W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

No 41 Plot and Pacing

If you want to discuss this or any W3 email me at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr


Plotting is the story itself. Pacing is how the writer unravels the story.

First what makes up a good plot? Interesting characters doing either interesting things or placed in interesting situations that tests them is what keeps readers turning pages.

No one wants to read about two university graduates at the top of their class, who get good jobs, marry. They have two perfect children who also get good grades and are always well behaved. The couple stays faithful and in love until they die at age 100 within minutes of each other. Although we might wonder how they do it, what that plot lacks is a lot of C. C stands for Conflicts and Challenges in their lives. That mythical couple would be as boring as a detective with no crime to solve.

Plots can be event, character and/or theme driven as long as there is something that happens that makes readers want to keep reading. Once the plot is in place then pacing comes into play (Okay, I apologize for the alliteration.)

There is no single way to structure your pacing.

The end can be revealed in the beginning and the rest of the story can show how the end was reached. Think of all the COLUMBO programs. We know from the first few scenes who the murderer is, but we watch Peter Falk with his raincoat and “One more question” bring down the guilty party. Some novels start with a prologue that we know at one point will make sense.
For example an old rich woman with servants is waiting for her grandchildren to come to her birthday party. In the first chapter she is a poor girl pushing a cart in Brooklyn. We watch her evolve into that rich old woman. The pacing is how she succeeds and where she fails.

Other times we don’t know how the story ends (unless you are like my friend who reads the last page first). The writer drops hints along the way, and hints are necessary because a reader will be angry if the ending lacks believability. Better that s/he thinks, how clever the writer was to sneak in the clues that I missed. A good example of sneaky clues is the film THE SIXTH SENSE. Although the ending seemed like a surprise, when rethinking different scenes all the clues were there. And in the bonus material on the DVD they tell you where they were.

The writer must decide what to give away and when.

Pacing also involves tension. We need to vary the tension to not exhaust or bore our readers.

One way is with sub plots, making the reader wait to see what happened to character 1 as we follow characterr 2.

In short stories there is usual only one plot, but in a novel we can have several different sub plots intersecting. A master at weaving subplots together is John Irving. I recommend A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY to see how different subplots that might drive you to distraction like the practice of a basketball shot has an oh yes moment at the end of the book.

Also with different story lines in a novel we can pick up one while putting another aside. Think in terms of three interwoven sub plots, A B C. The lines are different lengths to show the amount of space devoted to each subplot does not need to be equal. However, at the end they must all be resolved.


Not all subplots need to be of the same strength giving us A b C


Or we can do stories within stories. Again Irving in the WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP has a separate story about a bear within the novel that is only remotely connected, but the reader gets caught up in that story before going back to the main story.


“Plot is the structure of events within a story and the causal relationship between them. There is no plot without causality.”

“According to Aristotle's Poetics, a plot in literature is "the arrangement of incidents" that (ideally) each follow plausibly from the other. The plot is like the pencil outline that guides the painter's brush. An example of the type of plot which follows these sorts of lines is the linear plot of development to be discerned within the pages of a bildungsroman novel. Aristotle notes that a string of unconnected speeches, no matter how well-executed, will not have as much emotional impact as a series of tightly connected speeches delivered by imperfect speakers.
“The concept of plot and the associated concept of construction of plot, emplotment, has of course developed considerably since Aristotle made these insightful observations. The episodic narrative tradition which Aristotle indicates has systematically been subverted over the intervening years, to the extent that the concept of beginning, middle, end are merely regarded as a conventional device when no other is at hand.
“This is particularly true in the cinematic tradition where the folding and reversal of episodic narrative is now commonplace. Moreover, many writers and film directors, particularly those with a proclivity for the Modernist or other subsequent and derivative movements which emerged during or after the early 20th century, seem more concerned that plot is an encumbrance to their artistic medium than an assistance.
lot of a story will extend beyond the bounds of the story itself.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot (I recommend that you read the entire selection)


Take one of your short stories or a novel and make a file card for each scene. Label it A,B,C etc. for each subplot. If the subplot is minor use a,b,c. Then label it 1-5: 1 for low tension to 5 for high tension. Take graph paper and draw out the plot lines above. Then add the numbers for tension. You will have a visual representation of your work both for plotting and pacing.