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

Writing Excuses 10.32: How Do I Control the Speed of the Story?

As we said last week, we’re talking about pacing, and we’ve divided the concept into two parts. Last week we covered “sense of progress.” This week we’re talking about the passage of time. We discuss the tools we use, some of which are very mechanical (scene breaks, chapter breaks) and some of which are quite intricate, and require finesse to get right.

Homework: Take something you’ve already written (a chapter with a few scenes would be perfect.) Change scene breaks to through-scenes. Then try moving the scene breaks around. See what happens to the pace of the story.

Thing of the week: Seveneves: A Novel, by Neal Stephenson, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal and Will Damron.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Where do you put your chapter and scene breaks, and what kind of chapter and scene breaks do you use? Through scenes, with continuous action, or scene breaks (aka camera cuts, cut to black, ###)? Think about the effect on the reader — keep them going, or give them a break for reaction? A break at a cliffhanger raises tension, a break after a revelation gives the reader a chance to react. If you do cliffhangers, make sure what they come back to is worth it. Which kind of cliffhanger — open the door, and (BREAK), then see the centurion waiting or open the door, see the centurion waiting, and (BREAK)? Look at white space — length of lines, paragraphs, etc. Dialogue and short action beats versus expository blocks of text. Exposition may be faster, but dialogue or quick beats reads fast, even if it takes more pages. Commas are one beat, periods two, and paragraph breaks are three beats. But. Be. Careful. Think about pacing in proportion to the length of the story you are writing. Short books, faster pace. Also check your genre! Don’t forget the scene-sequel format! Also, look at whether a scene is self-contained, or leaves unanswered questions. Try putting a scene break just before they escape, just after they escape, or after they escape and find the Roman centurion waiting with the next question… the pace changes!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 32.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Do I Control the Speed of My Story?
[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.

[Brandon] We’re talking about pacing again. We’re going to talk about the actual pacingpartofpacing.
[Brandon] How do we control the speed of our story? Mary, you actually pitched this podcast.
[Mary] One of the things that, again with my theater background. One of the things that I became aware of when I was looking at pacing was that there are two different ways… There are a number of different ways to control pacing. Some of the things we’ve already talked about, but one of them is this really mechanical thing, which is where you put your chapter and scene breaks, and what kind of chapter and scene breaks you use. This is something that you can use with the reader to control their perception of how things are going in the story. In theater, there’s through scenes, which is where you finish a scene and then it does not go to black, people change the scenery as part of the action, and then you immediately start the next scene. Which is the theater equivalent of a transition where you say, “And they walked through the thousand league blog.”
[Mary] Then you have scene breaks, where you actually go to black and then come back. These have two different effects on the reader. One is that sometimes you want the reader to stay tense and stay moving forward. Sometimes you actually want to give them a moment to have a reaction. That space, and giving them that space, that scene break, the chapter break, will allow them to have the reaction which can sometimes actually ratchet up the tension more. Sometimes it will prepare them for what comes next.

[Brandon] I will mention on this, though, a scene break or chapter break, where you place it has a big influence on this.
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Brandon] For instance, if you stop at a cliffhanger, then that actually ramps up tension. You stop after something has been explained or described, that can be a tension reliever. That’s a “okay, now I react.” That’s just a matter of moving it, a chapter break, by a page sometimes.
[Howard] A sentence, often.
[Mary] Often so. When you do the cliffhangers, you need to make sure that what they come back to merits the amount of tension you created.
[Brandon] I often say, with cliffhangers, by the way, I really prefer the cliffhangers where you open the door and you see something cool, and then you have to jump to the next page to see because it’s so mind bogglingly awesome as opposed to the… I’ve said this before. They got to the door, opened it, and… Cliffhanger. I think when you do that one, you’re setting yourself up to… That surprise has to be even better than it was going to be. If they open the door and his father was outside, then you’re like, “Oh, it’s going to go down now.” Where the previous way, they open the door and… Next page. His father was outside. You’re like, “Oh, that’s it?”

[Howard] One of the things that I’ve found as a pacing tool, and we’ve talked about chapter in scene breaks, which is a… If you stand 10 feet away from the book, you can see that, that it has a shape in the book. The length of paragraphs, the length of lines, also has a very important effect. I… I am a big fan of letting there be whitespace when there needs to be whitespace.
[Brandon] Okay. What is the exact effect of those? What does it do when the reader turns the page and sees a bunch of white space? Meaning usually lots of dialogue or quick action beats.
[Mary] This gets back into something I talked about on my very first time with you guys, which is the… With puppetry, there’s this idea of rhythm and breath creating the emotional sense. I think that what’s happening with these short sentences, with lots of white space, is that what where indicating to readers… We’re mimicking a breathing pattern that happens when someone is excited. You takes faster breaths, you don’t look at things for as long. The exercise we had people doing with the magnified moment last… In the previous episode, that is taking time and really expanding. That’s slowing things down and putting a lot more weight on them. Whereas when you go very quickly, you have the sense… It creates a sense of urgency.
[Howard] Let’s think about…

[Brandon] There is something counterintuitive here that I want to bring out to people. That is the exposition versus dialogue or quick action beats. Exposition can often be faster, depending on how you write it. Once again, this goes back to what we talked about in a previous podcast where we said you can make 1000 years pass by saying, “And a 1000 years passed.” That’s exposition. And they went to the store and there was nobody there so they came home and fixed sandwiches. Exposition. One sentence. Whole bunch of time has passed. But it feels slower than dialogue or quick action beats taking up three or four pages instead of a paragraph, because the reader gets more invested in that.
[Mary] It really is the… That thing that we’ve also been talking about, how you can control the reader’s perception by how deeply they are invested in something. If they are living the moment with the character, it is actually… Their perception of it is going to feel more real time.
[Howard] When I’m using lots of white space and it’s not for dialogue… If I were to use it for something like the magnified moment, what I would be doing is calling out important pieces of that moment and accenting them by surrounding them with white space, so that yes, you take a breath, you read this, you take another breath, you are processing this thing as if it is as important as the whole paragraph that came before it. So regardless of the flow of time, I’m controlling… It’s the brain hack. I’m controlling the way the information is entering your brain.
[Brandon] I need to break this down for a moment, because I don’t think readers are going to exa… Or listeners are going to exactly understand what you just said. Because a magnified moment is generally going to be big blocks of text. A magnified moment is lots of description, description equals big blocks of text. What Howard is saying is you need to interrupt those big blocks of text with small lines, set up on themselves, and small observations, in order to create a rhythm in this scene that is not simply blocks of text.
[Dan] For example, this does not merit a full writing exercise, but take a paragraph that you have written recently. Then put a hard return after every single sentence. Just so you can see how that changes the feel of it.
[Howard] That’s what I was getting…
[Dan] When every sentence is its own…
[Howard] At with the magnified moment. You take the magnified moment you’ve written, and you reshape it with line feeds, and the emotion…

[Mary] I’m going to jump in.
[Howard] Sorry.
[Mary] No, no, no. Because now we are exactly in my bailiwick. Because this is the audiobook narrator hat coming out. There is a very specific, mechanical thing that punctuation does. And sentence breaks… Sentence breaks and paragraphs. That is that we are mimicking the way that people speak. One of the things that happens with the natural pauses that we take in our conversation is that we pause before… Something that we need to emphasize. There’s this mechanical thing, and you can try it with your own work. There’s a very mechanical thing that we do when we’re training audiobook narrators. When you see a comma and you’re reading out loud, you pause and count to one. When you see a period, you pause and count to two. A paragraph break is a three pause. Three count pause. This is incredibly mechanical, and it’s not something that you do past an experimental training phase. But when you do that, you see exactly the effect that this has on the reader. When they are taking those words that are written on the page, they will put those pauses in. So when you’re breaking something out, you want to make sure that it is something you really want to emphasize. You also want to be aware that if you do it too much. Then you wind up with the text version. Of William Shatner! Where there’s a pause. To emphasize.
[Brandon] I’ve read some thriller writers that drive me up the wall, because every other paragraph is a one line paragraph. It’s the same effect I get from actually a lot of graphic novel writers, where they feel like they have to bold like two words per sentence. When I read that in my head, suddenly. It’s got this. Really weird cadence. To it. These are tools that can be very helpful to you, but overusing them… Probably not a good idea.
[Dan] The Maximum Ride books by James Patterson, which are grotesquely successful. They’re the most breathlessly written things I’ve ever seen, because most of the paragraphs are only one or two sentences long. It just… Yes, they’re adding pauses, but what they’re also adding is so much intensity, so much solemnity over every single thing, that it just…
[Brandon] It drives you crazy.
[Howard] I think what we’re establishing here is that this is a critical tool, and if you use it wrong, you break things.

[Brandon] We’re going to stop for our book of the week. Mary?
[Mary] Our book of the week this week is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson which I narrated with Will Damron. This is one of the most interesting case studies for pacing I have ever run across. Because… There’s two things… I want you to get this book and I want you to get this book in audio and I want you to get a print copy of it. I know that that’s a lot to ask, but do it. Because he writes insanely long sentences that are completely understandable, because the man knows what punctuation is for. He can write paragraphs that are more than a page long, and again, the man understands when and why to insert a paragraph break. But what he’s also doing with this… It’s the story of… It opens with the moon exploding.
[Brandon] As it does.
[Mary] As it does. Then the pieces of the Earth… The pieces of the moon are going to fall to the Earth and bombard it and everyone’s going to die, unless they can do these heroic measures. The first part of the book takes place over the course of about 20 years. There are sections where we are in the moment and living it beat by beat by beat. Then there are sections that we just skip over through exposition. His choices on when to do that are rea… He’s a really good writer. Just in case you didn’t know that.
[Howard] Wait. Neal Stephenson?
[Mary] I know. Who is this guy?
[Howard] Who would have thought?
[Mary] It is absolutely… It is a great book. I loved narrating it. I actually only narrated the first two thirds, and finished reading it because I just wanted to know what happened. I highly recommend it just as something to enjoy. But as something to study specifically for pacing and sentence, if you’re going to buy something in audio and print, and the reason I’m saying both is because listening to how these things flow is a hug… It was incredibly educational for me.
[Brandon] Excellent. They can get that?
[Mary] They can get that at for a… With a three… Three? With a 30-day free trial membership. I’m in the middle of book two right now and a little fuzzy…

[Brandon] Dan mentioned something that I want to jump back to. Pacing actually, for me, is tied directly to the length of the story I’m writing. There are books where I’m like, “You know what, I don’t mind if they read this in one or two sittings.” So I’m going to use… I’m going to pace things faster, I’m going to use shorter chapters which tends to pace faster, I’m going to have fewer of these breaks where it’s like all right, we just accomplished something, let’s take a breather. Just to pull the reader all the way through. There are other books that are 400,000 words long, that I’m like, “You’re going to take a week to read this book.” So I’m going to build into it natural breaks.
[Mary] I talk about it with my students, about the importance of thinking about the proportions. Like, if you have… If you’re writing a Chihuahua killer, if you have a first scene that’s…
[Mary] For those of you not able to watch the video feed, the look Brandon is giving me right now…
[Brandon] I like Chihuahuas.
[Mary] I just wrote a Chihuahua killer. I was very happy about it.
[Brandon] Why not a spider killer? I suppose any of them can kill spiders.
[Mary] Any of them can be spider killers. Point being, and it’s a proportion question. If you write… If you have something and the first scene is 5000 words long, and it is in a giant book, no problem. If your second scene is 100 words long, and that is the end of your short story, people are going to be very frustrated, because you set up an expectation by that scene length. One of the things that you do is you look at the overall proportion. I can’t give you like a golden mean ratio to use, but it gets back again to these promises that we’re making to the readers.
[Brandon] Right. And your genre.
[Mary] And your genre. Exactly.

[Dan] Once we start looking at different lengths of work, we spent so much of the first half talking about sentence level and paragraph level stuff. I only just now, in the manuscript I’m currently writing on, have gotten a real appreciation for the concept of scene-sequel format and how that can affect the pacing, the chapter or whole section level. That’s something that Howard has talked a lot about before.

[Howard] One of the techniques that I’ve… And I say technique. This is one of those checklist things, where I look at it to see if I’ve done something wrong, if there’s an easy fix in here. Scenes will ask questions and answer questions. If I want somebody to be able to pause at the end of the scene, it needs to have answered all of the questions that it asked. If… I mean, there can still be big plot questions outlying, but this scene contained itself and left us in a place where we could stop. If a scene asks a question that is left unanswered, and then we stop, I gotta turn the page.
[Mary] This is what I do with the MICE quotient that… I do something I call braiding and nesting. The MICE quotient is… We usually talk about it in terms of looking at the overall structure of a thing. But you can also use it for individual scenes and individual goals that a character has. One of the things that I found very effective for moving a character… For creating the sense of a cliffhanger without actually writing a cliffhanger is that I will… I’ll start a scene… Let me use an example from one of my books, just because it’s in my head. I start a scene that is… It’s essentially a milieu scene. They’re trapped in a room, and they need to get out of the room. We get them out of the room and… I could have… I have a choice on where I put that scene break. I can put the scene break before they get out of the room, leaving that question unanswered, which will bring them forward in one way. I can put it right after they get out of the room, which gives the reader a resting place. Or, I can put it after I introduce the next question. So they get out of the room and there’s a Roman centurion waiting for them. I’m wrong, this is not out of one of my books, I’m making it up out of whole cloth now.
[Mary] There’s a Roman centurion waiting for them. If I stop right after the centurion comes in, that raises a question. That’s what a cliffhanger looks like. Basically, by just moving where that thing is in relation to that very specific question, that arc, I can control the reader’s perception of the speed of the story. It will feel, even though it’s exactly the same number of words, it will feel like a faster read if that break comes after the next question.
[Brandon] Someone who’s very good at this, and I like to bring up in pacing conversations, is Terry Pratchett. I would recommend the book Nightwatch to you if you want to read one that has an interesting use of pacing. I’ve often used Pratchett as an example of someone… He does some bizarre things. Number one, there are no chapters in his books. Just a sce… A whole bunch of scenes. One big chapter for the entire novel. There are often no pauses. It is all breakneck. But he balances that with humor. Which allows you to laugh, and gives you the pause. I find his writing far more effective than most humorists, because he adds this sort of breakneck pacing to his book that pulls you through to the end. A lot of humor writers have this trouble, where I’m laughing while I’m reading it, but when I put it down, I don’t ever want to pick it back up. I remember, “Oh, that was funny,” but… I just don’t feel that urgency. He manages to make urgency happen and he does it just in the way that you just explained, Mary. He never lets you say, “Oh, I have the answer now.” You always have another question. Then he fulfills on those questions quite well.

[Brandon] We are actually out of time. So we’re going to let Mary give us some homework regarding scene breaks.
[Mary] Right. What I’d like you to do is take something that you’ve written already. We’re just going to play with converting it from a through scene… Or converting it either from a through scene to a scene break or the other way around, depending on what it is. But just grab an entire chapter that has scenes in it, and take all the… Any place you have a scene break, take it out and replace it with exposition to bridge. Instead…
[Howard] A transitional sentence of some sort.
[Mary] A transitional sentence. See what that does to your pacing. Likewise, look what happens if you… When you put those scene breaks back in, look what happens if you move where that scene break is, just by a line or two.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.