Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

One thing I am acutely aware of is pacing.  It is one of the first things I notice in any book that I read.  This wasn’t always how I read, and I pinpoint the moment I began to read this way on the day I began teaching middle school.
Whether we like it or not, technology has had an impact on the attention spans of our child readers.  Some children have shorter attention spans than others, but I do believe that technology has affected the majority of children in this way.  From thirty second TV commercials to the brevity of tweets to the under eight minute Youtube video, our society feeds on things that are quick.  Children are experiencing the world at a different pace than human beings of the past.  
This phenomena, this shorter attention span, has turned teaching into a unique challenge.  I discovered rather quickly that I had to be just as much an entertainer as an educator in order to hold my students’ attention.  I couldn’t rely on them to do a single activity for a full hour.  My class period had to be broken up into short chunks of different activities.  And when I had to decide on what reading material to use in my class, I had to pay attention to the text’s pacing.  I was teaching in a Title I school filled with hormonal, thirteen year-olds and for the sake of my classroom management, I could not afford for these kids to get bored.
So how does this connect to writing?  I believe we writers have to understand how to grab a kid’s attention, how to pace a book, and how to be sneaky with our description.
Back in the days before photographs and television and internet, as well as cars and trains and airplanes, lengthy description was something that audiences needed.  They wanted to be able to see people, places, and objects that they would never see or travel to.  Description was a way to offer the reader a photograph or to transport them to exotic locales.  And while I don’t mean to say that audiences today don’t need setting, they don’t need the same lengthy descriptions as those from the dusty volumes of yore.  Our current readers want things to be happening in the book at all times.  A whole page of description, to them, means nothing is happening.  And that’s why we writers have to be sneaky with our description.  It still needs to be there in order to ground the reader in a place or to provide a reader with an image, but we need to slip description in between action and dialogue so that we don’t lose our readers because “nothing is happening.”
Some of you may be thinking, “But I love writing beautiful descriptions!” or “Kids need to learn to pay attention and slow down!”  And yes, lots of writers do enjoy writing lyrical, lovely descriptions.  And yes, maybe kids do need to slow it down.  But this is the world we live in.  And I want kids to read my books, not put them down.  
Though, I’ve seen writing at both ends of the spectrum be successful.  Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver, Scorpio Races) is what I would consider a description heavy author, but she has become extremely successful.  I also enjoy her books despite the fact that I have a low tolerance for heavy description.  (I do have to get myself in the right mood to pick up her books, but I still love them.)  On the other end of the spectrum is James Patterson, particularly his Maximum Ride series.  If you haven’t read these books, they move at a ridiculously breakneck pace.  I actually feel as if I’m being jerked around.  He achieves this with extremely short chapters (literally 2-4 pages each) and high conflict.  I actually couldn’t read more than the first book in this series because the jerky pacing was too much for me.  I’m hoping the tips that I offer will help you find a happy medium between the extremes and will help you achieve a pacing that will satisfy both you as a writer as well as our child readers.
I wouldn’t say this is a writing trait I’ve struggled with because I did not start writing seriously until I was already teaching (and acutely aware of pacing).  When I began writing, I’d already begun studying author’s pacing methods and paying attention to what made a text move quickly.  This isn’t to say that, in a rough draft, I’ve never written a paragraph that comes off as setting info dump.  I think it’s one of the common mistakes of a first draft, to do a description info dump, because we, the authors, are figuring things out ourselves as we write.  But in critiques, I’ve pretty consistently gotten feedback that my writing is paced well, and I wanted to share some of the observations I’ve made on pacing that has helped me develop this writing trait.  And in my observations, lengthy description is one of the biggest culprits in slowing a text down. (The other culprit of slow pacing is a lack of conflict, for more on that topic, see my post: Author Sadism)
What Others Have Said on the Topic of Description
In the book Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (which is a fantastic resource, even for non-dummies) they use a water metaphor, sprinkling versus splashing, when talking about description.  They say it better than I could, so here you go: 

“Stopping your story to splash setting onto the page can be hazardous in teen fiction. Splashes can stop young readers cold.  Sometimes, yes, you may need to pause your plot work for some setting details — a little descriptive moment — either because it fits the overall style of your narrative voice or because, simply, it’s time for a breather. But in general, splashing means stopping, and stopping is rarely what writers want.  Instead, sprinkle.
Work in the setting here and there, as if flicking wet fingers at your pages instead of pouring water on them straight from the spout.  Even teens who aren’t intimidated by a few lines of description are likely to skip over big splashes in search of the story thread.  Providing details about time and place as you go keeps setting accessible and interesting to teen readers.”
Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, page 146

I think they make some great points, and I love the metaphor.  When it’s raining, you avoid going out in a downpour, but you’re likely to handle a light sprinkle.  I think it’s the same with readers.  Readers might avoid or skip a whole page of just description (or even put down the book), but they may not even notice description if you are able to embed it in action or keep description light.
So how do we do this thing called light description?  Next week I’ll share three tips and exercises that should lead the way to you becoming a description expert with no pacing problems.

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4 comments on “Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 1

  1. fakesteph says:

    Maggie has such gorgeous writing, but I think that her books are so full of conflict and her voice is so unique and her descriptions so inherently interesting, that this doesn't really count for her…. She has a lot of description, but she's not doing description the same way everyone else is. Really interesting post. 🙂

  2. Small Review says:

    This was a very interesting post. From a reader perspective, pace plays a huge part in my enjoyment of a book. I have to admit, I prefer faster paced books. I never really thought about whether or not an author considers pace when writing. I always thought they just wrote and the story's pacing naturally developed one way or another with little actual conscious direction on the author's part. Interesting!

  3. LHughes says:

    I agree that Maggie has gorgeous writing and some of her descriptions are lovely. 🙂

  4. LHughes says:

    I don't think all authors consider pace, but I think it should be considered just as much as characterization and plot and setting because a lot of readers want "a good page turner."Though pacing is probably more a concern for authors who want to be commercial versus literary.

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