Revising a short story: Pacing and Structure

A couple years ago, my nephew became fascinated by my sewing machine. Emulating his grandfather (my father is always fixing something), he decided he needed to fix it. He would shove the little screw drivers into every opening. One time, while I was sewing, I found one of the extra feet inside the gears. So when my neighbor was giving away a sewing machine, I brought it home just for my nephew. For two years of visits, we have gotten out our sewing machines and I sew while he “fixes” his machine.

During his last visit, however, he decided his sewing machine was all fixed and he wanted to sew. I wasn’t sure what would happen after all that “fixing,” but I went ahead and showed him how to thread the machine and taught him about the bobbin. Then we attached the foot pedal and plugged it in. To my amazement, it worked. It even had perfect tension and an even stitch. Since he was too small to reach the pedal and hold the fabric at the same time on the table, he chose to work the pedal while I guided the fabric. At first, he pushed the pedal all the way down and the needle had one speed: fast. After we made a few straight lines, he said he wanted to sew a circle. I told him to accomplish that, we would have to sew more slowly. So we practiced sewing different speeds by carefully pressing the pedal to different depths. Watching him practice sewing more slowly made me think of the next pass in my short story revision, pacing.

I enjoyed this video from Reedsy with Editor Anna Bierhaus to get me thinking about pacing.

Pacing

Pacing is the movement and momentum in a story. In today’s world of short attention spans with billions of options for entertainment, you might think all stories, especially short stories should go, go, go! But like all good songs, a short story also needs changes in tempo and rests. Often the moments of silence are the most exciting moments in music. So how do I use those ideas in my short story?

  • First I need to explore my characters’ three main conflicts: Internal, External (story specific) and Societal.
  • Then I need to see where I can raise the stakes (my poor characters already have it so hard).
  • I need to make sure that each scene is working as hard as it can: Goal, Conflict, Action that leads to a new goal, Character development, World building, and Reveals new information.

From Cat Rambo’s class, I focused on a couple of questions I want to apply to my story:

Is there a payoff for the reader every few pages: a grabber in the prose?

Where am I moving too quickly? Are pieces missing? This is something I often find in my writing. I expect the reader to see what I see in my head. I need to look for places where I jump over things the reader needs for continuity, believably, and understanding.

Where am I moving too slowly? Where can I cut out unnecessary details and words? Are there whole sections that don’t add to the story being told?

I read some other posts on pacing and found How to Master Narrative Pacing: 7 Tips to Help Pace Your Writing from MasterClass helpful.

Sometimes the story needs to slow down, so the reader doesn’t burn out.

Applying these ideas to my story

Since my last post, I have typed a new draft of the story. The process was slow and difficult. My inner perfectionist was on high alert and nothing was good enough. Each sentence took forever. However, I think this draft has potential which is exciting.

My story starts in medias res (in the middle of the action). My character is stunned and confused. The longest sentence in my first paragraph has eight words. The second paragraph has longer sentences full of action, keeping the quick pace until he escapes. The story slows for two paragraphs while he takes in his new situation then the next action begins.

Mapping out the story like this was insightful, but wasn’t giving me the overall feel of the story. I had another idea.

Listening: Last month I saw a #ProTip on Twitter from Kelli Russell Agodon that inspired me to explore another revision tool: the computer’s “read aloud” functions. I learned how to use Microsoft’s Narrator and added the Read Text Extension for Open Office. I thought listening to the computer read my story would help me hear and feel the pacing of my story, so I gave it a listen.

That works great for typos! The computerized voice makes the errors completely apparent. For pacing, however, it did not work for me. Even when I changed the voice to the woman speaking at a more natural speed, it was stilted and didn’t flow which was part of what I was listening for. I’ll be using this tool later when I’m working on line edits.

Scenes: After the listening experiment didn’t work, I went through my story and marked the beginning and end of each scene. I highly recommend doing this right after you’ve typed up and read your second draft. What I found is my story has a natural progression of scene and sequel, action and response. I also found a pattern of exposition setting up a scene. These short paragraphs of exposition may need to be tightened up if essential to the flow of the story, or may not be needed at all and can be cut. The exciting part is how obvious they became when I broke the story into scenes.

Everything builds toward the climax: This story, in general, moves well. To improve the pacing, I want to build more toward the climax. To do that I need to introduce a couple of ideas earlier, brainstorm some ways to raise the stakes and increase the tension and pacing going into the climax of the story. As it is, I think the climax occurs too abruptly after a reflective scene.

Structure

Another thing to think about at the big picture level of revision is structure. What other ways could I tell this story? The short story is often the format authors use to experiment with story form. Before diving any further into editing your story, ask yourself, Is there a better, more interesting way to present this story?

Applying these ideas to my story

I spent some time with this question and came up with some interesting ideas:

  • I could switch back and forth between my two character’s POVs more often. This could make it feel like their stories are more intertwined from the very beginning.
  • I could write the whole story from only my first character’s POV. This would make my second character have to tell her story to him and could make it more emotional and put her spin on it.
  • I could tell the story non-linearly, starting with my main character coming to acceptance of his situation and then telling what got him there.
  • That idea led me to telling the story like a reality show. In this type of telling, I could bring in interviews with people who knew my characters: family, friends, co-workers, before they changed. I think this could make a fun sequel or additional story.

I think the structure I chose in the first draft is the best for the telling of this story, however I do like some of these other ideas and might try them as well as separate pieces.

Next Steps

After making these changes, I will have finished the story level or developmental revisions. Next, I will look at each scene and make sure that every one is necessary and doing as much as it can.

I look forward to hearing how your revisions are going and reading any editing and revision tips you would like to share in the comments.

#NaNoPrep 101 Week Three – Construct a Detailed Plot

finished scene cards

This third week of NaNo Prep 101 is titled Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline.

The exercise provided is a fun quiz to figure out what kind of plotter you are. I was not surprised to find that I am now equally 9-Step Plot Dot and Plot Rollercoaster.

How I’m Plotting this year

Last month while I participated in Writer-in-Motion, I wrote a post about how I approach plot: Playing with some plots. In that post I showed examples of how I plot with tarot, use the plot-o-matic, use Rory’s story cubes and other fun tools, I even stumbled upon the Virgin’s Promise plot for the first time while I was writing the post, so I won’t re-hash that here. Instead, I will follow the path I forged last week and start with a review of materials I’ve collected and then plan my actions for the week.

Review of Plot and Structure

Over the years I have collected many writing references and almost every one has a chapter or more on plot and structure. I thought this week would be a good time to review the materials I have and select exercises and ideas for this project.

Books

  • Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer states that a traditional plot includes Reversals – setbacks for characters
  • Discoveries – characters find things out about selves, others and world
  • Complications – the central problem is not easily solved and grows more complicated
  • Resolution – a conclusion that satisfies the reader and resolves story problems

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – The second section, chapters 13 through 24 are about Plot Development. The main idea is things can always get worse. Raise the stakes. Throw more problems at your main character. Think things are dire? Make them worse.

Wired For Story by Lisa Cron states that a story needs to follow a cause-and-effect trajectory starting on page one. She agrees with Mr. Maass that you need to make things worse going so far as asking “Does everything your protagonist does to make the situation better actually make it worse?”

Now Write! Screenwriting edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson – Every sequence, scene or action moves the story from hope to fear or fear to hope. Make the story unpredictable with plot twists. Set up (at least) three major subgoals for the protagonist to achieve her main objective then describe what goes wrong, so these goals can’t be achieved.

Mapping the Hero’s Journey With Tarot by Arwen Lynch – There are exercises to explore each step of the hero’s journey uses the symbols of the cards. I like this method because it gets me thinking about the character’s emotional journey as well as external and internal events.

Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham includes A Scenic Master Plot that goes through possible scenes chapter by chapter.

Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen guides the reader through creating and organizing scene cards to create the story arc. It has some great “Quizes” to help you evaluate your scenes.

Youtube Videos

Pixar in a box collection has some good videos on story structure.

My Plan for this week

Listing my plans for the week is really working. Last week, I created my protagonist, a peer/possible love interest, a friend, and the antagonists.   Writing short stories exploring some of my ideas is helping me visualize how my characters will interact with technology and their environments in my future world. I’m so glad I started early. There’s so much more to think about.

I think narrowing my focus to specific elements of my story, so I can focus my research and extrapolations, is wise at this point.  Here’s my plan:

Brainstorm plot points and scenes: I’m going to set a timer for fifteen minutes and write as many ideas for scenes, events, actions and reactions as I can. Choose my favorites then put it away and read for a while. Then I’ll do it again. Once I have come up with lots of fun ideas, I’ll organize them into beginning, middle, and end.

Put scenes on index cards in Scrivener

Evaluate scenes with Kernen’s Quick Quizes

Explore plotting with Tarot: I will use Lynch’s exercises to flesh out my plot further.

Fill in Outlines in Scrivener

Put scenes into Bickham’s Scenic Master Plot and explore which outline or combination of outlines I want to use during NaNoWriMo.

Play around with structure: I’ll try re-ordering the scenes to find the most exciting way to tell my story.

Free-write raising the stakes: Once I’ve explored the stakes and conflicts, I’ll free-write about how to make them worse.

Interview characters: As I choose scenes and plot-points that I think should be included in my novel, I’ll ask my characters about them. Hopefully, this practice of involving my characters in the planning of the plot will keep me immersed in the story as I work.

How do you plot and outline?

Do you have specific resources and tools you like to use?

Happy Reading and Writing!

B is for Banausic and Bickham – Craft Book Review: Jack M. Bickham Double Feature

banausic beauty

banausic: adjective – relating to or concerned with earning a living; utilitarian; mechanical; practical. Not operating on a refined or elevated level; mundane.

Why Stand By?

I heard a scuffle on the sidewalk below
You put down your glass and walked to the window
She saw a hussy in a public embrace
He saw a man gettin’ his
We heard her scream
They turned back to the TV

I grabbed your glass and brought it to the window
You took a sip and poked your head out
She yelled, “Let that woman go.”
He finally called the police
We watched and waited
They turned off the lights

They were too late
We took one last look at the body
She had bled out
He was never found
You refilled your glass
I contemplated banausic windows

Today’s NaPoWriMo theme was the I, or the speaker of the poem. I thought it tied in well with witness testimony which I am studying in an online forensic psychology class through futurelearn.com

I also found inspiration in National Book Award Winner Lighthead: Poems (Penguin Poets) by Terrance Hayes, especially “Lighthead’s Guide To Addiction” and “Satchmo Returns To New Orleans.”

tools of physical labor

Craft Book Review

I first came across Jack M. Bickham‘s name while reading Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction (Creative Writing Essentials) from the editors of Writer’s Digest. His book Writing novels that sell was mentioned in a section called Parent-Adult-Child which talked about three primary roles people/characters occupy in life.

My local library didn’t have that book, but did have Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) and Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing), so I picked them up instead. They are both part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing 5 Volume Set (Beginnings, Middles & Ends – Description – Setting – Characters & Viewpoint – Scene & Structure)

Setting

My Expectations: A while back in a critique meet-up, I  heard people talking about active setting. I hadn’t read A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings by Mary Buckham yet, so I still wasn’t clear what sort of magic made setting active and hoped this book might clear that up.

Intended Audience:
All fiction writers, but it may be a little advanced for early beginners.

What I liked: It was fun to learn about setting from the man who wrote Twister which  has a vibrant setting and uses setting (weather) as a character. Not only did this book answer my questions about active setting, it inspired me, through straight-forward exercises, to think about setting differently in my novel. This book really clicked for me and helped me understand aspects of setting that I hadn’t thought of before.

What I didn’t like: The writing is very dense. Though the book isn’t very thick, it’s a slow read. Definitely worth it because I really felt aha! moments, but it felt like mining through thick stone to get to the gold.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 4/5 I recommend this book.

Scene & Structure

 My Expectations: Because I had such a good experience with Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing), I had high expectations for this book. I looked forward to seeing what sort of clarity Mr. Bickham could bring to my understanding of plot.

Intended Audience: Writers of fiction. Perhaps most useful to someone planning a novel. Though I plan to use his order of component segments of scene and sequel to evaluate my scenes during revision.

What I liked: This book did not disappoint. Mr. Bickham’s presentation and explanation of scene and sequel were eye-opening and gave me lots of ideas to evaluate and improve my draft.

What I didn’t like: This book, even more than setting, felt like a lot of reading for the amount of useful information. However, the information is so useful, that it makes it completely worthwhile.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦  4/5  I recommend this book.

 

Happy Reading and Writing!

I’ll see you tomorrow.