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Bread Crumbs from the Void #7 Rhythm & Bones: The Art of Plot and Pace by Alex Schumacher

Alex Schumacher

Rhythm & Bones: The Art of Plot and Pace

by Alex Schumacher

Well, I will be damned. This is Bread Crumbs from the Void number 7, folks! That means I have been spreading my anarchist writing agenda for nearly two months. I understand that in the grand scheme of things that amount of time may appear rather insignificant. Two months is the blink of an eye on an eternal timeline. The reason I consider it an accomplishment worthy of a mild celebration is that I have the attention span of a god-damn gnat. I am lucky if I can finish the comic strip on the inside of a Bazooka Joe wrapper, let alone an ongoing weekly column. Yet, here I am on lucky number 7.

Even if they have all licked sweaty donkey balls I still managed to get them done. In the midst of my various other projects (check them out at http://alexschumacherart.com/) that is no small feat, and no wonder time flew by.

You may be wondering right about now why the fuck I am yammering on regarding the passage of time. What could it possibly matter if it is a sprint or a crawl to a specified destination? In answer to that query, I am using the article this week to detail the importance of plotting and pacing in your writing. These two control and guide the experience of the passengers on your literary vehicle. Whether you churn out a muscle car or a shitty jalope is up to you. How you wield the powers of plot and pace can determine the difference between an electrifying, rapid-fire read and a slog which inspires abandonment of the proverbial ship.

Before I get down to the nitty gritty I feel it is important to mention that while I am focusing on plot-based writing here, character-driven writing is far more near and dear to the charred ticker I call a heart. I will be spending the entire next article on character-driven writing so for today bear with my plot-based drivel. You have followed me this far into the abyss, so why turn back now?

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Foundation is essential in everything, be it the human body or a piece of writing. Devising a plot is where your foundation begins. Whether you aspire to build over an Indian burial ground or high atop a mountain range is of no consequence at this stage. The main focus during your plotting phase is to take that kernel of an idea and turn it into a viable, and hopefully kick ass, storyline. Ideas are a wonderful thing, but ideas alone are worthless.

Every writer has a different method for plotting their tales. Whether you decide to fully flesh out the details of your saga before beginning or simply having a few main beats to run with, plotting should be exciting and invigorating. If it makes you a little wet, that is a good sign.

The particular method to my madness has been developing for years, though it is still awaiting a growth spurt. The way I roll is to keep the idea in my head, jot down some disjointed, stream-of-consciousness passages or plot points, and do most of my exploring on the page. For me that is what makes the journey entertaining by creating twists and turns that even I did not see coming. It is akin to driving under the influence*. You basically know where you are going, you have an idea of how you are going to get there, but there are a ton of bumps, bodily fluids, and dead-ends along the way.

Others prefer the tried and true method of establishing a complete outline. The entire plot from beginning to end is laid out using separate sections, alpha-numerical ordering, itemized events, the whole nine yards. If you have the organizational skills and deep-seated need for order, then this would be the approach for you. Outlines can be a security blanket for some writers, ensuring they do not stray too far from the main objective and whispering emotional support. Gawd love ya if you can rein in the brain chaos for that long. I know I will never have that ability.

Between the two polar opposites listed above — the full outline and my barely-there technique — exist an extensive array of ways to mold your plot. Some establish a beginning, middle, and end roughly detailing their characters journey in a few paragraphs and build from there. Some barf up an extremely rough synopsis, keeping notes on index cards, or toilet paper, or what have you. You can even start with the end and work your way back using the reverse outline if the spirit moves you.

The point is, it does not matter how your plot is crafted. What matters is that the plot must be in place in one form or another as without it there is nothing to pace. This ain’t no “the chicken or the egg” debate, kids. Between plot and pace, plot comes first or you are pretty well fucked. Write that down and sleep with it under your pillow tonight.

*I do not condone driving under the influence. Do as I say, not as I do.

The Rhythm Section

The bottom end. The kick drum. The snare. Music is my favorite example and inspiration for effectively using pace. The rhythm section drives the tempo, ushering you through the experience. The listener knows exactly when the lyrics are meant to be joyous, full of sorrow, or aggressive and in your face. So too your writing should command readers to experience every high and low. Pacing is woefully overlooked, especially by newbies, but it is one of the key elements to killer writing and one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal.

Pacing is a perceived manipulation of time. As the writer you can speed up or slow down the inertia of a story. It is part structural, part word choice, and uses a variety of tools and techniques to accomplish the goal. You will need speed throughout and especially in the opening, middle, and climax. There will absolutely be moments from time to time when the pace will slow down, especially to pause for significance and to express characters’ emotions. Those times will usually appear just before or after a coke-fueled beat down to allow for the audience to catch their breath.

So, how exactly do you go about controlling the pace?  I am glad you asked.

One of the more noticeable examples of pacing is in action scenes where you show a specific occurrence or series of events. When written in short or medium-length sentences, you can move the story along at a decent clip. Forget long, descriptive passages. Action scenes should contain few outside distractions and little to no delineation. Limit or omit character thoughts altogether for a clear and concise narrative. Get to the point and give it to the reader nice and hard. No lube.

To get to an action scene there needs to be a set up. The set up should bring the speed down a notch to build suspense. It is the climb on the roller coaster just before the rider drops at a nearly 90 degree angle, zipping through loops and corkscrews, puking up their corndog on the kid behind them. If done incorrectly, a set up can be excruciating. To ensure yours slows down the pace without driving your reader bat-shit insane with boredom, be certain to have a specific event or action sequence you are building towards. This will help to keep the reader engaged and locked in.

The set up can also contain far more internal monologue and/or discussion from your main character(s), though the dialogue you use — whether internally or between two or more characters — can also add or detract from your pace. Dialogue can also be a tool to replace exposition, particularly when introducing new characters or relationships.  Dialogue in and of itself is an art form. An art form too many people completely fuck up due to trying too hard. Here are some key points to keep in mind when crafting dialogue:

  • Avoid long diatribes or speeches.
  • People do not lecture, they have exchanges.
  • Conversations whip back and forth, sometimes at breakneck speeds.
  • Real talk consists of pared down language, not dime-store intellectual jargon.
  • Allow your characters to be irrational, argumentative, or confrontational.
  • People do not always say what they mean.

There are other great tools to utilize such as cliffhangers, truncated chapters and scenes, and jump cuts. One of the, if not the, biggest parts of controlling the pace in your writing is learning to trim the fat. Eliminating unnecessary words, sentences, or entire paragraphs can remove debris and tripwires from your writing. One way I learned such self-editing was to work on flash fiction. Tell a complete story in 750 words. When you have mastered that, do the same in 500 words. Then in 300 words, and so on. Soon you will hopefully begin to see just what is essential and what is superfluous.

I implore you to pay close attention to your plot and pacing. Know both intimately and make your ill-fated ménages à trois a thing of repulsive beauty that people will want to witness over and over again. This is not a drill. Keep only what you need for the story to survive and make your peace with leaving the rest for dead. While I do not agree with every piece of advice from Elmore Leonard, I do agree with his rule to “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Mark your calendars as one week from today Bread Crumbs from the Void hits the two month mark! There will be much rejoicing and debauchery. I will also unload on the subject of character-driven writing, character development and creating realistic personas. Until then keep scribbling, you freaks.

Stalk Alex online:

http://alexschumacherart.com/

https://twitter.com/AJSchumacherart

alexschumacherwriter@gmail.com

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