Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pacing your chapters

I am huge fan of the television show The Walking Dead. By fan, I mean, I watch it, rave about it for ten minutes, then spend the next week picking apart all of its flaws and complaining about how stupid it is and how much I hate it. This is pretty much the standard operating procedure for fans of the show, and you'll know this if  you've ever met someone who watches the show and talks to you about it for more than thirty seconds. One of the biggest complaints people have about it is the pacing. When a member of the group went missing in season two, it felt like the search was going on for six weeks, while on the show, it had only been a matter of days.

Since the season is over, I decided I would sit down and watch it all at once, in my own little marathon. When I did this, a strange thing happened. The show no longer seemed drawn out and pointlessly slow. It was gripping and action packed. The long, zombieless weeks of pointless talking and emotional scenes- sans zombies, the real draw of the show- vanished in a haze of, "Wow, this story is moving so fast!"

This made me think about all the books I've recently abandoned in the reading funk that has been plaguing me lately. I dropped most of them because it seemed like the plot was taking forever. Maybe it was just taking me, a notoriously slow reader, forever to read them. Then, I started thinking about my books, and how to avoid falling into the same trap of the seemingly slow moving plot. I want readers to sit down with one of my books and read it for as long as I can hook them, just like I'm willing to spend twelve solid hours with Camp Dinner Bell on The Walking Dead. I don't want my readers to read a chapter and sprint to the internet to complain about how nothing happened (and if you've ever been on GoodReads.com, you know that readers do exactly that). This is what I came up with:

1. Make your chapters shorter. It stands to reason that if you have a three page chapter, a reader is going to be more likely to keep going and read the next chapter, and the next. After all, it's only three more pages, right? I know that has tricked me more than once into a nightlong reading session. But when you reach the end of a ten, fifteen, or thirty page chapter, you're less likely to commit to another long stretch.

2. Always end on a hook. If your chapters wrap up a section of the story in a natural stopping point, guess what the reader is going to do? They're going to stop. You have to draw out tension of some kind, and promise the resolution in the next chapter. Whether or not you do resolve it then is up to you, but the point is, you have to give the reader incentive, they have to have that bone on the string hanging in front of them so they won't put your book down.

3. Don't end chapters with people going to sleep. I am so guilty of this, because 1) I love to sleep. 2) and I admit it, sometimes I just don't know how to end a scene. This is the single dumbest thing I, or any other writer, could possibly do, and yet it happens, all the time. When a reader is reading that book, be it at noon or three in the morning, they're going to get to the part where the characters go to sleep and subconsciously say, "Well, they're not going to be doing anything for a while." So, they'll set that book down and give your characters time to sleep. It's not a conscious thought, but it totally happens.

4. Cut out anything unnecessary. Every line of dialogue, every action, should be absolutely necessary to the plot. We don't care what your heroine makes for breakfast, and how, unless later we find out that breakfast was poisoned. There's no reason to show readers a bunch of stuff they never asked about, don't want to read about, and won't have any future payoff. I'm going to forever refer to this rule as "Zombie in the well." If you watch The Walking Dead, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't, suffice it to say that you don't want zombies in your well, taking up precious story telling time when it has nothing to do with the story. Readers don't want that, either.

These are just a few tips, but they were churning in my brain today. I hope they help you out!


Patricia Kiyono said...

Thanks so much for this, Jen! I'm guilty of having characters go to sleep at chapter endings. Guess I'd better wake them up!

Cheryl said...

I'll admit to catching parts of the series, something I'll have to remedy.
It's always good to revisit the basics once in awhile. You brought up some valid points. I'll take them to heart.