By Kay Springsteen
Have you ever read a book and when you get to the end you let out a big dreamy sigh? You wanted to get to the end – to see the characters you’ve come to adore get their satisfying ending. And yet…when you turn that last page and read the last word, you’re sad, too…because you have come to love these people and you really hate to leave them behind.
Those are the books we wish we could prolong…the ones that generate excitement when we realize there’s a sequel.
But lately, I’ve been reading books and finding I’m sorry to read the last word for a completely different reason. I’ve been running across stories that have absolutely superb potential. I come to care about the characters, wonder about their future…but instead of that satisfying ending I’m reading toward, I get a rushed rendition of winding up the events in the story with long expository paragraphs, often a quick kiss, and some version of “…and they all lived happily ever after.” (Or sometimes, just happily for now.)
Whatever happened to showing how the bad guy is discovered and ultimately foiled? Why can’t we be shown in greater detail how the couple got over their differences and decided to make a go of it? Why can’t writers throw in an extra plot twist, increase the stakes and the tension, so I (and other readers) have to wonder if that happy ending is going to happen?
I don’t know exactly what has brought on this rushed phenomenon in the industry. But lately I’ve been reading more books that are little more than short stories with shallow, single-stranded plots. There is no intricate path to follow on which I may lose myself in the story – it’s a straight shot from beginning to end, and over far too quickly to become lost in. There are only limited events occurring through which the characters actually develop chemistry…and in some cases, there are so few events, the characters themselves don’t develop beyond cardboard cutouts.
I recently read a very, very well-written historical. That is, the writing itself drew me into the story, made me care what happened. The research into the era had been solid. The story revolved around one main character nursing the other through a dangerous illness. With something like 80 pages spent on the nursing part, the ill character was mostly unconscious and/or delirious. So I was ready for some serious chemistry to develop when the character pulled through, became stronger, and started working about the farm. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. In the space of the next 20 or so pages, the farm was tilled, planted, and some bad guys chased away, and the couple was ready to build a life together. I loved this author’s writing so much, but what made the story disappointing was that rushed ending. With so much intricate detail spent on nursing a character to health, I would have loved to see the same poured into building more chemistry between them. But the ending of the story was rushed once the character became conscious and aware, and opportunities for character development and couple chemistry were ignored or lost, not to mention a pack of loose ends that were left dangling.
I’ve seen this altogether too often lately. While the reverse is just as appalling (that is, a story that runs on and on and on, well past its expiration date), it is these suddenly ended but not quite finished stories that I’m seeing too many of lately. They simply don’t feel complete. They often feel more like watching one episode of a weekly TV series and not being able to see the other episodes. Certainly, they don’t have a movie feel about them, and not a complete novel.
A story needs to show a balance of action narrative, dialogue, and descriptive narrative from beginning to end. Back story is a place where many readers become hung up. They aren’t sure how much to tell, or when/how to present it. Back story often presents as a problem in the form of an information dump.
Information dumps can about along in a variety of ways, but they all have one thing in common. They have the potential to jar the readers out of the story. Any time too much back story information is being given to the reader, whether in the form of the character thinking about the past, or telling about an incident from the past in lengthy passages of unbroken up dialogue, or (worst of all) narrative that simply explains what happened that brought the character to a particular place, the story slows down and becomes a bit of a yawn…and far too easy to put down. A lot of attention has been devoted to showing authors the perils of not being careful with presentation of back story.
But back story is not the only time information can be presented in a less-than-ideal manner. Consider the following, which is not back story, but a telling of current events, and yet is no less an information dump than is back story.
They all went to Stan’s house, where Stan and Stella met them at the door. Stan hugged everyone, and then they went inside, to find Stella had cooked a nice dinner. They all sat down at the table and chatted while they ate steaks and baked potatoes. Then they ate dessert out on the patio. After a while, the conversation turned to a discussion of their latest problem: how to handle the new boss at work.
This is glossing over the present details. Just as too much back story slows down the reading of a story, so does glossing over the details throw off the pace by making the readers feel they were dragged through. The thing is, if you, as a writer, find yourself glossing over details, it is entirely likely the information you are presenting is unnecessary to the story. Look at the passage again. How much is really required?
They all met at Stan’s house for dinner but they kept conversation light until they got to dessert.
“Let’s take this to the patio,” suggested Stella, dishing up pie ala mode. “We can talk about the new boss.”
On the other hand, maybe the meeting at the door was important, or the dinner conversation was relevant, or the fact that Stan hugged everyone when they arrived. In that case, the passage should be expanded.
Jim, Kari, and Buddy arrived at Stan’s around the same time. Stan was waiting in the front yard. As Kari stepped out of the car, Stan locked her into a giant bear hug.
“I’m so glad you all could make it.” He turned to Jim and shook his hand. “You must be Jim. Buddy’s told me a lot about you.”
Stella joined them. “I have steaks on the grill. Who wants to help peel the potatoes?”
Pacing in a story is critical, and that’s why the balance is important. Just as you need to plan your beginning, middle, and end to avoid rushed endings or endings that drag on, you also need to plan how much action narrative, dialogue (including thought), and descriptive narrative will give you the most balanced scenes throughout the story. You may also find yourself with explanation narrative, but it’s best to place this in dialogue or thought when possible or you risk point of view problems.
The key here would be to take it one scene at a time. Plot each scene within the overall plot of the story. For the pantser this will be harder to do, but it is not impossible. A plotter would decide during the outlining phase. A pantser simply writes the scene and then must be willing to go back into the just-written scene with red pen and scissors to trim the unnecessary bits and add in the layers and details that will round out the people and the scene itself.
One thing I sometimes suggest to authors I have edited is to use the font color option on the computer. When you read back what you’ve written, simply change the color of the font according to what type of writing – for instance, blue for action narrative, red for dialogue, and green for descriptive narrative, and perhaps keeping the explanation narrative black. Then check the colors for evenness or chunkiness throughout the scene. Frankly, there should be much less explanation narrative than action, description, or dialogue. Action and dialogue, and to an extent description are what should actually drive your stories forward.
Do you pace your stories in any way?
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