Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tightening Your Timeline

We had a writing group meeting today, and we critiqued a piece that wasn't mine. We raised a lot of points about the story, but the one I wanted to discuss in general, because I brought it up and the critique victim is still chewing on the notion, is about tightening the timeline. This post isn't specifically referencing the problems in the piece we critiqued.

Many books start in medias res, which is Latin for "into the middle of things." That means that there isn't any introduction of characters, setting, or premise. The reader is dropped into the story without warning, and things are dropped in as they're relevant. I'm not saying you should write everything in medias res, because it's not for all stories. If you want a reader's attention from the very start, and you have to pack a lot of action in, it's great. But it can also be confusing, and you risk losing readers if you withhold illumination too long.

There is something to be learned from it, though, even if your pacing is more meandering. You don't have to do breakneck-pace plotting for people to love your book. However, if your characters are regularly navel-gazing and passing the time until the conclusion, you will frustrate people.

If chapters pass between events and revelations, you have to ask yourself if those intervening scenes where nothing happens are necessary. Conversations that serve to highlight a revelation's importance, or to convey it to a character who doesn't know it yet, read as tedious and repetitive. If a reader already knows something, it's fine to summarize in later conversations about it. If you have a conversation taking place over pages and pages with nothing of importance discussed, it's fine to write, "They discussed the weather, then she stared out the window, trying to come up with something interesting to say."

Often, scenes can be condensed down to the important part, pieces of information can be slipped into later scenes, and, if you're a pantster, you've started the book at least two chapters early. By that I mean, if you chop off the first two chapters, you're starting in just the right place. Sometimes, it's just one. Others, it's three or four. But, if you haven't outlined, figured out the world, and mapped everything out, there's a good chance that your first chapter or two is your getting into the voice and heads of your characters, and figuring out your new world.

I've heard it said that every scene in a novel should serve at least two purposes. A dialogue between two characters shouldn't just convey a piece of information to the reader. It should also reinforce your theme, show the characters' relationship, and maybe even lend insight into one or both characters. There should be a lot going on in all your scenes.

If it seems to you there isn't enough happening in your story, consider pushing up the precipitating event. If you're waiting too long for the villain to act, then have him acting behind the scenes before the story even begins. Raise the stakes, put your hero in more danger, or add a subplot or two.

But, for goodness' sake, don't have your character reviewing what she knows for chapters at a time. I'll throw your book if you do that. I promise.

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