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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pacing in a story

This was an article I wrote on pacing in a romance or a romantic suspense, but so many of the points are true for any type of story. A writer must hold the reader's attention with a compelling plot and compelling characters.

Where do you start a story? You have a few pages (for some a few paragraphs) to catch an editor or reader’s attention. I know of some readers who will read the first page or so of a book and if you haven’t gotten her interest she won’t buy it. It is one of the important decisions for a writer when telling a story. If you start too soon, you might lose your reader. Pacing is important. Too slow and the reader will put your book down. Too fast and you will confuse the reader and leave out details and feelings that need to be in your story.

So where do you start? I like to start in the middle of a scene or at a change in your hero or heroine’s life. In my newest book, Once Upon a Family, which will be out next April for Love Inspired, I started when the heroine has to pick up her troubled teenage son from the principal’s office (he’s the hero) at the new school her son’s attending. She has to deal with yet another problem involving her son. Another opening where the heroine is facing something new in her life is with my Love Inspired Suspense out in January 2007, Heart of the Amazon. Kate, a prim and proper secretary of a church, must go into a bar in a small town on the Amazon to hire a guide to help her search for her missing brother. She’s never been in a bar and doesn’t drink. Then when she meets the best guide in the area, she meets her worst nightmare--everything she isn’t. Talk about opposites!

A word about prologues. I don’t usually have one. Unless the story really should begin years before, don’t do a prologue but start with chapter one even if it is months between the first and second chapter. A lot of readers skip prologues. A lot of time the information in a prologue can be fed into the body of the story in pieces. If you can avoid a prologue, you probably should. I just read a wonderful romantic suspense that started with a prologue of two pages. There was no time difference from that prologue to the first chapter. The first chapter picked right up where the prologue left off. I would have had that scene in the prologue as the first scene in chapter one or even the whole chapter one. In romantic suspense books, sometimes the chapters are very short.

Once you’ve gotten your reader past the first fourth to third of the book, you are plunging your story into the dreaded middle. This is where your plot can fall apart if you don’t have enough story to hold it together. I always try to have at least one big pivotal point that I’m writing toward that will peak in the middle. Example: In What the Heart Knows my heroine’s son is displaying bizarre behavior which is the reason she becomes involved with the hero. This behavior leads to the son running away. The hero and heroine get a lead and go after him. They find him and bring him home. The son is diagnosed with schizophrenia. This all happens in the first two thirds of the book.

In my next three romantic suspense books coming out in early 2007 with Love Inspired Suspense, there is a pivotal point about half to two thirds of the way through the story then the story takes a new direction and I must build toward the final pivotal scene.

During the middle is when I find pacing slows down. Be careful and make sure that you have at least three good reasons to have a scene. I had a sharp editor once who kept emphasizing how important pacing was in a book and I agree with her. Keep the story moving forward. That doesn’t mean you don’t have scenes where a lot of action isn’t taking place. We have to get to know your characters, often without a lot of high drama.

In romantic suspense books it is easier to keep things moving along at a fast clip, but that can have it’s pitfalls, too. While your protagonists are dodging bullets and running for their lives, they must get to know each other and fall in love. If you keep things moving too fast, the reader won’t believe in the end that they really love each other. So if a scene doesn’t serve at least three purposes then cut it or combine it with another one. Remember in an inspirational romance we want to focus on the romance, the characters’ faith journeys, and whatever external plot you have developed for the story as well as the internal conflicts.

Now to the end of your story. The whole book has been building for the big finale--otherwise called the black moment where you make it appear that there is no way the hero and heroine can get together. During the black moment it becomes obvious that they can’t find any common ground to stay together. Usually this isn’t a mutual decision although it can be. Usually it is one character driving the scene--backing away from the relationship. There are a variety of reasons for this and you will have established them as your story develops. Example: In Tidings of Joy coming out this October for Love Inspired, Chance leaves Tanya because he isn’t free of his past. He walks away because hate and guilt crowd his heart. He doesn’t feel he can give Tanya the type of relationship she deserves.

Then not long after the black moment you need to have the resolution where the hero and heroine get together. The black moment should happen within the last two chapters of the book. In the resolution and the few pages that might follow you have to tie up every loose end. A lot of subplots I have already tied up by the time I get to the black moment and resolution. I like the focus of those last scenes to be on the romance between the hero and heroine (even in romantic suspense books).

I have epilogues in my books. This is a two or three page scene which will farther wrap up my story and hopefully give the reader a warm feeling that all is well with my couple in the future. I personally like short--I emphasize the word short here--epilogues. Once I didn’t have one in one of my Love Inspired books and my editor wanted me to put an epilogue in.

Are there any questions on pacing and the structure of a story?

Margaret Daley
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4 comments:

Gina said...

This is really going to help me in my mystery novella, since I've never really written romance before. I have a couple of questions?

In a romantic suspense/mystery, is there two black moments? One for the romance, one for the mystery and can/should they happen simultaneiously?

In my suspense, I have a prologue in the POV of my villian and then I delve into the story two years later picking up with the main character. Do you think prologues are more common in suspense or mysteries because of the mystery/suspense element?

In my mystery novella, I have my heroine taking an interest in someone who is not the hero, but will later become a major suspect, thus creating more tension with the hero.

My question is, a reader will probably like the first guy up front better than the real hero, but I do try and add little things the heroine finds appealing about the real hero, yet there's still a lot of baggage and tension in their relationship. Is it okay to start off with these two men in her life and have her struggle with her feelings for both of them?

Margaret Daley said...

Gina, yes you have two black moments in a romantic suspense. One dealing with the romance and one dealing with the suspense. They could happen together. It will depend on the story. In the one I'm writing now I'm looking at that happening. I usually have two separate ones.

I've seen prologues in all types of books. It will depend on the story if it is necessary. I wouldn't put a prologue in unless you needed to establish something "on stage" for a reader. There are some readers who skip prologues. Sometimes information in a prologue can be fed into the story without any problem.

As far as the hero and suspect question, just be sure not to confuse your readers too much. I don't have a problem with it. It's certainly been done before.

Hope that helps,
Margaret

Patricia W. said...

Great post, Margaret! Right in time for NaNo. I've got a rough outline but I wasn't sure whethr my pacing made sense. This really helped.

Margaret Daley said...

Patricia, I'm glad I could help you. Good luck with the NaNo.

Margaret