass in a 1000 pages. You could do that if you want. You can take 1000 pages to write one day. Or you can make 1000 years pass in one sentence. Conversely, as it relates directly to plot, if you want the characters to achieve something, you can just write that they do it. Or, if you want them to fail infinitely, you can just keep having them fail. You have complete control over how fast the characters are able to achieve their goals. Part of your job as a writer is to create an illusion here, an illusion of difficult progress toward a goal, so that you have a satisfying ending. Any conflict can be resolved in one sentence. And the two of them got together and put their differences aside. And the Eagles picked up Frodo and flew him to Mount Doom.
[Howard] I think Tolkien used more than one sentence there, but yes…
[Brandon] No, I’m saying you could. As a writer, you could do this. And Darth Vader had a heart attack, fell over, and the Emperor died from grief. I mean, you can do this. So this is all about this idea of the writer as a stage magician, you are creating an illusion of moving toward a goal. How do we do this? Podcasters?
[Mary] I was like, “Oh, we’re listening to Brandon.” Keep talking, Brandon.
[Dan] Yeah. I… Dang. I have no idea.
[Mary] So what you’re reminding me of is something that we run in puppetry a lot, which is that we have control over the audience in two ways. One is that we are showing them the character’s point of view. Then we’re also showing them… Even in limited third person, we are making decisions about what they’re doing. So we have total control over what they’re seeing. Which means that when we’re looking at progress, that part of… One of the tools that we have for controlling the reader’s perception of progress is the character’s perception of progress.

[Brandon] Excellent. That’s exactly how… One of the main ways you do this. If the characters feel like they’re moving, the reader’s going to feel like, “Oh, we’re moving towards something.” If the characters feel like they are trapped and can’t get anywhere… Books actually run into problems here. In fact, books that I’ve loved, I’ll talk to readers about and they’ll say, “Yeah, I loved it except for this one part.” If you’ve ever had the session where like they were trapped in the blog forever… Oh, they were in those tunnels. One of my favorite books is by Tad Williams, and the main character in the first book like gets trapped in the tunnels under the city. It’s like five pages when I went back and looked at it. But when I would describe it to my friends, I’m like, “Just skip those seven chapters because they’re so boring.”
[Brandon] It’s because the character feels like they are not making any progress or headway whatsoever. That gets really frustrating to readers.
[Howard] I divide progress into two categories. One is plot progress. The other is, for lack of a better term, it’s like story or scene progress. It’s progress of the things that are happening. A conversation that is interesting, but not directly related to the plot… A good, fun, interesting conversation is going to draw you forward, and is going to progress even though it might not be progressing the plot very much. You can’t do that a whole lot, but if you are in a situation where, for instance, they have to cross a hundred leagues of bog and it’s going to take a long time and you don’t want to say, “And they were very bored while they crossed 100 leagues of blog.” Blog!
[Dan] I read that blog.
[Howard] Subscribe to the RSS feed. That sentence is often boring enough to push people out of the book. Just one sentence. But if you put them in the bog and then they have an interesting conversation in which at some point they complain, “Wow, this is long and I’m wet and I’m miserable. At least you had a hot breakfast and blah blah blah…” And it’s fun. Then we can actually have some sense of progress.

[Dan] I will take it even a step further than that, which is when we do something like that, we need to know why. Why is this character trapped for five pages? Is it because I need this interesting conversation to happen and that’s the best way to do it? Or is it because I want to demonstrate for character purposes how this character responds to failure? Or… Why am I doing that? What purpose does that have? When you know that, you can write towards that end.
[Howard] The worst reason, and I get stuck with this all the time, the worst reason is I have the characters in position A, and I can’t cut straight to position B without people wondering how they got there. The travel, the traverse from A to B, is inherently boring. How do I do this? That’s a terrible place to be in.
[Mary] We’ll talk about that some more when we get into how to deal with pacing. But I think Dan’s point, knowing what the purpose of the scene is, that it’s actually okay and sometimes I think desirable to have a scene that serves two functions.
[Brandon] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Every scene should do more than one if you can.
[Mary] So when we’re talking about knowing the purpose of a scene in writing towards it, we aren’t saying just have one purpose. But knowing the primary purpose will help focus the thing that you absolutely must accomplish in this.

[Brandon] Here’s my favorite example of why a sense of progress can be so powerful in a book. One of my favorite books is Inferno by Jerry Pournelle and the other guy who writes with him who’s awesome.
[Mary] Larry Niven?
[Brandon] Larry Niven. Yeah. Sorry, I was just at a con with Larry. So Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Great writers. Science fiction. Inferno is about a science fiction writer who falls out of a window at a party… He gets drunk and dies and wakes up in Hell. Okay. He’s in Dante’s Inferno. This story is a really loose connection of short stories, basically. They go to one place, they have a little bit of an adventure. Then they go to another place, have a little bit of an adventure. Like he’ll pick up companions and then they’ll leave him and things like this. Very episodic. Yet I was ripping through that book. I had to read page to page. At the end of it, I thought, “Why was I working so hard to rip my way through this book, when it is just a loosely connected set of vignettes?” I realized the key to that was actually the map in the front. Because the inferno as drawn by Dante is a big circle and in… The character starts at the edge of the circle and starts moving in towards the center. Each of these vignettes takes place one step closer to the center, to the point that I’m like, “I need to know what’s in the center. I think Satan’s in the center. What’s going to happen when they run into Satan?” It was wonderful. It was all illusion, because it’s just this now we’re going to move here and have this adventure. They could have had all those adventures at the rim of the story but the authors knew in order to make us pull through this whole story, they gave us a sense of progress toward a goal.
[Mary] I think having that goal is… It’s not… You can’t have a sense of progress without having a goal. Otherwise, you’re just wandering around lost.
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Mary] So when you’re looking for… What Dan was talking about with the purpose and Brandon is saying, what you need to be doing is not just figuring out what is happening right now, but what is the goal, both for your character and for the reader experience?
[Brandon] Let’s stop…
[Howard] When I read Inferno, this is not the experience I had. The reason why is that the subtext that you’re describing went right over my 17-year-old head. I kept waiting for something to tell me where we were and the thing that was going to tell me was the map in the front that I should have paid more attention to.
[Brandon] See, I’m an epic fantasy reader. So maps, I…
[Brandon] Pore over the maps. I think that book is made or broken by you wanting to know what happens in the center.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Time Salvagers. Howard, you’re going to talk about this book.
[Howard] Yes. Time Salvagers… Err, Time Salvager by Wes Chu. We’ve had him on the podcast before. I got to read an advance copy of this book so that I could cover quote it. I really enjoyed the book, couldn’t put it down. I gave them several cover quotes. They used one word from me, which was “Gripping.” I’m going to read to you the actual quote.
[Brandon] You’re not bitter at all.
[Howard] Not bitter at all. But I need to make sure that you hear this. Gripping. I was able to put this book down any time I wanted to, provided I also wanted an anxiety attack. I always felt for the characters. I was nervous for them. I wanted to know what was happening next, so I kept turning pages. Only there wasn’t the fatigue that I often associate with that. It’s well worth reading, well worth having it read to you. It’s narrated by Kevin T. Collins. We don’t have a link for it yet, because as of this recording, it hasn’t been released yet.
[Brandon] Yeah. But it’ll be out by the time you guys are hearing this. Great. I actually just started reading some of Wes’s work after having him on the podcast a couple of times, and I’m really enjoying it.

[Brandon] So. Sense of progress. I really think, personally, this comes down to something we talked about at the beginning of the year, which is identifying the promises that you’re making to readers. Often times, when a reader has problems with the pacing of a book, what’s really happening is either you as a writer are fulfilling on the wrong promises or you’re not making significant progress, either backward or forward, on one of the promises that you made them at the beginning of the book.
[Mary] One of the things that I’ve heard from some readers… Or listeners, excuse me, is that they aren’t completely clear on what we mean when we are talking about promises.
[Brandon] Good. Let’s talk about that.
[Mary] This is a good time to revisit it, because this is one of those places where you need to be clear on it because you’re trying to reinforce those things. So when we’re talking about promises and progress, what were specifically talking about are things you want the reader to feel from… Let me back up one more time and make another stab at this. In a previous podcast, we had Cory Doctorow on, and we talked about how writing is basically hacking your brain. Or reading is hacking your brain. So when you’re making promises to the reader, what you’re saying is, “This is the effect this book is going to have on your brain.”
[Brandon] Yeah. I look at two different types of promises. One is a tone promise. At the beginning of the book, you should promise something. Mystery, excitement, romance, fear. You, in your first chapter, should be promising the reader, “Look, this is the feeling you’re going to get.” Then the other thing I look to promise is this is what you’re going to get to see happen. If you introduce… I just watched A Bug’s Life, one of the early Pixar films. Introduces a little bug who is an inventor, whose inventions are all going wrong and getting into trouble. That is an implicit promise to the viewer, in that case, but the reader. “Look, this guy that you like that’s bumbling is going to get his act together and one of his inventions is going to be really cool by the end.” That’s a promise to the reader. When the bad guys show up, and in that movie, it’s a bunch of grasshoppers who eat the food. The promise is we’re going to beat these guys and we’re going to be self-sufficient.

[Mary] The thing about that that I’m going to point out is that tone affects the way the promise is perceived. Because if we had seen humbling inventor and it was a gritty noir sort of thing at the beginning, the promise that we would then be expecting is that one of his inventions is going to go terribly wrong and kill everybody.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, he’s going to summon Cthulhu accidentally.
[Mary] So there’s an intersection between these, so you need to understand that so when you get to the middle and you’re trying to fulfill these, trying to make sure that you’re making progress towards these things, that you know whether you are building towards happily ever after or doom.
[Dan] So…
[Mary] No, no, no, go on.
[Dan] Okay. I just yesterday on the plane, I finished the book Bolo Strike by William Keith. Have you guys ever heard of the Bolo series?
[Mary, Brandon] Nope.
[Howard] William Keith or Keith Laumer?
[Dan] They’re hard SF… Keith Laumer created the series, but William Keith wrote in it.
[Howard] Okay. Cool.
[Dan] Hard SF, military science fiction about artificially intelligent tanks the size of buildings. Really, really cool stuff. It’s one of these tonal promises that gets made at the beginning, because the first two pages of the book is just… It almost looks like a printout. It’s not fiction, it’s a scientific description of the star system, and then the planet, and then the moon orbiting it. You know in astronomical units how big it is, what their tidal system will be like, like everything. What that is telling you is that this is a book that focuses in on the scientific details. I realized halfway through this 400 page book that only two hours had passed. Because all of the scenes are…
[Brandon] Scientific details.
[Dan] Described in incredible detail. It’s not just “And then the tank shot.” It tells you what done the tank shot and how long it took for the bullets to reach the target and how many joules of energy were transferred to the target. That gave it a very distinct sense of progress. Because you realize this is not the story of how the war is won, this is the story of the science behind it, this is… I’m here for the experience of reading this.
[Brandon] Make sure that when you’re writing… I think with pacing, the number one thing you can do as new writers is learned to match the progress to your promises. Match… If your reader is reading because they want two characters to hook up together, but your sense of progress is defeating the bad guy, your reader’s like, “I don’t really care about this, what about the characters?” That’s where you have this mismatch. If it’s a mystery, if your promise is we’re going to learn about this thing, but you take this big diversion and were going to go traipsing across the desert. You’re like, “Yes, my sense of progress is I’m moving towards this point across the desert.” But the reader’s thinking, “Oh, but this cool mystery…” You’ve got a mismatch.

[Howard] I just watched National Treasure yesterday. It’s a fun meta-exploration of the promises as regards pacing, because in our opening scene with Nicholas Cage and… He always dies, I forget his name. Game of Thrones.
[Dan] Sean Bean.
[Howard] Sean Bean. We find a thing and it’s not the treasure. Sean Bean says, “You told me this was going to be the treasure.” He says, “No. This is one of the clues that is going to lead us to the treasure.” “You told me this was going to be the treasure!” They have a fight. What that sets up is, we as the reader recognize, “Oh, we’re looking for a treasure, but there’s going to be lots of clues.” What some of the characters are frustrated with is we’re not making any progress, because we haven’t found the treasure you. That disconnect is part of what drives the story forward. I don’t want to make National Treasure sound like it’s more brilliant than it really is…
[Howard] But it was really interesting to look at that interplay.
[Brandon] National Treasure is excellently paced. That’s… I mean, it’s a fun movie, it’s not Shakespeare, but the pacing is spot on in that movie. They know how to match the promises and expectations. We’re going to steal the Declaration of Independence. Okay, I get to see that happen.
[Dan] So listening to you guys talk about this, it occurs to me, going back to the Bolo book that I just read. The final act of that book had an incredible amount of tension to it because I had become accustomed to the speed of progress and I looked at the number of pages left and thought, “There’s no way they’re going to wrap this up. There’s no possible way, given how long it takes him to describe a battle, that they’re going to be able to win before this book is over.” So the pacing, in that sense, really ratcheted up the tension as I kept trying to think, “Well, what is it going to be?” It had to be something scientific given the genre, and it added a lot to it.

[Brandon] Excellent. Dan, you’ve got our homework this week. You were going to talk about a magnified moment.
[Dan] Absolutely. This is an exercise that I use when I talk about suspense and how to write suspense. But it applies really well to this sense of progress. The idea is that the amount of time you dedicate to a topic can signal to your readers how important that topic is. So what I want you to do is you’re going to write someone gets out of bed, walks across the floor, and opens the door. But you’re going to take at least two pages to do that. You have to dig deep into all of the senses. What are they hearing? What are they… What noise are they making or trying not to make? The amount of detail you put into that can signal all by itself that something incredibly tense is happening, because otherwise, he would just walk across to the door. The fact that we are taking two pages to do it is going to add so much weight.
[Howard] I already want to know what’s behind the door. Jerk!
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Squeaky] I’m behind the door, Howard. He-he-he!