Friday, March 2, 2018

Creating Pause in Your Action--When and How to Let the Reader Linger without Losing Momentum

A blog reader sent in this fascinating question:
How can "event writers" develop stationary moments in their narrative and sections in their books where the main characters reflect on the meaning of what happens?  What's the purpose of this, and what's is benefit to the story?

This is a question about pacing, but it also hints at our natural preferences as writers, to write certain kinds of scenes. 



Some writers enter their writing via reflection--the meaning of a situation or memory.  Reflective writers write meaning first, then translate it into action. Some writers enter via image or setting.  If you're one, you think first about where the story is happening and you love the details of place.  The third group, event writers, prefer to have things moving forward.  They think action first, and they may get impatient with too much (to them) description. None of these is stronger or better or worse; all are needed.  It's just where we naturally like to start.

Back to my reader's question.  Stationary moments are the domain of reflection or image writers, and they would almost scoff at the question:  what is the benefit to the story.  The benefit is that the reader gets to absorb meaning.  What is a story without meaning?  It's all momentum.  It leaves you breathless, charged up, but possibly without a clue as to the purpose of what you just read.

It also creates a dense feel to the writing, which I addressed in a earlier blog this year (scroll down).  Counter intuitive to say that too many events create dense writing, I know--but that's how readers perceive it.  So meaning, or pauses, are the places we catch our breath and think about the purpose or meaning of what we just read.

How does an event writer, who prefers not to pause, put in pauses?  First, it requires an awareness of the benefit of pauses, so the best first step is to find a book you love, preferably in a genre similar to the one you're writing, and comb through a chapter for pauses.  If it's a skilled writer, it'll take some work to see the pauses.  Look for something called "beats" in screenwriting, or breaks in the action or dialogue--gestures, movements, a glance out the window, a brief flashback, a bit of setting.  They don't have to be long but they allow just that moment to regroup and absorb that a reader needed.  Notice how often these appear, how long they are, where they are placed.

Then go to a chapter of your own and model the writer you just read--their structure of pauses.  You would use your own words, your own story, but mimic the placement of each beat and what is included.  For instance, if the writer uses two lines of backstory just there, you do the same.  If they use a gesture or movement in another place, do it too.  Use your words, their structure. 

This modeling exercise is a great way to get muscle memory of pacing, as well as the benefit of pauses or stationary moments.  Try it this week, as your weekly writing exercise.