The importance of tension and pace

This post is the tenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we get into writing your novel, I wanted to talk about two important elements – tension and pace. Understanding both of these will help you write better scenes in your story.

Tension

Tension is the element of a novel that evokes worry, anxiety, fear or stress for both the reader and the characters.

One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events.

Tension can take many forms.

  • Anticipation of conflict
  • Unexpected events– sometimes the reader knows what is coming, but the character doesn’t and sometimes both are surprised by what happens.
  • Fear of secrets revealed
  • Impending doom/sense of urgency

It is the author’s job to figure out how to produce these in the story.

Often once one obstacle is conquered, another one crops up. But while good fiction is full of tension and suspense, it needs to vary throughout the story. You need to turn down the intensity for short periods. How much you slow down the tension will depend upon your story needs and the demands of your genre. But just because you slow down doesn’t mean the momentum stops. This may simply be the calm before the storm.

Tips for creating tension:

Short sentences – short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. Think of your sentences matching your protagonist’s racing heart. Avoid long sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs.

Show, don’t tell – rather than “He was nervous.” Write: “His hands trembled.”

Cliffhanger – leave them hanging

The stakes in fiction matter because the stakes create tension. Your protagonist’s happiness and perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome of the story. If the stakes in the story are low, then the tension will be weak.

It is the stakes of the story – the tension – that keeps many readers hooked to your novel.

Pace

Pace is the speed in which events happen in your novel. You need to balance the pace of your writing. If your scenes drag on and on (slow pace) then you lose or bore readers. If it is too fast, you will leave your readers unsettled and it won’t be a comfortable read.

The trick is to get the balance just right. And there is no one out there that can tell you what that balance should be.

A lot of this will depend on your style as a writer. It can also be influenced by your genre and your readers’ preference. A young-adult audience might require a faster pace than adult novels. A short story might quickly jump into the action while an epic tale might be told at leisurely pace, speeding up from time to time during the most intense events.

Ideally, your pace will vary throughout your novel. You will have fast-paced scenes followed by slower ones. This will allow the reader to have a break (and perhaps catch their breath) after your action-packed scenes.

Many new writers make the mistake of believing they need to have a very action filled plot to keep the readers’ attention from beginning to end but this is not the case. It is actually the varying of pace that will keep readers hooked to your story.

So what determines the pace?

Fast pace is all about action. When something is happening, the pace is brisk. Slow pace is more on character reflection of past experiences or wondering about the future. It can be scene descriptions or even the passing of time – sometimes months or even years pass in a single sentence.

To speed up pace:

  • Have lots of action
  • Less description
  • Shorter sentences (and paragraphs)
  • Dialogue is short and to the point
  • Cut adverbs and adjectives to a minimum
  • Use strong, active verbs
  • Omit or limit character thought

To slow down the pace:

  • Longer sentences
  • More description
  • Less action or slow action such walking or making tea
  • Dialogue is more relaxed/conversational

Now your story can be paced very fast all the way through or even have a slow pace through most of the story but often it is best to use a mix of both forms. Using variety enhances your story and can keep the reader engaged.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

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Developing Characters for your Novel

This post is the fourth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Characters are one of the most important elements to your story. They are what drive the plot. Believable characters help bring readers into your fictitious world. You can tell I am a firm believer in taking the time to build your characters and their history. I have written about characters twenty eight times in the past five years. Now I am going to try and boil most of what I have said about them into just two posts.

At the very minimum, you should know the basics for every character – what they look like, what occupation they have and a general sense of what they want.

For your main characters (and some minor characters) you should know even more of their history. It is from this history that your character’s motivation will develop. Your plot is derived from these characters and their motivations. Motivation leads to action, which leads to more action. And it leads to problems and conflict. Without this, there is no plot.

So how do you fill out all this history and character traits on your characters? There are several methods. You can fill out a character worksheet, create a timeline or write a short narrative.

Character Profile Worksheet

This is a list of the physical description (age, height, manner of dress, etc.), personal characteristics (goals, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc.), living situation (occupation, home, pets) and background (birthplace, education, family) of your character. The easiest way to know all these things is to fill out a character profile questionnaire. You can easily do a web search for one or check out the one here or here.

Timeline/Outline

Another option is to create a timeline or outline of your character’s history. Starting with their birth, add in other major events that happened to your character up until the time the story begins. These would need to be extensive for major characters and could be sparser for minor characters.

Narrative

And sometimes it is just easiest to write a few paragraphs about your character. Be sure to cover such basics – family life, education, likes, and major events and so on.

Knowing your character’s history isn’t always enough to know what motivates and drives them. You need their recollection of the events that made them into who they are today. A fun way to get to know your characters is to do a character interview.

Character Interview

In a character interview, you ask your character questions and answer back as if you are that character. This gives you a chance to explore some of their background from their point of view. You can pretend to be the police interviewing your bad guy, a therapist interviewing a patient, or perhaps you are interviewing them for a magazine as if they are a celebrity. It is a technique with lots of room to play and adapt to your specific needs. To find out more click here to read my post “The Character Interview: Getting to know your characters.”

Now, it is a lot of work to fully develop your characters. But the work will pay off. Your characters will seem more real. And you don’t need to do all this work for every character in your novel. You will want to spend more time developing major characters while minor ones will need less or almost no work. (More on minor characters next week.)

Names

There is one more area to talk about before we finish today’s post on characters. You need to name them – all of them. It can be a daunting task. If you thought naming your child was hard, naming your characters is just as hard. Of course, the most thought needs to go into your main character’s name. You want a name that is unique to your character, that your reader will remember, and that fits into your story, whether it be a fantasy, futuristic, historical or a modern piece.

I find a baby-naming books or websites to be a great resource for names. You can also check out yearbooks, genealogy records, or film credits.

Here are some tips to naming your character:

  • Steer clear of complicated, hard-to-pronounce names. If you do choose one, consider using a nickname to make it easier to the reader and other characters.
  • Don’t overuse unusual names or spellings. If your main character is Barnabus, name his sidekick Sam or Eric, not Hawthorne.
  • You should avoid having characters with similar names – Jon and Jan. You may also want to stay away from names that start with the same letter or same sound – like Phil and Fred.
  • Avoid nicknames or unusual names that will annoy the reader. For example, calling a man by what is traditionally a woman’s name or vice versa can create unnecessary confusion. Only do this if there is a real need for it in your story.
  • HISTORICAL NOVELS – you will want to look for a name popular or at least in use during the time period you have chosen. Do not pick a modern name (such as Jennifer) for a story set in the 17th century.
  • If your character was born in the U.S., browse through the Social Security Name Popularity List for that year.
  • You also should make sure your character is not a real person. Try Googling the names you choose.

Next week, I will address the different types of characters – major, minor, sidekicks, and antagonists.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

Tackling the Second Draft (Novel Writing)

The first draft is done! Whew. But now the real work begins. For many authors, the first draft is just where they jot down the story. Maybe they had an outline to guide them, or maybe they simply wrote whatever came to mind. In either case, there will be a lot of rewriting and cutting coming up.

My first drafts take a long time because I spend time both writing and editing at the same time. I am constantly rewriting and refining as I write my initial draft. This means I don’t have as much to cut out or change as some authors might have.

Now every author approaches their second draft different. For me, this is a time to check the consistency and where I can amend the story either by trimming it, fleshing it out or developing subplots.

To do this, I cannot stop on every page to fix and worry over every word. That will come later. To begin, I need to read through the first draft without stopping to correct every flaw. Yes, I may add a missing word or fix a spelling error, but I try not to get into re-writing at this stage. I want to read it straight through first. As I read, I am making notes of areas that need work, whether it be adding something, deleting the scene or polishing. I am checking the timeline and looking for consistency in travel time or character behavior.

Now once I have read through and made my notes, my second draft isn’t done until I go back and make all those changes. For me, the second draft is about re-writing, expanding and cutting scenes. Descriptions are added to bring the story and characters to life. Scenes that don’t advance the story are deleted – even if they are well-written or your favorite.

Sometimes you will re-work an area once or twice. And sometimes it will take many more tries until you get it right. This part of editing where you take away and add to the story can be very messy, and you may need to be ruthless but it will make your story better, stronger.

It may take many read-throughs to finish this stage. (Which depending on how you count them could be considered additional drafts.) If you do multiple readings, you should take a break between each one. This will allow you to view your novel with “fresh eyes” and will help you catch more things that need to be changed.

And when you are done perfecting the story, the timeline, the characters, it is time for the third draft where you will further tighten your writing, perfect word choices and descriptions, cut unnecessary words and fix punctuation. (For help on the third draft, check out my revision outline).

Ah but at least we have the basics down and ready to turn into a well-written novel!

K is for Killers #AtoZChallenge

For the A to Z Challenge, I have chosen the theme of antagonists.

On my normal blogging days, Monday – parenting and Thursday – writing/publishing, I will tie that day’s topic to antagonists but on the other days (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday), I will write about antagonists from movies, TVs or books. On Wednesdays, my Quote of the Week will be from an antagonist that matches the letter of the day. Enjoy. 

Not all killers are antagonists just as all antagonists are not killers. Today is the letter K, and I am talking about Killers.

From serial killers to mysterious deaths to killing out of jealousy or survival, murder or deaths are often part of the conflict of a novel. And what better way to have your antagonist instill fear than to kill off a few people. Or it could be your protagonist doing the killing to preserve his or her life or that of a loved one.

But no matter who is doing the killing, you still must follow the rules. As with any character action, there needs to be a reason behind it. No one – not even serial killers – kill without a reason. It may not be an obvious reason such as self defense but even mass murderers have a reason for what they do. It is not “just because” or because they are “evil.”

As an author, you have to go beyond the motivation of the killer. If they are going to kill off a character in your story, you need to make sure there is a good reason for the character must die. It could be to advance the plot, spurring your protagonist into motion. Or it could be to add realism. No one expects to read a war drama without anyone dying. But it just shouldn’t be because of “shock” value or you need something to happen.

This give you at least two things to consider before making your antagonist a killer. Why does he do it? And is it necessary to your plot?

And in case you want to check out my other antagonists from the challenge…

A is for Apocalypse

B is for Bad Boys (parenting)

C is for Cruella de Vil

D is for Darth Vader (Quote)

D is for To Die for Cake (Recipe)

E is for Evil (Writing)

F is for Freddy Kruger

G is for Gollum

H is for High School (parenting)

I is for Iron Monger

J is for Jafar (Quote)

Editing your novel with the help of a revision outline

Last week I wrote about the different drafts your story will go through on the way to becoming a novel. During those drafts, you need to strengthen the characters and plot as well as reduce wordiness or strengthen your writing.

To do this, I find it helps to have something to keep me on track and remind me of all the areas that I need to focus on.

I am unsure where I got this revision outline. I believe it was condensed down and adjusted one from an online writing class I took years ago. But when I am done with my second draft, this is usually the outline I pull out to ensure I do a complete job of editing.

Even though the notes say to do only one of these at a time, I typically do several at once working on each chapter separately.

Revision Outline

Do only ONE step at a time. If you find another area that needs work – mark it and then continue with the current fine-tuning project. Work in block sections (defined by chapters). Complete each “block” before going on.

1.)    Structure – develop a clear, compelling plot.

a.)    Look for scenes that are passive/dialogue with no tension.

b.)    Scenes that don’t build or are anti-climactic.

NOTES: Each scene has a beginning, middle and end – there must be a climax/tension spot for each scene – make sure dialogue scenes have tension and are not just “passing time.”

2.)    Texture – Sharpen descriptive passages to make characters, setting, and action more vivid – SHOW, DON’T TELL

a.)    Look for too much/too little description

b.)    Clichés

c.)    Too many adjectives/adverbs

d.)   Information dumps

e.)    Background or setting info in the wrong place

3.)    Dialogue – Elicit character personality through conversation

a.)    Look at taglines (placement, too many, too few, too much extra information)

b.)    No information dump

c.)    Bland or melodramatic lines

NOTES: Read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural/realistic.

4.)    Editing – Tighten pace and continuity

a.)    Look for repetition through implication

b.)    Slow passages

NOTES: Cut, cut, cut! Don’t repeat what the reader already knows or what is implied elsewhere. Be ruthless! Tighten up the copy without fear of shortening the novel.

5.)    Blending – search and destroy any weakness.

a.)    Look for soft spots – unclear character motivations, actions that seem contrived.

b.)    Fix by expanding or adding a scene so the novel flows.

The importance of the setting in each scene

You have spent time considering the setting of your novel. It could be London, a small beach-side community in Florida, on a distant planet or in the Wild West. You have thought long and hard about this choice.

But now as you get ready to write the scenes that comprise your story, you also need to spend some time considering where these scenes will take place within your setting.

If you have decided to write a story set in a high school, every scene won’t take place in the hall. Just as your crime novel won’t have every scene at the police station. You need to consider where the scenes will take place and develop these places. Just as you develop or know your overall setting, you need to know these sub-settings. You need to know their location as well as a description.

If you are writing about a college, hospital or police station, you need to realize that they all have certain rituals and protocols – almost as if they are a world all their own. Research and a visit to such places can make these places come to life.

But it isn’t enough to pick out these places and know their description. Authors also need to choose the right setting for the story event. Many authors don’t spend a lot of time considering where best to have some of their scenes or go with an obvious choice. But a change of location can change the whole scene. And that change could have the power to make or break a story.

Your character can be driving in the car, eating in a restaurant or relaxing at home. And each of these settings can bring different situations and stressors for your character. The traffic is stop-and-go, their dinner gets burned or the neighbor is having a loud party.

But what if you decided to go with a different setting?

As an author, you need to think about the individual scenes in your novel, and decide the purpose of the setting. Is it to hint at the back story? Set the mood? Foreshadow? Provide tension?

Let’s say it is the beginning of the novel, and you want to establish some characteristics of the protagonist. There are many good personal settings that can reveal truths about your character – their house, their office, their car.

But if you want to add tension to the scene consider locations that might cause stress – the site of a traumatic past event, a location where they might run into their enemy, a place that triggers insecurities.

Also when deciding on locations for scenes, they need to not only fit your story, but they need to fit your character. Maybe your character needs to reflect on some news. Would a walk in the park, a ride on the bus or sitting in a noisy bar suit their personality more?

Many times, authors settle on the first idea that comes to mind. And while this may be a perfectly good, acceptable idea, if they brainstormed and did some “what if” type thinking, they might settle on something that will make their setting amazing.

Fictional vs Real Settings: How to choose  

Last week, I wrote a list of questions that can help you determine the setting of your novel. One of the first questions was do you want a real or fictional setting.

There are good reasons to go with either option as well as negatives for each one. So how do you choose which one is best?

Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.

Here are some of the pros and cons of using fictional and real settings.

Fictional Settings

Pros –

  • You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located.
  • If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.

Cons –

  • Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters. Fully developing your city/world includes making a map of the area so you are consistent on where everything is located, and how long it takes to travel to those places.
  • There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.

Real Settings

Pros –

  • There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you know it and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing.
  • Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about.
  • The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.

Cons –

  • You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location.
  • Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.

And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.