This post was originally included in the 2010 WriteOnCon faculty series. The online conference is no longer hosted.
Like most of the faculty at WriteOnCon, I’ve read and edited many unpublished manuscripts. The process of reading and editing has become second nature in my time as an assistant/intern to editors and agents and now, most recently, as a literary agent myself. I also write. I’ve been in the business a short time in comparison to others, but it’s been long enough to recognize a pattern in major flaws often embedded deeply in manuscripts. The two largest problems are usually underdeveloped characters and/or structural flaws related to plot or pacing.
The writing of characters, the spinning of humanity, is a mystery unto itself; the two books on writing from literary agent Donald Maass—Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction—offer some of the best advice I’ve seen on the topic of characterization.
When it comes to plot, though, and—as a result—to the interwoven topic of pacing, we get into a question of strategy and form. I’ve always looked upon plot as if it were a game to play: we have an end goal and we have rules, but they can be broken. There are templates out there to use when plotting and there are time-proven techniques with which writers can check plot and pace. It’s my goal to cover in sufficient depth those templates, some plot- and pace-related techniques/strategies, and additional resources for writers to check out.
So, plot and pacing? Here we go.
Pantsers, brace yourselves for what I’m going to say next, and please read on—I hope that you’ll find you agree with me by the time I’m done. Like with any topic as huge as this, I have to follow a bit of a formula so that Elana doesn’t make me cut this whole post (which would be the size of a novel) into pieces. Insert grin here.
The most effective way to plot is to outline. When I say ‘outline,’ however, I mean a very particular kind of outline—it is a customized version of a plot template, which does not have to be a step-by-step list of scenes or chapters. With this template, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to explore the story arc of the novel without writing any of it. Story arcs, of course, are the overarching framework of the manuscript—the steps from the event that opens your novel, through the rising action, to the climax. Story arcs are meant to be vague before the novel is complete; they don’t require you to figure out the exact page on which your two characters are going to meet for the first time and the page on which they will become friends. Those things will change.
This playing with templates really allows you to do two things:
First, you will figure out the story framework (the story path), enough of it to help guide your character through the novel.
Second, you will figure out the frame of the novel, and this is slightly different than the story framework. The frame of the novel consists really those first fifty pages or so in which you set up a series of events and you introduce us to a cast of characters that set the novel’s tone and mood.
At the very minimum, I think that every single writer—whether a pantser or an outliner—should undergo this process: the playing with templates before starting to write. There are different ways to go about doing so. Many writers will sit down to write their novels with some notes and not an actual outline. Those notes, whether structured or unstructured, have resulted from a lot of time spent writing about the novel (in a synopsis- or mini-novel format, in a journal format, in an ideas/brainstorming format, etc.). In that time, a story arc has arisen and the writer has a general idea of where the story will go. This writing of scripted notes is one option. If writers aren’t writing notes in such a format, they can take the templates and plot down different events in the novel—more of an outline, and this option requires a bit more structure, however.
The playing with templates before writing is important.
More important, however, is the playing with templates and key structural points after the novel has been written. Everyone has heard of the problem of the ‘sagging middle,’ and one of the reasons the (usually beginning) writer can’t fix that problem is because he or she hasn’t been introduced to the more formulaic end of writing. Formulas, templates, key plot points, etc., are necessary in genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and some romance. In others, they offer assistance to writers as they begin to plan revisions.
Very few writers manage to plod ahead in their writing without doing this kind of test at some point. Stephen King is the one exception that comes to mind; he writes based on scenarios and sometimes he keeps very general notes about different characters, but otherwise it’s a go-ahead, and some readers complain that he gets too wordy . . .
Regardless, it is strategic, on the writer’s part, to make sure that there aren’t any significant ‘outliers’ in her novel that threaten to decrease or increase pacing, for example, where the pacing needs to be picked up or slowed down.
Let’s talk about these templates for a little bit.
The most common template, at its basic level, is the three-act structure, drawn from screenwriting. (You should notice, by the way, that a lot of plot-related technique is drawn from screenwriting, which is far more formulaic than fiction.)
The three-act structure looks like this:
The three-act structure consists, obviously, of three acts.
I am going to give everyone a very generic breakdown of how this template would transfer to a 60,000-word manuscript and to a 300-page novel.
ACT I –
0 words – 15,000 words
0 pages – 75 pages
ACT II –
15,001 words – 45,000 words
76 pages – 226 pages
ACT III –
45,001 words – 60,000 words
226 pages – 300 pages
In addition to these three simple points separation, there are three other important pieces related to the novel: the inciting incident, the first plot point, and the climax.
In more detail:
The inciting incident is the event that signifies the beginning of the novel’s major conflict. A lot of writers struggle with the inciting incident. It doesn’t always need to happen so close to the beginning, but there is usually a significant downfall to keeping it for later in the first act—the beginning will be too boring.
I’ve seen three types of problems arise in relation inciting incidents. Sometimes, first of all, writers will not have a major conflict or question that drives the entire story; their novel will jump from subplot to subplot. There needs to be one major conflict that motivates the character the entire way through; subplots can threaten to take the protagonist away from the path of the conflict, or may help push the character onto it, but the conflicts/major plot/subplots need to always be interlinked and, well, sub to the main plot.
Second of all, the main conflict and novel question may switch the middle of the way through (this may be an accident on the writer’s part or the result of a big reveal, etc.). If not done on purpose, one half of the novel needs to be rewritten to fit the actual major question. If it’s done on purpose, that’s fine. What needs to happen, however, is the writer needs to plant clues from the very beginning that somehow, whether in backstory or in events that happen in the early stages of the novel, fuel and add layers to the reveal.
Finally, and third of all, a lot of writers will fit this inciting incident into the right word or page count, but they will have wasted a lot of time before it without anything else happening. The key to good plotting is adding layers to your scenes—if you can introduce two characters in one scene instead of two, do it. If you can bring two secondary characters into a scene and have them dump secrets or information or requests or whatever on the main character (keeping it natural, of course), do it. Don’t be afraid to make that huge scene as close to the novel’s beginning as you can—you can even open your novel with it and use backstory later to establish the status quo.
The first plot point is the first external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event requires the main protagonist(s) to make a choice—will they face the conflict head-on or will they be cowards? (All questions posed in novels are usually a derivative of that one, be the novel historical, romantic, fantastical, etc.)
In a novel about a girl who finds out that she is a faerie and must now become Queen of Faeries to keep humans from destroying the faerie race, the inciting incident would be the scene in which this girl finds out she is a faerie. This changes her status quo. The first plot point would be the appearance of the Faerie Godmother, telling the girl that, in one week, humans will send out a blast that will kill all faeries, including her, and if she wants to save the faeries, the girl must join the Faerie Godmother and travel to the faerie underworld. This establishes the major plot question of the novel—Will the girl be able to save the faerie race?—and, as a result, establishes the “public” life-or-death stakes (the death of all faeries). Another level could be that, if the girl doesn’t accept the Queen of Faeries potion, she will never know who her real father was (and this creates a “private” stake).
It is definitely possible to do both the inciting incident and a plot point at once. If you do combine those two things together, though, in terms of the three-act they then constitute only the inciting incident, and another plot point would need to arise by the end of the first act—for example, the humans take the girl’s mother hostage to keep the girl from going to the underworld.
The climax is the last—but definitely not second—external, explicit, tangible (whatever) appearance of a challenge created by the conflict; this event is the major showdown between your main protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). If your novel has any internal conflicts—depression, artistic obsession, madness, self-deprecation, self-confidence, whatever—the climax will be the strongest if you connect both the external and internal climaxes in one showdown, in one appearance.
Continuing my example above:
The climax would be the girl making a choice: Should she accept the humans’ offer to free her mother and stop fighting for the underworld, or should she risk her mother’s life to save all faeries? The scene (or scenes) in which this choice plays out would constitute the climax.
Just from this breakdown, we as writers are able to identify a few things: we should spend ¼ of our novel establishing the status quo and sending the novel into action—within 15,000 words of a 60,000-word novel. We need to layer that first ¼ of the novel with different levels of threat and stakes, be they personal or private—there needs to be enough to thrust a character on his or her ‘journey.’
I gave a pretty generic example. There are many novels in which a scenario similar to the one I outlined exists. It is important, as a result, for writers to play with their story arc—there are millions of different questions that writers can raise in their stories and, by connecting and playing with different questions as well as different events in which those questions unfold, many unique and—hopefully—fresh stories can arise. Those stories can follow pretty similar story arcs, too.
Now, let’s bring out another template. This one will help us better consider the middle and the end of the novel. This template is called the eight-point story arc. Let’s go into full detail about it here.
The actual eight points on the story arc, labeled ‘officially,’ with brief descriptions, are:
- Stasis – once upon a time
- Trigger – something out of the ordinary happens
- Quest – the protagonist is forced to seek something
- Surprise – things don’t go as expected
- Critical choice – the protagonist must make a difficult decision
- Climax – the choice has consequences
- Reversal – the result of the choice is a change in stasis
- Resolution – and the characters live happily ever after (or not)
Let’s break each down individually.
You have approximately 12,000 words, if you’re going for an approximately 60,000-word novel, to really focus in on the stasis, the trigger, and the foundation for the quest.
- Stasis – This is the beginning. As I mentioned earlier, the sooner you begin setting up the potential drama, working in details and foreshadowing, the better.
- Trigger – Something out of the ordinary needs to happen.
Before you determine what this is, you need to make sure that you know in what direction your character is heading. This means knowing two things:
- the character’s personal stakes: What will be explicitly/tangibly/concretely at stake for your main character? What, after the incident occurs, will she need to do in order to keep her status quo, to keep her life, to keep her happiness? All of those things are very general. You need to hone them and relate them to very specific instances in the book.
- the public stakes: What will be the stake for the public, the people who are somehow linked more universally with your main character? What, after the incident, will change for the public, whether it realizes it or not?
The best triggers are the ones that connect the public and the private stakes. A typical format is as follows: The main character is told that she has to do U, V, W, within X amount of time, otherwise Y happens to the public. Then, the second she begins to do U, V, or W, it turns out that Z (something personal this time!) will happen if she continues with the original plan.
Regardless of the path that you choose, this incident needs to establish ‘the quest.’ In other words, this is the question that will follow through with the rest of the novel. Questions like ‘Will the hero save the heroine in time?’ are effective because they transcend the novel and are universal, so create a conflict that really digs deep.
This is your ‘big bang.’
- Quest – Your protagonist needs to seek something. This quest usually has two parts. The character makes the decision to go on this quest, and the character actually sets out on the quest. The key thing here is that your characters are proactive and don’t allow for the world to affect them; they try to affect the world.
- Surprise – Things don’t go as expected.
This needs to happen pretty quickly into the middle of the book, those 38,000 words (perhaps a bit more) we have to play with the entire plot.
This needs to be pretty drastic, but not extraordinary. Remember, you have to place your character into the worst possible scenarios. Donald Maass, writing teacher extraordinaire, recommends that writers place their protagonists and antagonists face-to-face five different times during the novel. I don’t think you need to do something that drastic in the YA novel, but four or five huge setbacks is a very good goal to go for, four probably ideal for the 60,000-word novel.
The critical choice below—#5—is the critical choice that occurs almost right before the conflict, which means that everything from the surprise right at the beginning of the middle, all the way through right before the climax, is all yours to play with. I’d say that this stuff in the middle will be right around 25,000 words, probably—the other 13,000 words is the actual surprise, the critical choice, and the climax.
This is where we get into the idea of rising action and crises. You need to, with every crisis, raise the stakes. You can make the danger worse. You can cut the time that your MC has to solve a problem. You can introduce a character into the mix that will somehow hamper the progress of the plot. There are a lot of ways to do this.
- The best way to create depth is by doing something to the character that is permanent, irreversible. Create the possibility of failure. And torture your character. Her success in the end will be worth it more.
- Public stakes really need a lot of work. People need to be affected by your main character’s conflict; secondary characters are the strongest when we see the effect of the plot on them too.
Along the entire journey, this is the format that your story should hold:
- minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax
- minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes)
- minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes more)
- minor quest, surprise, critical choice and minor climax (increases stakes even more)
- minor quest (this is the quest that will take us to the novel’s critical choice)
- Critical choice – The critical choice forces the protagonist to make a difficult decision. There should be multiple of these throughout a manuscript, but the most important one is the choice that drives us to the climax.
The most effective ones are the ones in which both decisions that a character has are viable. It’s questions like that that drive us to the climax, the scene that has a lot of depth because it combines all of the stakes.
- Climax – The climax occurs, and it has consequences, preferably even one or two bad consequences that are present, even though they underwhelm the positive consequences.
Oftentimes climaxes are strongest when they occur in the toughest possible circumstances, so bring forward secondary characters with differing viewpoints, move the climax to a publication location, etc. Connecting the private and the public stakes in one climax is the way to create the most powerful climax.
- Reversal – This changes the stasis.
In other words, the climax is done, the character returns to the status quo and observes, perhaps reacts to, the changes.
- Resolution – “They lived happily ever after.” (Or didn’t.) Resolutions require a very explicit solution to everything that has happened thus far in the novel. Find a way to tie all of the events in the novel together.
The goal here is to challenge your character, to throw rocks at her, and I guarantee you—I guarantee you—that, even if you have a beautifully rewritten and polished manuscript in front of you, ready to query, which an agent might sign and even sell, you could have challenged your character more. There are, of course, limits; no one wants to read about death and destruction and mass murders when the story is about a sixteen-year-old high school teenager. But you probably haven’t reached those limits.
There are some questions for you to consider, either as you plot or as you reread previous drafts, and they include:
– Have I put my character into the most challenging circumstances—into circumstances in which she was paralyzed with fears, in which what she held most dear was threatened, in which what she held most dear was taken away, in which she was physically hurt in an irreversible way? Did I put her into a position she can’t get out of?
– How have I timed my conflicts, my surprises, my mini climaxes? Do they happen at the worst possible time? (This is where subplots can be particularly helpful—have the hot villain appear when your protagonist is in a conversation with her crush, or something like that.) Make things uncomfortable. Make things awkward and sad and scary and emotionally captivating.
– Have I interwoven my main conflict with subplots? Have my secondary characters, whether on purpose or not, done something to raise the stakes? Have they put themselves at risk? Have they put the main character at risk by doing something stupid (or smart, if they’re one of those back-stabbing meanies)?
Those are just three possible sets of questions. There are many, many more—the key is to look at your novel as a puzzle and work to fit things together in ways that make it seemingly impossible for your character to get to his or her goal. Hurting your character isn’t always the best way out (but that doesn’t mean you take it easy on him or her).
Plot- and Pace-Related Techniques/Strategies
It’s painstakingly obvious by now how pacing results directly from good plotting. There are two kinds of pacing I’m going to mention briefly:
– Scene-based pacing
– Novel-based pacing
The strategy here is to think of each scene as a novel in itself—scenes should have their own inciting incident, rising action, and climax. I’m going to borrow from Maass again and reference what he calls inner and outer turning points. In each scene, two things should change: something on the inside of the character and something on the outside of the character. Obviously that’s not going to happen in every scene, but the strategy here is to ask yourself whether each of your scenes is moving the novel forward and changing anything for the character. Your pacing will align if something is changing; most likely, the faster to slower will fall into a natural rhythm as you move to and fro your larger, more overarching conflicts.
In addition, always, without a question, start your chapters and scenes as late as possible and end them as soon as possible. There is at least one chapter in your novel that starts a sentence, a paragraph, a few pages too early, and ends a few pages, a few sentences, too late. Go back and cut. Cut, cut, cut. Layer scenes if you have to.
The novel is tougher, and it really depends on the story that you’re telling, and I wish that I had a set of tools I could give you that could guarantee the right pacing. These are some simple suggestions that I can offer based on what I’ve observed in my own writing and in reading others’ work.
Whether you outline or not, the key to good plotting and pacing is adding layers to your scenes—if you can introduce two characters in one scene instead of two, do it. If you can bring two secondary characters into a scene and have them dump secrets or information or requests or whatever on the main character (keeping it natural, of course), do it. This will guarantee your pacing is quick where it needs to be quick.
Then, it’s important to remember not to throw a large amount of backstory into your writing. This slows down the pace and instead of moving the novel forward, the story becomes suspended. Chances are that most of the background you give is unnecessary to the conflict. That should always be your question—is this backstory about the family necessary? Is this backstory about a previous relationship necessary? Will it at any point change how the reader perceives a scene in the book? Probably not. Don’t be afraid to cut; if in your next reread you don’t notice anything missing, it was a good choice to cut.
As the story continues, the intensity picks up and the stakes are higher. Keep the tension tight as you move toward the climax. That last scene, the scene surrounding the choice, should be all action, all change, all mystery—don’t let your characters breathe.
Finally, and I’ve seen this a lot, too, don’t disappoint your reader with a fast solution ending. You’ve introduced us to a wide array of characters, most likely, and now we need to see one last time again those characters that are relevant. I’ve already mentioned the importance of secondary characters—when we see the effect of the plot on them, it becomes more universal; the same goes for the ending, where we should see a moral arise (not explicitly, of course—that ‘moral’ or theme to the story should be clear, and your message as an author should have come across).
It all comes down to the length of your chapters, your paragraphs, and your sentences. The greater the tension, the shorter the scenes should be—move forward, push things forward, let us see the multiple characters (if you have them) as they all head toward this big moment.
If you do outline:
Frame the novel before you plot, and then ensure that the framing holds true as you begin to place events. As long as your conflict follows the path of your template, you’re nearly guaranteed correct pacing.
If you don’t outline:
Reread your drafts very carefully—after a long time of not looking at the draft at all—and be very honest about yourself: where are things happening too fast? Where are you losing your characters? And where are you bored out of your mind? Cut and write, cut and rewrite, write and rewrite.
Additional Resources for Writers
Over the years, I’ve found a particular set of resources to be incredibly helpful for me as I plot, outline, and consider the novels I am writing, as well as resources for pushing the writers I work with to add complexity to their novels.
– WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, Donald Maass
– THE FIRE IN FICTION, Donald Maass
– WRITING SHORT FILMS: STRUCTURE AND CONTENT FOR SCREENWRITERS, Linda J. Cowgill
– How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson
– The Dark Salon, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog