Thursday, July 15, 2010

Keeping Pace in the Middle

It's probably poor form to write a post that's basically "what she said" and point at Sarah's latest post, so that's where I'm starting. So, "what she said".

Now to get into the meat of things - every story has its own rhythm, but there are quite a few things most of them have in common - unless you're writing "literature" of the suckitudinous "crap happens, but you don't care anyway because there's nothing admirable and nothing really matters" Pulitzer Prize-winning flavor (Seriously? Has anyone ever read a Pulitzer-winning book? The titles are enough to make me gag).

Think of your plot kind of like a backwards rollercoaster, where the lows are the quiet points, and the highs are where stuff really gets going. The beginning introduces the characters and problems, kicks the characters out of their normal life, and gets things rolling. This is the only place where you're allowed to use Deus Ex Author, although it's better if you can do it by Act of Antagonist or Act of Dumbass Character. If you do use Deus Ex Author, try to make it something that's a more or less expected or predictable thing in the universe of your story.

Everything after that should be caused by one of your characters, however indirectly, and there should be a series of heights and lulls. The slower sections are where character development and even stopping to admire the scenery can happen (although it helps if the character admiring the scenery is doing so for a purpose, like scanning for enemies or admiring the lady who's providing human scenery). They're also where you drop in the foreshadowing and the threads that push towards the next height.

What I've found is that there's usually a semi-climax partway through - anywhere between 1/2 way and 2/3 of the way through. Up until then, the heights get higher and more intense, and the lulls get shorter and offer the main character less respite. Typically, the semi-climax should be the most intense point apart from the climax, and the drop after it should be pretty steep and leave the main character in a state where there seem to be very few choices. This isn't what the Hero's Journey terms the Black Moment, but more of a pre-taste of it. Things are bad, there doesn't seem to be any hope, but the main character pushes on for whatever the reason. He/she should lose something that matters here.

After the semi-climax and the Swamp of Despair, there's a longish lull - not as long as the start, but longer than there's been for a while, then the cycle of ever-increasing heights and shortening lulls resumes, usually with steeper downslopes after the heights, and dips back towards the Swamp of Despair. Meanwhile, the climax looms ever-larger - it needs to start looking steep and ugly during this section.

Somewhere around the last 1/4 to 1/5 of the book or thereabouts, you move into the part where all hell breaks loose. This is the Black Moment where everything seems lost and there's no way out. The undead are everywhere, the cavalry's not coming, and you're alone. You get the idea. Here your character decides that he/she can't back out now, regardless of the cost. In romances, it's when it seems impossible that the couple can ever be together.

Then the climax should hit, hard. You're into the final battle and there's no time to breathe. This is the highest peak, the big climb, and right at the top is when finally it goes right. The rest is rather the like the afterglow, where you tie up the loose ends, clean up the mess, and leave everyone satisfied and - hopefully - happy but wanting just a little bit more. For sequels, rinse and repeat, but with higher stakes.

A few good examples: the first three Anita Blake books. The pacing in these is pretty much dead-on, if a tad predictable (Yes, I looked at how much book was left and figured all hell would be breaking loose within the next few chapters). Dave Freer's A Mankind Witch - note how the crises get bigger, and how Dave handles the quiet times. The first three Harry Potter books.

I should add that I haven't really studied this kind of thing: for me it's more of an instinctive thing. I can feel when I need to up the pace, and when I need to slow down and take a breath. I suspect it comes from reading damn near anything I could get hold of and absorbing plot structure more or less the way I absorbed spelling (one of my nicknames is 'walking dictionary' - but I sometimes need to see the word to know if it's spelled right). It's a bit like riding a bicycle or learning to drive - after a while you build a feel for it and your subconscious can short-circuit the conscious reasoning and just do the thing (Yes, I also have a lot of practice writing crap. I suspect most of my million words of crap were written before I ever got hold of a typewriter, back when I was writing longhand in notebooks. And going through pens like they were going out of style - and yeah, it is crap. I was cringing less than six months after writing a lot of it).

So does this way of looking at it work for you? Who else do you think handles middles and pacing well?

12 comments:

Brendan said...

Raymond Fiest does good mini climaxes, especially in the first Rift War books Magician, Silverthorn and Darkness at Sethanon.

I have of course read books where the peak/trough was not handled well. One that springs to mind left out the troughs so the four books were nothing but win, Win, WIN for the heros. When it got to the end it was hard to believe the antagonist had a chance(and so was not exciting) since he had failed so badly throughout the saga.

C Kelsey said...

Alexander Kent (whose real name eludes me at the moment) tended to write stories where there was a major climax right in the middle, and then a major climax at the end. So every book was like reading two smaller books. Always fun, but also always predictable.

Brendan said...

Another author raised the stakes of the mid book climax too high. If things did not go well she had the world literally coming to an end. As soon as I knew the stakes I lost interest. I had been sold a book with 300 blank pages?(flick, flick) Nope. So then I just flick, flicked to the next chapter and continued reading.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I teach narrative structure and we use the Hero's Journey.

I should do a post about it. There is even a version for the female in a romance.

Must see if I can find it.

As someone who always wrote intuitively, I was amazed to see how accurate it is in some books and movies.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, great post and you are absolutely right. One way I look at it is that you have to give your characters that lull or downtime. If you keep them in the meat grinder all the time, you either wind up with supermen or dead characters. And, unless you are writing horror or UF, you probably don't want your main characters to die midway through the book.

But the lull time also is for your reader. It lets them grab a breath and feel a moment of, "whew, glad that's over. Hero and Heroine need a moment to just be sensible and have a meal. My goodness, it's been since Chapter 3 that they were able to go to the bathroom. You know that has to be an urgent need now." Okay, maybe I'm the only who thinks like that ;-p

That mid-way peak also lets you set the characters up for the "oh hell, I thought everything was okay and now it looks like they're really screwed unless I ...." If we are very good at it, we give the readers the crumbs to show what's coming but haven't screamed it so loudly they aren't at least a bit surprised with the crap hits the fan.

As for who does it well -- you've already mentioned Dave. I think Sarah also does it very well. Darkship Thieves is an excellent example, imo. The first of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plumb books is another.

I like roller coasters, both in amusement parks and in the books I read. I'm learning, I hope, how to successfully build them in the books I write.

Kate said...

Brendan,

That's two good examples of why the height of the peaks and troughs and actually having them matters. There needs to be a credible chance that the antagonist could win - and if the semi-climax is too big, there's nothing left for later. If you're going to destroy the world in the semi-climax, you've got to at least have the entire universe at stake for the climax.

Kate said...

Chris K,

It can be kind of predictable if the pacing is the same for each book. That's really where the artistry comes in, once the craft is secure, recognizing just how high and how low each set needs to be for the best impact.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

Thank you for doing the further expansion I wanted to but didn't, for fear of being er... one of my interminable posts.

Kate said...

Rowena,

The Hero's Journey is a fairly common structure, and it resonates with us because of that. It doesn't necessarily apply to pacing, though - especially since current-day readers tend to prefer to cut straight to the chase and not show the hero in their ordinary life - just start with the event that kicks them out of it.

Kate said...

Amanda,

Not to mention, the reader needs the occasional bathroom break!

Seriously, if you take a look at the myths and the legends - especially the old "long form" versions, you get those lulls. It seems to be universal - I've seen similar structure in some of the oldest forms of legends from pretty much every culture.

Obviously we're wired for story.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Stay out of my mind, curse it!

Seriously, it seemed the natural follow-on from your post. There tends not to be a lot of specific "this is how you tighten your middle" unless the middle in question involves waistlines (or in my case, wastelines).

What's bad is when you get a series where book one is the opening, book twenty or whatever is the finish, and everything in between is middle - and worse it's "stuff happens" aimless meandering middle (coughJordancough).

Besides, I can be interminable all by myself. And not endless aimless meandering middle interminable, either.

Dave Freer said...

Kate : I describe this as orchestration, and it is deliberate on my part. I'm not a great composer, but pacing needs to up open with a bang, a drop, and then a series of increasing waves, with successive troughs (which don't go as low as the previous for roughly 6, then drop.)and pick up. The period becomes shorter each set - until the final wave. Moreover I play another piece of dirty pool - slower scenes end on an up-note, and tense scenes on a scary down, which encourages the reader to go on at a subconcious level, I believe.
The double wave - where you have two sets of characters moving toward the climax and the wave multiplies when they meet (but the trough does not, is something I also try to do. But then I am entirely to lunatic about this business.