For many writers, one of the last writing skills areas to blossom has to be the rate at which a scene unfolds. Go on too long and readers become frustrated or bored, Cut a scene too short and the depth of emotional range shown by the characters often suffers.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at how pace, foreshadowing and withholding information influence your readers’ experience:
Think of pace in a novel as another element that contains several levels. There’s the overall pace of the entire story—a novel can unfold in a day or several decades. At the chapter level, the pace is influenced by how much new information is revealed. And at the all-important scene level, pace is the delicate art of knowing what bits to act out, which to summarize and which to allow readers to assume. For instance, readers usually can safely assume a character gets up and gets dressed in the morning. So unless an important event or revelation occurs as the character is shoving her feet into those fuzzy slippers, writers can omit a scene where the mundane habits of daily life are acted out. Also, I’ve written before about the tricky business of acting out a scene with irritating or repetitive elements—let’s say a toddler whining in a grocery store. As any parent knows, the toddler isn’t about to give up after you say no the first time. This whine-no-whine sequence can go on ad nauseam. But do your readers really need to relive such a scene in its entirety to get the idea? I say, use the Rule of Three to paint the illusion of this frustrating scene, rather than detailing a blow-by-blow account. This way, the writer conveys the idea without actually frustrating the reader. In honing your pacing skills, this Rule of Three comes in handy for building tension and keeping readers engaged.
Foreshadowing or Planting
Your story’s rate of revelation will also benefit from well-placed foreshadowing or planting. This means you either introduce or hint at a story element or character that will play a part in the story later on. Readers do not like to meet new characters much past the halfway mark of a novel and they also generally dislike unidentified plot additions late in the story. The cure for this is to foreshadow the character or the plot detail at the beginning of the story, so canny readers can figure things out early and the rest of us won’t feel gobsmacked by stuff we didn’t see coming. The trick here is that most novelists don’t do these plantings until we’re pretty far along or even finished with our first drafts. Even careful plotters must sometimes adjust where in the story certain elements or characters are introduced. You can use scene cards or Scrivener to help you plant these foreshadowings. By stepping back from the novel as a whole, it will be easier to see where the foreshadowings should go.
A major component of any story is how and when readers discover key information. Readers read on to “see what comes next.” This means writers must decide how much important info to withhold and how fast or slowly to show this info to the reader. If you put a character on stage, and then immediately inform readers that she’s the guilty party, you lose the element of surprise. Most writers get this aspect of withholding. Yet another component, just as important, is learning not to prolong the withholding past the reader’s natural curiosity and into frustration. At the scene level, this goes back to just how much of a scene to act out. At the chapter level, it’s imperative to keep curiosity and tension high at the story’s midpoint. You can do this by thinking of your story as a mountain stream in the first act, but as a river that reaches floodstage by the time the climax (a waterfall) occurs. The scenes and the vital information or plot points, come harder and faster as we near the climax. Readers should be pulled along faster and more intensely as they near the BIG scene. More is revealed, secrets are unraveled and characters’ motivations are exposed as they hurtle toward Act III. When your readers reach the end of the white water ride, they should be soaking wet but satisfied by the experience.