Across the water is a country of luxury. My family loads our keelboat with goods and drags a raft of timber behind us. Across the river we float, trickling down to the exotic city where we trade.
Our family trades logs for some silk, corn for new shoes, and furs for sugar. We sell the raft to lighten the load back upriver.
I ask Pa, “Why do they trade their riches for our poor goods?”
Pa pushes the keel. “They live in a desert. To them, we’re the rich ones, but we’re all rich once we’ve shared our treasures.”
This was written for this week’s Carrot Ranch Challenge, “Across the Water.” Rivers often serve as borders, even if they also serve as connectors between us all. Today, which is World Communion Sunday in my tradition, I wanted to look at that combination in this 99 word flash.
Cheeser the Mouse followed his nose. He peeked around a tree.
A cat’s claws tapped on a pot filled with cheddar. “Hello there, little mouse.” His voice cooed, attractive. “Come, ingratiate me. Do a dance and call me Rainbow. Perhaps I’ll give you this cheese.”
The smell of the cheddar was irresistible for a field mouse. Cheeser stepped out and danced a jig. “Is that good enough, Rainbow?”
Rainbow, while sitting on the pot of cheese, snatched up Cheeser and ate him. “Good show indeed, Cheeser – and at the other end of this Rainbow, you’ll get your cheddar gold.”
This was written with inspiration from the Carrot Ranch prompt “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a cat named Rainbow on an outdoor adventure.” I also wrote, a while back, another story about a different Cheeser the Mouse and a cat named Chaircat Mao. The combination of ideas brought me to write this little ditty.
“You’re so boring, pops. You only sit there and meditate.” The young man pounded his fist on a simple table, rattling a knife, bread, and cup of butter.
The elder took the knife and buttered a piece. “There are many ways to glory.”
He growled, pulled on his cloak, and left.
The young man returned to the chapel, this time much grayer. His hands were manicured, his wallet full, his clothes fine. He brushed his hand against the rough-hewn table.
He crushed the land’s deed in his hands. He’d sacrificed a quiet glory, but what for he couldn’t tell.
This was written for the Carrot Ranch’s most recent flash fiction challenge, “rethinks the hero.” One of my Sunday school lesson series (back in the before times) was on contemplative life and meditation, and there we talked about the criticism that being entirely contemplative kept one from helping the world or other people. At the same time, contemplation isn’t terribly valued in a pretty cataphatic society. I wanted to play on that here.
Desire is merely emptiness lasting
long enough for a dire span of fasting
to fade the sweetness of last time's tasting,
leaving one breathless and for air gasping.
Sinister my void grows, hunger gnawing,
thirst enlarging despite ever drawing
from the well that promises restoring
water, but instead strengthens its calling.
I desire rich words like honey dripping.
To simple phrases my ears stay gripping
in hopes of cheers and compliment sipping,
but instead I fear connections slipping.
Desire is merely emptiness lasting
long enough for a dreadful breakfasting
to prove there's no use in truly tasting
meals best kept sealed in condition pristine.
This was written for no good reason. Just felt like it.
No, I’m not talking about how fast you write, walk, or work. Today we’re talking about narrative pacing, or how fast your story feels.
5. It’s About Them Feels
Unlike commas (which have rules often non-intuitive and aren’t well-predicted by feelings), pace is almost entirely subjective. It’s about how quickly a piece of prose seems to go by relative to the amount of time spent reading. It’s something vague, and it’s not something I’ve yet heard many editors focus on despite the importance it has on the book’s feeling and success.
What’s worse? You almost can’t determine pace of your own work. My pacing disaster is characterization-based. I’m a plot person, through and through, and it shows in most of what I write. American Chimera was written in part as a way to explore character and setting in a format that forced me to do it. Without that forcing myself, I often make characters that are mere plot vehicles. That means my pace errs on the side of too fast. It’s important I know this so I can improve in the future.
From beta reading, though, I think it’s equally likely for pacing to swing the other direction and be too slow. Here’s some signs to look for when determining if you could improve a scene’s pacing:
Signs of Good Pacing
You wonder where the time went – and why you read so long – but in a good way
You don’t have any confusion about what happened in a scene
You read every word
You were never bored
Signs of Slow Pacing
You feel tempted to skip a sentence/paragraph/page
You can skip a sentence/paragraph/page and not lose track of the story
A slight hint of boredom; even if you think it’s because you’re re-reading, there’s the possibility you could improve pacing
Though not a sure-fire tool, lengthy paragraphs can be a sign of slow pacing
Signs of Fast Pacing
Slight confusion (especially with beta readers)
A feeling something is missing
The events are hard to keep up with
No single event in a scene feels important because there are too many important events
4. Dialogue vs. Narrative vs. Philosophical Diatribe vs. Math
When working your pace, the length of paragraphs, sentences, scenes, and chapters all determine the speed at which the reader feels. The fastest flow is with dialogue. I found this example by Joanne the Geek of a story written entirely in dialogue. It’s very short, but it gets across a LOT of information and is understandable. Entirely dialogue flash fiction is a good tool to have in your pocket, especially if you can pull off giving the characters distinct tone (which is something Joanne did well).
Shorts, novellas, and novels all have different rules from flash. Dialogue can sometimes be fast enough that information is lost. It’s full of telling rather than showing, for obvious reasons, which can lead a reader away from immersion in the story.
This is where narrative comes in. Narrative is the bit where action happens, some introspection, and most descriptions of environment or characters. It’s the bit where the story’s mind tells what it sees. In our heads, we remember life events and scenes complete with feelings and analysis (was it fun? did it taste good? did I love that person?) even if we don’t realize it. That narrative voice helps give life to a scene.
The narrative voice can also go too far. Spend too long describing a small piece, and you’ll stagnate. Or, worse… wax political or philosophical.
Unless you’re writing Atlas Shrugged or some other political treatise, you’ll at best stroke the egos of readers that agree with you and piss off the readers that disagree. That’s at best. It’s also possible that the metaphysical arguments or blatant discourse about political or philosophical items will become boring. If someone’s looking for fiction and finds philosophy, there’s a good chance the passage will feel dense and slow to them. That was my experience with Atlas Shrugged.
There’s one item that is even slower than philosophical or political diatribes: math.
Don’t do it. Even in engineering school we’re taught to avoid putting equations in a presentation unless absolutely necessary, and that’s presenting to people who enjoy math. Don’t make bets that your audience will consist of people who love math enough to enjoy paragraphs about it.
3. One Scene, Two Purposes
One important method to make sure you don’t slow down too much is to make sure everything you write is important. In order to help ensure importance, give your scenes two purposes.
By two purposes, I mean use the scene to advance the plot and do one other thing. This “other thing” can be advancing a second plot, providing characterization, developing a worldbuilding element, or focusing on some literary device such as theme or symbol.
When you include two purposes side by side, the slower-paced items such as characterization or worldbuilding can be enhanced by inclusion with the faster-paced plot movement. You can balance things more readily. As well, having two goals in one scene makes it so that every piece has importance. If you divide the two goals into two different scenes, the scene exclusively dedicated to characterization is going to be slower. Sometimes a slower scene is good in order to de-escalate the tension after a mini-climax, but even in these slower scenes you want to accomplish enough goals and push in enough meat that a reader gets something from it.
Try it. Take a scene where you’ve done characterization exclusively, then try to jam it into a scene where you’re just doing plot. Once you start doing double duty, it gets much easier to do it again.
2. Don’t Hide Information
Subtlety is useful in cases where you’re building to a twist, but making small hints at information that are easily forgotten leads to exactly the problem you think it might have: it’s easily forgotten. If that forgotten hint comes up important later in the story, the reader could become either confused or disinterested. This moment of confusion can lead to a slow in the pace one takes in information, as a reader will have to start combing through earlier pages or they’ll be overly scrutinizing within the rest of the passage. Be less subtle with your hints, and the times of confusion will lessen.
At the same time, there’s the opposite problem: telling everything. If you throw too much information out there, what’s essential gets lost and nothing matters. To a lot of modern people, that’s the problem with books such as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Christo, or other 19th century works in which the authors drag on and on about things that don’t matter. You can get away with giving too much information at times in modern works, but it needs to have a reason.
1. Simplify the Story
Multiple plotlines, complicated backstories, symbols and themes and – oh my! So much to fit in, so little space!
Congruent with much of what I’ve already said, one of the easiest ways to make a story have great pace is to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Most people comfortably read at a level below 8th grade, and fiction is best when read comfortably. In addition to the need for understandable phrasing, words, and sentence structures, maintaining storylines and artistic moieties that are easy to understand (for your intended audience, I might add) is key.
Do you need multiple narrators to tell the story? What does this side-plot add? Does everything fold together, or do they remain as two separate tales throughout the book?
If a piece of information is not essential, consider cutting it. Kill your darlings, as it were.
You might also consider letting someone else read the book as a beta reader. This will help you know what parts they liked, if nothing else, and may help you determine if one storyline didn’t add to the overall quality of the book. Don’t be to attached to any scene being in the final version of the book before it’s time to ship out and sell.
How do you handle pacing in your stories? Any hints, especially for flash or blog-oriented things? Tell us what you’ve got in the comments!
Whew – it was a doozy of a February! It looks like I was barely even online, going by my post schedule and how good (i.e. bad) a job I did at reading other people’s stuff. But that’s ok – I think I did more good by choosing the path I took this month.
It’s made me sit back and think, though: what are/were my goals for the blog? How is what I’m doing going to get me closer to those goals? Have my goals changed?
The short answer: my life goals have most definitely changed, and everything else has as a result.
The longer answer is more complex. Chief among the things behind all these changes is my depression has, in recent months, gotten significantly better. I am able to experience things and have my mind not instantly go to “well, life is basically over now.” I’m also not constantly afraid that I’m going to be fired, and thus I don’t feel like I have to get a book traditionally published as a backup career. I’ve never wanted to self-publish because then I’d have to spend time and effort being my own salesman, which I hate and am not good at. I’m not invested in blogging as a sales platform, and I’ve only done it when my short story contracts required some social media presence as part of my contract. And that’s fine. The career/monetary/advancement prospects of blogging have essentially evaporated.
Related to feeling less depressed, I have new reason to become more introspective for a while. It’s not bad stuff that’s happening, and neither is it good things coming to pass. It’s just real life things I need to meditate on, mull over, and think about. It’s things that I won’t be able to do by focusing on trying to make people like me – whether that be in real life or over the internet.
And, as much as I hate to admit it, I must let some things go, and it’ll be a while before I’m back on the blog at full speed.
So, new rules for my blog:
I’m not going to be reading as many posts. Most people’s posts are interesting and fun, and I’ll still try to peruse the WordPress reader and pick a few to read, but I’m going to turn off all my email notifications. I can’t follow anyone religiously anymore.
I encourage everyone to only read my posts if you’re actually interested. I’ve planned this year’s book review posts in advance (except June, which I may be changing), and all of those will be published on the blog and my Goodreads. I’ve also got many other posts planned in advance.
Except for those posts I’ve already pre-planned, I’m only going to write a post if I’m inspired to do so. No more forcing myself to respond to a prompt with the hopes to bait people to the blog. No more struggle to boost the stats.
I’ll respond as quickly as I can to comments, etc., but won’t work myself up over it.
In effect, these new “rules” will likely kill the blog. I assume I’ll start back up on full steam at some point, and I’ll potentially have to do so from almost scratch. I’m not worried, though, because there’s many times I’ve had to do something new. I don’t have a timeline for when I may pick up the blog again fully, and honestly it may end up being “never.”
Godspeed, my friends. Regardless how involved I am in your and your blog’s future, I hope I’ve improved a day or a moment for you in the past. You have almost certainly improved some of mine.
I love me a good plot twist. I love writing them, I love reading them – but they so often fall flat, and they’re hard to get right. What makes a twist good? How do you stick ’em in there?
Well, I think I’m pretty good at twists, so I’m here to help you out.
Fair Warning: Major spoilers for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars, and The Kite Runner are present in this post.
4. Know What a Twist Is
Normal development includes elements of discovery, addition of information, mystery solving, relationship building, and (in some books) fights. A twist is where some additional, unexpected (more on this later) complication arises. For example: losing a fight isn’t a twist. People, even the good guys, lose fights all the time. But losing a fight to a guy who suddenly reveals he’s your father? That’s a twist.
That twist, the famous one where Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father, is epic. Honestly, it’s the best twist in the Star Wars film series as it changes the entire dynamic. There’s not enough build to it for my tastes, but the fact that it’s an unexpected addition to the plot and forces a massive change in the characters’ outlook is what makes it a twist.
If you think you’ve inserted a twist, ask your beta readers what they thought of the twist. If they don’t know or if they say it’s not a twist, think about how you can either change it to make it better or if you shouldn’t think of it as a twist in the first place.
3. Placement of Twist(s)
Where your twist goes in the story is important to get the biggest effect. Every story follows a certain format wherein you build tension during the large portion of the book then end it after the final part of the conflict. You’ve probably seen one of these plot diagrams before.
A common place to put the twist is right before or during the climax. When the twist is finally revealed, the tension and stakes are at their highest. The twist might also give the characters the last piece of information they need to complete their goals (though, as we’ll see later, this needs to be done carefully).
Though the diagram above is simple, you can also imagine multiple, smaller rises and falls of tension during the conflict period on the plot. A twist can be placed before one of these mini-climaxes in order to show just how difficult the characters’ journeys will be. It can add a new player to the game, turn an ally into an enemy, or add an element of social anxiety.
Twists should never be in the exposition – they aren’t twists there, just explanations. A twist in the falling action or conclusion might feel like a cop-out, or it will feel like difficulty for no reason. For example: at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the hobbits return to The Shire and there’s a problem with Saruman/Sharkey screwing it up. It’s a twist and just one more problem that wasn’t necessary for plot (but is 100%, absolutely necessary for theme and allegory, so I don’t knock the decision). Without that thematic importance, the little addition is just like, “What the h*ll? We just killed the guy who threatened the entire world, and here’s this little sh*t screwing around for nothing?”
A twist is, in a way, a betrayal of the reader’s trust in your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator must provide enough information for the world and setup to make sense. When executing a twist, something has been held back from the reader, or perhaps lies were fed to them, in order for the twist to be surprising. Twists expend trust, and every time it’s expended, it’s harder to get it back.
For a short, I’d have one twist (two if they are synergistic). You don’t have enough space to build trust or information after a second twist. Novellas can handle a little more, but not much. Novels, in my opinion, can handle up to one per minor climax, but that still can be tricky.
1. Unexpected, Yet Obvious
The Darth Vader twist was great in that it changed the entire dynamic of the story. It wasn’t great, however, in that it didn’t feel like there was any build to it. Once revealed, you couldn’t look back at the prior movie or the first half of Empire Strikes Back and be able to tell that Vader was the dad. It’s greatness in film history has more to do with the cultural impact of the moment and the movie than it does on the quality of the twist itself.
A better twist would have been built if Lucas had danced a fine line of information that pointed toward the parentage but did not reveal the secret outright.
Now, a great plot twist build: in Kite Runner, Khaled Hossini builds the relationship between Hassan and main character Amir’s was done so well. Throughout the book, Amir’s father wishes Hassan had come with them to America. He pays for Hassan’s cleft palate surgery, and he forgives Hassan when Amir frames him as a thief. When it is revealed that Hassan’s father, Ali, is sterile, there’s enough information that the reader automatically knows what’s coming next: Hassan and Amir are half brothers, biologically. Though I was just “meh” about the book as a whole, the twist was bang on.
Though building information that leads to the culmination of a twist can create the most satisfying reader situation possible, it also runs a major risk: readers could be able to figure out the twist long before it happens. This is ok if you’re going for dramatic irony, but if not, providing information in a different way could be better. Some ways you could funnel the information differently:
Try a more limited narrator scope. If you’re in third person omniscient, try first person. You’ll feed information to the reader differently since the character you’re speaking through may not be aware of every element of the conflict.
Toy with how blatant a clue is or how often you repeat it. I’ve found that it’s best to be very blunt about my clues, but only do it once. If you’re too repetitive, the clue can be too much of a hint. If you don’t speak about it clearly enough, a reader won’t remember the clue when it comes time for the reveal.
Time your clues appropriately. You can give a big clue early if it seems disconnected, then build back around so that clue comes back into play. By that time, the event will have faded some in the reader’s memory, and you’ll be able to help the reader sew together the clues to form the twist.
Read mystery novels! Mysteries are almost always twist-oriented, since otherwise there’s no real payoff for reading them.
Do you like plot twists? Do you have a book you’ve written that’s got a great twist and want to share information in the comments? DO IT!
(Beware – sometimes WordPress eats link-containing comments as spam, so you might want to just provide the name if you’re new to the blog!)
A mouse snuffles through A bag of bread crumbs. It seeks grain to chew And sate its hunger. What does my stomach Crave to digest and Break down? I covet Some form of rapture, Like dogs with a bone Or birds with a worm. With this ache grown To its final form, I turn deep inside. Will I starve before I forsake my pride? Of course not. I cling, tenacious, To my misery.
What goes better with poetry than a touch of depression and faking it ’til you make it?
Maybe some cake. Or things that will happen in about 4.5 hours following this post.
Either way, this was written for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt #192, Tenacious. You should all just be thankful I resisted the urge to write about Tenacious D. Also I didn’t know what picture to choose, so I just slapped some nonsense I liked on there.
The priest, exasperated from his loud and charismatic exhortations, bowed and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He picked up the cracker. “Lord Yarenth, bless us with your presence!”
As he broke the wafer, it turned black and fell to pieces.
Out of the bowl and over the priest’s hands spewed thousands of black spiders. Far more than there could have been wafers poured from some dark portal in the bowl.
“Save us! Lord Yarenth, we have sinned!” a woman in the front rows screeched, her voice soon drowned by screaming. The parishioners fought for the exit.
This was written for the Carrot Ranch flash fiction challenge, “unexpected.” Well, if communion wafers turning to spiders isn’t unexpected, then I don’t think I want to know what is.
For the first time ever, I think, I took a passage from a longer work I’ve written and made it into a flash. This was based on a scene from Manifest Destiny, the first novella in a trilogy of the same name. I’ve finished the novella and gotten through the first draft of parts 2 and 3, but 2 and 3 need such serious reworking that I’m getting through them very slowly. If you want to know more, hit me up in the comments.