It's the Holiday Season, a time of joy... and gifts. So this year I decided to Give Away one of my writing secrets as a Christmas present to you all. If it's one thing I'm known for it's the fast-pace of my thrillers. How do I achieve this?
Yes, this is a writing tips post... so let's talk about Martial Arts.
When I teach Martial Arts I often use the strange and unpredictable to get the message across. One such trick had all my students dancing to a Waltz on the tatami. A widely-held opinion at the time was that I’d finally flipped, but no, there was madness in my method.
You see, everything in life has rhythm, even a fight. Sometimes it’s natural, like the tapping of rain on a window pane as a storm ramps up; on other occasions it is man-made – the clacking of train wheels on the metal rail joints or the swishing of car tyres on an asphalt street come easily to mind.
And so with your novel.
Different genres have different rhythms, so how do you find the right one for the genre you have chosen.
Let’s use my genre, Thrillers, as an example.
I have always heard that old adage that all thriller novels should be like a roller coaster ride. At first, your reaction, like mine, may be to agree. But we would both be wrong.
Times and writing styles are changing. Today, most thrillers start with a bang; something that grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go until they have finished the novel. Yet it was not always this way.
If you examine some of the thrillers of just twenty years ago you may notice they start with a slow burn, like a lit fuse that does not cause the explosive opening to the tale until several chapters have gone by. Thriller writer David Morrell is a master at this type of start; he builds tension and suspense then the BANG happens. That is the starting gun for the speed of the novel to increase and take the reader on a fast ride. This is still a perfectly valid way to write a thriller novel and it does conform to the analogy of a roller coaster where we sit in the car and are drawn slowly to a great height before being released into the waiting troughs and peaks. Although most rides also end on the flat, rolling to a gentle stop as your novel’s climax is passed and ‘normality’ returns.
If you have read any of my books (if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) you will notice I like to start AND end with a bang. The ending may often be a cliffhanger of sorts, not necessarily implying there is to be a sequel, but trying to get you to discuss the denouement and draw your own conclusions.
The important bit, however is the middle.
This is the bit where you can bore your readers, so you need to keep an eye on the rhythm of your novel.
This is my secret weapon:
I call this my Pace Meter.
The one I use for all my books was generated in five minutes using a spreadsheet program, but if that is beyond you technical scope, then paper, pencil and a ruler are all you need. Red ink is optional, but it does add a little flair!
My Pace Meter has a row for every chapter in my book and a scale (column on the spreadsheet) of five. I’ve found this to be about right and it’s easy to decide what value you are going to insert in each one.
The example shows the real Pace Meter for the end of ‘2012’ and you can see how the amount of red grows as I near the end of the novel (that’s the dark bits, for the fifty shades people). This is the scale I use:
You will immediately notice two things: There are several ‘troughs’, where the pace slows, that occur just before it speeds up dramatically, and after a fast-paced bit, which may span several chapters, I deliberately slow things down.
Why do I do this? Surely a thriller needs to be fast-paced throughout?
Well the trick is in the VARIANCE of Pace, not the Pace itself. Readers would quickly become bored with a novel that maintains the same rhythm throughout.
Now, you might ask, am I monitoring this from the moment I pen the first word, and the answer is a resounding NO.
If you are going to use this method, and I’ll tell you how to apply it to your genre in a moment, forget about it until the Second Draft – never try to apply this to your First Draft.
Writing a First Draft should be EXCLUSIVELY about getting the tale down on paper. Nothing else. From then on we can start to polish that tale and make it easier to read, more interesting for our potential readers.
You see, the relationship between a writer and his reader is twofold – there’s entertainment and there’s engagement. Of course you want the experience of reading your novel to be enjoyable for your reader, because then they will talk about your book and maybe buy the next one. This is a passive involvement in your tale, however; if you do it right, your reader will place their eyeballs on page one, finish your book and then smile, sigh, cry or emote in some fashion, just before writing their glowing review of your work.
But we writers are a greedy bunch. We want to sequester the innocent holding our novel and drag them onto the page. We want them involved with the action, interested in the characters, worried about the outcome of events. In short, we want them emotionally engaged with our tale. Pacing is an important part of this.
Play with the Pace you create; let the reader relax then hit them with something that’ll knock their socks off. Change it up… and down… and you will have your reader there, on the page, with your protagonist, living the events as they happen.
Am I sure that readers react this way?
My answer, all modesty aside, is to reproduce part of a real review, a very insightful review, I might add, from someone who knows how to write a useful one (and NO, it wasn’t a Five-star review – I’ve included the snippet so you can see that readers do notice the use of this trick):
“Gates' writing style dictates your mood towards the story. At times he uses short, choppy sentences, making the action seem even more intense. Other times his writing is soothing. Yet again, the way that his sentences are put together brings out further compassion for the characters involved. Each section of the novel is written in a way to maximize impact, while still flowing seamlessly together. The novel also remains gripping throughout. Even the parts that are simply background information or descriptive narrative are never boring.”
[Taken from Jonel Boyko’s review of ‘the CULL – Bloodline’, cited here with permission. Check out Jonel’s website purejonel.blogspot.com and especially read her thoughts on book reviewing – this is a professional attitude!].
The comments also highlight some of the tricks I use to play with the Pace. Remember, you are looking to generate an emotional reaction in your reader, so to make their heart beat faster, shorter sentences, even ones that contain one or two words (one of my trademarks) work well as long as you don’t overuse them.
But this is just the start...
If you look at the reviews for my Thrillers the words most repeated are 'fast-paced'. In this second part of my article, I'll reveal even more secrets to managing the Pace in your writing.
If you recall from part one of this post, I showed that the key to good Pacing is in it's VARIANCE. In this extract from ‘Full Disclosure’ look how I subtly vary the Pace from when the shooter is waiting to take his shot, to the firing of the gun:
A figure half crossed his field of vision, turned back, speaking to someone, then turned again and took a step.
Ayuso jerked on the trigger.
The rifle fired.
Through the scope he saw the window shatter.
He couldn’t see the bitch he aimed at.
Did he get her?
Lights were extinguished; first from his target’s house, then, some seconds later, from the place alongside.
Observe how I employ semi-colons as well as very short phrases to break up longer narratives into a more staccato beat and increase the pace.
Then there’s the image your writing creates on the page. I have found that this can be effective too. We all know about the reader’s reaction when seeing a solid block of narrative text that occupies most of a page, right. I have been using several techniques in this short article to make it easier for you to read: I’ve used extracts from books presented in a slightly smaller font size; cartoons and diagrams; short, often italicized sentences; bold lettering; even humor.
Look at your own writing and break it up. Build in snippets of dialogue, or paragraph breaks, so the image the reader perceives doesn’t introduce any unwanted prejudice.
You can also take this to an extreme, so the ‘pattern’ of the words on the page adds to the sensorial experience for the reader. I did this at the start of book one of ‘the CULL’ series – a storm was just breaking and I used this little device to add to the reader’s experience. Never start a book with weather, they say; oh how I love breaking the rules:
The lights went out.
Another celestial drumroll; quicker now, the storm approaching fast.
Seconds passed; she waited. Fighting against the darkness, the emergency lighting sputtered into action.
Plick, plick, plick, plick.
Spattering against the glass separating wet from dry, the rain began. A heavenly tap opened; grime swabbed down the transparent wall by sluicing torrents; lightning filtered through cascading wash forming eccentric shadows.
You notice the pyramidal effect of the ‘plick’ words.
Plick is not a real word, but it is onomatopoeic (the Webster Dictionary defines it as ‘the use of words whose sound suggests the sense’) and this is another trick you can use. Certain words sound harder or softer than others, and by choosing the right ones you can emotionally stimulate your reader by the sound they make, and suggest the pace too. Metal CLANGS not caresses – you can feel the difference between the use of either word on the pace of the imagined scene:
The sword clanged to the ground.
He caressed her bare arm with the blade’s cold metal.
Different pace, right?
It’s not just the word choices, especially the verbs, that will set the pace (it’s not the same when Tommy walks into the room or he bursts into the room) but the nouns used, the noises the words make, or imply, and the context too. Try writing a soft romantic scene using harder, more guttural words (those that start with B, D, G, J, K, N, P, R, T, V, Z); as soon as you introduce a couple, the mood changes... and so does the pace.
Going bigger scale, you could also make your chapters shorter. James Patterson discovered this years ago. Today, with people taking tablets, e-readers and smartphones everywhere, reading in spare moments while they wait for trains and buses, or in lunch breaks etc, short chapters are very welcome by readers too. Of late I keep coming across that old saw that chapters MUST be fourteen pages long- Poppycock (or the stronger word I really had in mind)! Did you know that this ancient Traditional Publishing 'rule' had far more to do with how books were bound than anything else? Bound any e-books of late?
And don’t forget the influence of the background music you listen to when writing either! Check out my thoughts on this dangerous trap here.
So how do you choose the right pace for your genre? How do you build your particular Pace Meter?
This will take a little time but the results will be worth it.
- Pick five novels you have not read before, by different popular authors, in the genre you wish to adopt.
- Create a blank Pace Meter for each one.
- Now read the books, one at a time.
- Stop briefly after each chapter to annotate your reaction to the pace of what you have just read. NOTE: I said Pace; not level of intrigue, suspense, romanticism, or anything else – just the PACE. Use the definitions in Part One of this article - you'll quickly get the hang of it, and the brief pause as you select the value will allow your mind to reset and evaluate the following chapter with greater objectivity.
When you have completed your reading of all five books in your chosen genre, compare the resultant diagrams. Don’t be surprised if you find then eerily similar.
That’s what you should be aiming for in your excursions into that genre… at least as you set your foot firmly into the writing waters for the first time. With practice, you will develop your own pacing; something that readers will instantly recognize as part of your particular narrative voice.
A Happy New Year to everyone!
Have fun, make some great Resolutions and above all READ A BOOK or three (preferably mine!)
With so many reviews
my LATEST THRILLER
is the IDEAL GIFT
or just a GREAT READ for yourself:
my LATEST THRILLER
is the IDEAL GIFT
or just a GREAT READ for yourself:
(article adapted from 'How NOT to be an ASPIRING writer')
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com