Friday, March 16, 2012

Q&A: My Story is Happening Too Fast!

A writer asked me, "How do you keep stories from unfolding too quickly? I feel like my stories move too fast."

When I first started writing, my stories always moved too fast as well. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those elements of story writing where I can just say, "Oh, do this and this and that'll fix it." Every story is different and pacing is one of those trial and error, doing-it-by-feel kind of things.

In a way it reminds me of when I was a kid and I would ask my mom, "How do you know when you're in love?" and she would say, "I don't know, you just ... do. You just know."

Finding the right pace for your story is kinda like falling in love. When you've found it, you know.

But same as you can find a thousand books on finding the right guy or girl for you, learning to love, etc., I do have some thoughts about why your stories could be unfolding too quickly.

First of all, your story might be unfolding too quickly (or not quickly enough) because it's your first draft. My first drafts are very stripped down, so I have to do a lot of adding to them. I have to slow down the story. Many other writers write too much in their first draft and have to take stuff out.  So if you're noticing that your story is moving at the wrong pace, it doesn't mean you've done a bad job. It just means you haven't edited for pacing yet.

When I look back on my too-much-too-quick stories, I often notice missing elements. "Hey, there's no black moment. That's why the ending feels rushed." What I'm noticing is poor story structure.

I know we're all creatives and we don't really like to think about our stories needing a structure. It's art! It's free expression! It doesn't need rules!

Studies have shown that when kids know the rules, they feel safer and are able to thrive. The same is true for your story. To work properly it needs structure. Can some rules be bent or broken? Of course. But to be an effective story, it's always going to need a few things. Like a beginning, middle, and end.

A quick search on Go Teen Writers tells me that I haven't talked about story structure very much. Hmm. Let me add that to my list. Angela Hunt has a great tool she calls the "plot skeleton." There used to be a link on her blog, but after an extensive search in her archives, I can't find it. Grr. I know it's been published now in Novel Idea, so maybe she took it down. There's a bit of it here, anyway. My teaching on story structure won't be nearly as good as Ms. Hunt's (I would not be a published writer had I not taken Angela Hunt's class) but I'll see what I can do.

Another thing that can make my stories  move way too quickly is telling the story instead of showing it. We talked about this some in tips for writing good sentences. It's a lot easier and faster to write stuff like:

Stephanie poured herself another cup of coffee and sat with her book. She liked coffee a lot, which wasn't a surprise because she had been raised by two coffee enthusiasts.

But it's a lot better to show how much Stephanie likes coffee:

Stephanie poured the remaining drops of coffee into her cup and curled into a chair. All seemed right with the world when she had a paperback in one hand and a hot cup of coffee in the other. If they could see her now, Mom and Dad would be proud.

Stephanie really does love coffee. This is me enjoying a French press with my parents right before their coffee house opened.

It's easier for me to tell the story rather than show it, because that keeps me from feeling it so much. When I hold the story out at a distance like that, I don't have to feel my characters' hurts and sorrows. Of course it also keeps the reader from experiencing the book the way they would like to, which is why ultimately you have to learn to suck it up and jump down in the trenches with your characters.

When you're telling your story rather than showing it, it causes your story to lack depth. Let's go back to Stephanie and her coffee. In the second example, it's much easier to deepen the roots of the character's activities.

Let's try adding a little something to our original sentences:

All seemed right with the world when she had a paperback in one hand and a hot cup of coffee in the other. If they could see her now, Mom and Dad would be proud. For once.

But if you're telling the story, you're reduced to something like, "Her parents had never approved of her lifestyle." It lacks, doesn't it?

(And for the record, my parents are wonderful!)

Something else that might be causing your story to unfold too quickly is you aren't allowing your characters to experience consequences or go through the five stages of grief. This is a big thing I notice in my early stories. My characters zip from emotion to emotion during arguments and they bounce back from tragedies (big and little) far too quickly. When your character experiences a set back, they need to grieve.

Hope this is helpful! If you have writing questions, feel free to voice them on the Go Teen Writers Facebook page or send me an email.

Next contest opens on Monday. Have a great weekend!


10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the Angela Hunt post, that should help! And the five stages of grief, I always forget that. Right now in my WIP my character jumps from denial to acceptance. Oops.
    Showing vs. telling is a hard one for me. I mean, I could say "Lily's hands curled into fists and she froze." but saying "Lily was angry." is soooo much easier!

    Thanks again!

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  2. Here's another Allison who found it helpful. :)

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  3. I can't wait to look at these link! In my WIP I've been a little afraid that thingsnwill unfold to quickly so i try to hold them off but then I get stuck.

    Your parents own a coffee shop?!!!! Is it super fun to be around? Ive always wondered what that'd be like!

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    1. They do! They just opened it in January. It's fun for me, but a combination of fun/stressful for them. It's a really cool spot and the coffee's excellent. The only bad thing is it's 20 minutes from where I live (not super convenient) and when I've tried going there to work, I run into too many people I know...

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  4. That's one of the things I have trouble with in my story as well.

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  5. (Ding) on that last paragraph. My story revolves around guys who are losing everything... and guess what none of them are reacting. partly due to current (poor) structure, they're all running around doing the next thing while any reaction to their losses has completely disappeared. Question is, are they allowed to skip denial in the heat of battle, and can they replace 'bring him back' with 'I'm not ready' They're all mercurial too.

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  6. Stephanie, *thank you for this*

    I wish I could italicize that. :)

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  7. Not sure why my computer isn't letting me respond directly to your comment, JT. In short, yes, I think it's fine in a battle scene to keep the action moving.

    I've never written a battle scene before, but what I've noticed as a reader of battle scenes is that it's very effective if after a key character is killed, there's a scene or chapter break. I don't know why that works well, but I think it does. Provides some sort of validation of, "Yes, this is a big event. You can pause to be upset."

    Does that make sense?

    And, Rachelle, italics noted :)

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