Friday, April 24, 2009

Pacing, and a Surprise (for me, that is)

I am very nearly finished with my Major Revision, and the work is going swimmingly since my Post-It(tm) epiphany earlier this week. I did a bunch of work last night, mostly cutting dialog, it turns out. I have a bad habit of writing repetitive dialog, like this:

Antonio: So I'm going to kill you.

Babar: You're going to kill me? With a sword?

Antonio: Yes, with a sword. This one, in fact.

Babar: It goes without saying that I'd rather you didn't.

Antonio: While I can understand your preference to not be killed by me (or, likely, by anyone), I shall nonetheless proceed to slay you. Prepare to die.

Babar: In that case, we must fight. Have at you!

Et cetera. Obviously the above can all be reduced to:

Antonio: I'm going to kill you.

Babar: Have at you! (draws sword)

While dialog presented in this manner is sometimes realistic because people do ask clarifying questions and often just don't know what you mean, in most cases that sort of realistic dialog is not appropriate for fiction.

More than it being dull on its own, repetition like this really slows the pace in any passage. I became acutely aware of this last night (or maybe it was the night before; it's all a blur these days) when I hit a section of my book where it gets really truly very exciting and I stopped editing and just read what I'd written, carried away by the story. I had no idea, frankly, that my book so picked up the pace in the last 1/3 and ran so precipitously toward the climax.

Which is all very pleasing, but suddenly*, after a couple dozen pages of exhilarating prose, the story tripped over its own feet and ground almost to a halt. That's right, I had hit a chunk of my repetitive prose and I wanted to shout at my characters, "Will you just get on with it?"

Now, it's fine for me to act that way in the privacy of my own home, because as author I can make the characters get on with things by cutting all the junk prose. It's less fine for the reader to say that to my characters, and I've now become hyperaware of pacing, especially in the second half of the book. There are some scenes that exist purely for expository purposes, necessary for the action of the end of the book, but they sometimes feel static. I'm going to revisit those scenes after I've done the bulk of my revisions and see if I can give them some forward momentum.

Because momentum is really what I'm looking for in the second half of the book, and I have an image of the reader being carried forward down a hill that becomes progressively steeper toward the bottom, the reader traveling faster and faster until hitting the bottom of the hill. Like the old cartoon snowballs turning into huge avalanches as they roll down snowy slopes. So I'll be doing one editing pass just for pacing. This is sort of like Lady Glamis' technique of layers.

The surprise for me in all this is that I am now aware of momentum and pacing in a new way. I'd always sort of approached this intuitively, not really knowing at a conscious level that I was fussing with the pace of the story. Now it's suddenly* another story element over which I have direct control. So, huh. More and more, I look at novels as something like machines, with all sorts of interconnected parts, moving at different speeds and in different directions.

* used (twice!) for Davin's amusement


  1. You're almost done? That's wonderful! Then, I wish you almost-congratulations. It's interesting what you say about your repetitive dialog. First of all, you are exaggerating about the redundancy. Even if you have longer back and forths between characters they don't feel redundant. I see them as spots where you pay your respects to Shakespeare. You have a lot of really beautiful word games in some of the dialog. Not to say that you shouldn't cut them if you want the pacing to be faster. I'm just saying they weren't actually as bad as you say they were.

  2. Interesting post - and good for you for being able to spot it in your own work. For me, my repetitiveness comes more in the narrative than dialogue. I agree though. Writing a novel is certainly like working on a complicated machine. Here’s hoping I don’t break mine with my editing.

    Good luck with your continuing edits. Looks like you have things under control. ;)

  3. Please soon bestow upon me some measure of your hyperawareness. For now, I'll hold onto the little things, like when you said, "" I had a guy tattoo those words on my ear, so I would always remember your adage.

    I agree with Davin that you exaggerate your flaws, but it's better than exaggerating your nonflaws. Eh?

  4. Davin: Yes, some of the dialog I'm cutting is Shakespeare's from the play. I love his language and I have tried to leave as much of his original words as I could, but as the story builds toward the climax I become ruthless. "This is truly lovely," I think, reading a passage. "But it's not absolutely necessary, so out it goes." My editing method allows time to rethink these decisions, because sometimes I'm hasty and the answer isn't to cut so much as to restructure. I've not cut a word of my poor mad Ophelia, though. She's absolutely perfect. And the "nunnery" scene? Not quite word-for-word Shakespeare, but I find myself holding my breath whenever I read it. That all stays.

    Ms. Guppy: I almost never repeat myself in descriptive passages, but I almost always do in dialog or internal dialog. It's like I can't decide which way to have the character say something, so I have them talk about things from several angles. This tends to be a result of not quite knowing what I want to say, I think. Good luck with your own revisions! Chapter 8 now, is it?

    Justus: I exaggerate my book's flaws. I pretend I have no flaws. I'll mail you a box of hyperawareness; you'll have to use it quickly because it has a brief shelf life.

  5. "While I can understand your preference to not be killed by me (or, likely, by anyone), I shall nonetheless proceed to slay you. Prepare to die."

    While reading this line, I was suddenly reminded of a line from the great Steven Wright:
    Sometimes I talk but you just can't hear me because I'm in parenthesis.

  6. Scott, you're totally cracking me up! Thanks for the nice laugh. I'm hoping that my dialog isn't redundant any more. I have this problem, too, and I'm working on eliminating it. Have culled and culled.

  7. (Rick: This comment is invisible.)

    Lois: The problem I have is that my redundant dialog always looks like a real conversation to me, so I don't think of it as redundant. And as Davin says above, a lot of my characters play subtle word games, so to me, at least, something is happening when maybe to other readers it's just a lot of filler.

  8. "I exaggerate my book's flaws."

    Thanks for the clarification, Uncle Pedant. Ha ha. Kidding! Or am I? Yes, I am...maybe?

  9. I am like Erin (screaming guppy), in that most of my repetitiveness comes from narrative instead of dialogue. At least I think so. We'll see when I get feedback from my friend who is happily slashing away at my manuscript.

    Yes, layers. It's too much otherwise. Too many of those moving parts to pay attention to. So that's a good way to approach it, in my opinion.

    I wish you luck! And congratulations on almost finishing. Can't wait until you're there. I'm assuming you're sticking to your deadline pretty well?

  10. Oh, and I agree with Davin that your dialogue didn't seem extremely repetitive to me. Maybe a bit "hedgy" trying to avoid the central conflict of the scene. Also, I couldn't help but think of Princess Bride when I read, "Prepare to die."

    I am ruined.

  11. I laughed out loud at your dialogue. For some reason, I immediately thought of "The Princess Bride" (the movie, not the book, never read the book . . . well, at least not yet). Now, if you weren't going for humor . . . : )

    I sometimes think (that's a major problem with me, gets me in trouble every time) I write better dialogue than narrative passages. Then again, my crit group hasn't come after me with flaming torches and pitch forks yet, so maybe I'm too hard on myself. Still, repetition happens. I often don't catch the repetitive parts until the thrid/fourth edit . . . at least not all the repetitive parts, I normally catch some in the first pass through.

    Now that I've read your post, I'm going to have to do another read through focusing on my dialogue. Dang, and here I thought tonight was a 'free' night. Guess again!


  12. The Antonio/Babar dialog is something I made up for this post, and likely I leaned heavily on "The Princess Bride" for inspiration. Has anyone not read/seen that? Because you should. I read it when I was about 12, I think, and saw the film when it came out. But I digress.

    Last night I worked more on revisions (I am in the final chapter!), with a focus on dialog. I think that what I tend to do is to try writing "natural" dialog, where people don't speak in a concise manner. This is wrong, because the point is not to recreate actual speech, but to tell a story. If I want a character to hedge around the point, I can use narrative summary for that. Narrative summary is one of my most underused tools, the poor thing.

  13. Scott - what I try to do with my dialogue is be as realistic as possible, and convey what I must convey with that dialogue. Too often, I get hung up on dialogue when reading a book because it comes out as 'forced'. I usually stop, scratch my head, furrow my brow slightly, reach for my glass of wine if it's in the evening, and think 'people really don't talk like this", before I go on with the reading. I think that dialogue, no matter its intent, needs a natural feel to it . . . unless you're going the humor route (which you did remarkably well with, btw).

    Then again, every writer is different, and does what feels 'natural' to them. Best of luck.


  14. Scott: The thing about dialog that's absolutely realistic--a transcription of actual speech--is that it's boring most of the time. You get a lot of "what?" and "really?" and people filling in time and not getting to the point. Fictional dialog certainly needs to ring true, and fictional people should talk like real people, but whereas actual conversations are rarely directed, dialog in stories exists for a purpose. There's a layer of artifice right from the get-go. So yes, a natural feel, but not necessarily realistic. It occurs to me that we might be saying the same thing. Signs of my advancing dotage.