Part 3: Pacing and Flow: Zoom, rawr!
Anyone who writes, whether it be a poem, a short story, a novel, or a series, has to grapple with the concept of pacing and flow. If you think of your creation like a river, you want the reader to be able to navigate it not only safely, but with great enjoyment. So sure, you might threaten to dash them against the rocks sometimes. Gets the blood flowing! But there are also times they need to stop, catch their breath, and brace for the next big thrill. Otherwise, they wind up seasick and puking.
So what, you may ask, is the difference between the pace of the novel/series, and the flow?
For my purposes, pacing is the “speed” of events taking place. This has nothing to do with whether there is an action scene or not, but rather how the action and non-action scenes fit together to create a rise or fall in tension.
Pacing also works throughout a series in exactly the same way. It’s easiest to see in a meta-plot type series, where there is a larger story at work, because no matter the size of the plot, they’re mostly constructed with the same materials.
Whether you are trying to create a pace in one book, or five, it works essentially like this. Picture your work as a lopsided mountain. On the front side, you have a gradual build up a steep slope to the pinnacle (the climax of your story), then possibly a drop off the other side to wind up the loose ends. (we’ll talk about a bit further down)
So, decide what type of rise up the mountain you want. Rachel Caine, in both her Weather Warden and Morganville Vampires series, is very good at creating a rip-roaring, pell-mell, headlong rush kind of story. The reader gallops from scene to scene, moment to moment, much like the main character must certainly feel. You reach the end out of breathe like you just ran a marathon.
The converse of this is, of course, a slower, steadier climb. This results in a greater buildup of suspense, fostering the sure feeling of impending DOOM!
Both of these methods are equally good, depending on what you want your reader to feel. It is definitely something that should be planned beforehand, however. Not planning out your pacing ahead of time results in comments like “Well, the first and third books were great, but nothing really happened in the second one.” See, your pacing hit a plateau there instead of climbing ever upward. This is something to avoid. Even slower sections of a book or series should contribute to that vertical momentum.
So, if that is pacing, what is flow?
For me, flow is the transition between. It’s the transition between scenes, it’s the transition between chapters, it’s the transition between books. And believe me when I say that transitions are some of the hardest things I struggle with on a daily writerly basis.
The way you handle your flow is a way to control your pacing. If your scenes/chapters/books end abruptly, it creates a faster sensation. The reader is yanked out of one moment and shoved into the next without time to think. It can either drag them along with the hero, or it can totally throw them out of the story.
If you manage to end a scene/chapter/book on a smoother note, it makes the transition a place to stop, catch a breath, go smoke a cigarette before you go on to the next. The trick with this one is making it a good pause point, but still a point where the reader just HAS to read on to find out what happens next! (Toldja, this is hard stuff here!)
There is one type of “flow” that even has its own name. You all know it, say it with me. It’s a cliffhanger! This is the transition that cuts off. Just…stops! The damsel is on the railroad tracks, the hero is hanging off a cliff, and we’ll see you guys next week on the same bat-channel!
There are many schools of thought on the cliffhanger. It seems that people either love it or hate it, there’s very little middle ground. I believe that it has its place, but should be used sparingly. A cliffhanger for every. Single. Book. May be a bit much. Then again, if you can make it work for you, it can be your “thing”, the little quirk that defines you (or at least this particular series of yours).
Let me pause for a moment to discuss this, the denouement. First off, because it’s fun to say. Day-nooo-mont! Gotta love the French.
The denouement is technically defined as the end, the solution. This can be your climax, if you so desire. Jorge slays Mongo the Luna Moth, sweeps Denise into his arms (knew she’d be back!), leans in for the kiss as the music swells to a crescendo, and…curtain!
My personal preference is to have a denouement after the climax. A moment where we see that the hero has made it out alive, that life goes on, a chance to tie up any other loose ends. (When Jorge goes to put Mongo’s antennae on Urk’s grave, there better not be a dry eye on the house, people! I am watching you!)
The denouement is a good place to set up your transition (your “flow” if you will, see what I did there?) into your next book. It’s a good place to leave portents and premonitions, a promise that there is more out there, something darker looming on the horizon. The world is not done with dear Jorge, not by a long shot.
So how do we learn to do this?
In my not-so-humble-opinion, the best way to learn about different styles of pacing and flow is to read. Read in your own genre (you should be doing this anyway), read outside your genre. Read books of different lengths, series of different lengths.
When you notice that you’ve particularly enjoyed a book, sit back and think about why. Think beyond the character that you loved (yes, you can be the president of your local Jorge fan club). Think past the amazing showdown at the end that had you chewing your nails and sweating bullets. (and pick those up, someone’s gonna trip) Think about how you got to that point.
If it’s a book that felt just a bit “off” to you, figure out why. Was it too fast? Did you not have a chance to process things? Was it too slow? Did it drag? Once you’ve learned to recognize these elements in other writing, you will be able to consciously direct it in your own.
Remember, though, that one person’s speed is another person’s creep. You can’t satisfy everyone, because everyone has a different pace that suits them.
Coming soon: Part 4: Boom vs. Whimper: How do you end it?