Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 3

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
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing pacing and description as a writer.  For previous posts:
This week I’ll be giving you two more writing tips as well as two more exercises!
Pacing Tip #2: White Space and Description Between Dialogue
In terms of teens, white space is your friend.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed my classes a book or story or article and heard them groan when they are overwhelmed by the number of words on a page.  But you can have the opposite reaction if you pay attention to white space.  White space is the negative space where there are no words.  It’s an easy way to keep an eye on your pacing.  You can assume that readers move slowly through a page with little white space because they have a lot of words to read, but a page with a lot of white space will move much quicker.  The easiest way of increasing the amount of white space on a page is to add dialogue.  I’ve noticed that many of the more popular/mass market authors tend to not only write a lot of dialogue, but are also good at writing witty dialogue.  Bravo if that’s your strength!  But even if it’s not, a wisely placed bit of dialogue can break up the pacing of a slow scene.
Author, James Patterson and his Maximum Ride series has a ridiculous amount of white space in his books.  His books run roughly 400 pages, but I’d say at least a third to a half of the book is white space.  He uses an abundance of dialogue.  But what’s really sneaky is his chapters.  There are 134 chapters in the first book, and there are chapter breaks every 2-4 pages.  Picture the amount of white space that comes at the beginning and end of a chapter, and you can imagine how much white space a kid sees when flipping through his books when there’s 134 chapters. (I’ve also noticed that my students love the feeling of triumph in saying they read a 134 chapter book.)  I am not a fan of the Maximum Ride series and don’t find them to be especially well written.  But they are the most fast paced books I’ve seen out there, and I think it’s in large part due to James Patterson’s use of white space.
Writing Exercise #2
Look through your work in progress and see if you can find a section that is text heavy with very little white space.  See if you can insert a brief scene of dialogue to break up the text.

This may sound hard, but I did it for a scene I wrote on Monday!  I saw that I had a long paragraph, and figured out how to convey a lot of the same information through a conversation between two characters instead!
Pacing Tip #3: Sensory Details and Characters Interacting With the Setting
The easiest way to slip in setting without your reader noticing that you’re doing any description at all is by having you characters interact with the setting.  I added sensory details to this tip because those are easy ways to tell if you characters are interacting with the setting.  Does you character feel raindrops rolling down their face?  You just sneakily introduced that it was raining!  Does your character taste salt in the air?  You just told us we’re by the ocean!  Does your character hear the click-clacking of high heels on linoleum?  We must be inside a building, perhaps an official one where women where heels!  See how you can reveal setting through sensory details?  Below are some examples of characters interacting with the setting, often through sensory details.

Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square.  An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men–all wearing gas masks–as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can.  Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
Cinder, page 17

Here, the author, Marissa Meyer uses sensory details to show her character interacting with the setting.  You get an idea that this is an urban, secretive, and possibly dystopian setting from the sights, smells, and touch of the place through Cinder’s interactions.  (I absolutely love this sci-fi take on Cinderella and highly recommend it!)

But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived.  The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast.  Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself to the ground.
Leviathan, Page 57

Here, author, Scott Westerfeld informs you of several setting details while maintaining an action-packed narrative.  You learn the setting is up in the sky, during a powerful storm.  I think the pacing and action is heightened by his strong verbs in this section as well: hitting, dangling, coiled, pounding, spilled, and hurling.  There are also sensory details: cold drops and hitting her dangling feet.
Exercise #3

Choose a setting and write a paragraph introducing details about that setting through how your character interacts with the place.  Try to include two or three of the senses in your paragraph.

Repeat for two more different settings!  Bonus points if you include all five senses for a single setting!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on pacing and description!  Stay tuned next week for a post on emotion!

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4 comments on “Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 3

  1. Caroline says:

    I think that white space thing is a great thing to think about. It's advice I have heard before but I always tend to forget it when I'm revising and writing scenes. Awesome advice buddy!

  2. fakesteph says:

    I've heard the white space tip before and really like it. I'll have to try the sensory detail one. And I looooove Cinder so much!

  3. That's one thing I've noticed about JPatt, too. I love recommending him to reluctant readers because his chapters are so short and have cliffhangers, so you're compelled to go on! I've never thought of it in terms of white space before, though. I do enjoy (at least the earlier) Maximum Ride books for the story, though the short chapter style actually drives me bonkers…and I have never–will never–read any of his other books. I started MR for work to know if it was appropriate or not for teens, but for the most part, I hate the way he has ghostwriters. I can stomach MR because he does write it himself… These posts are great, with so much information that will appeal to a lot of writers. Great job, hon!

  4. That's one thing I've noticed about JPatt, too. I love recommending him to reluctant readers because his chapters are so short and have cliffhangers, so you're compelled to go on! I've never thought of it in terms of white space before, though. I do enjoy (at least the earlier) Maximum Ride books for the story, though the short chapter style actually drives me bonkers…and I have never–will never–read any of his other books. I started MR for work to know if it was appropriate or not for teens, but for the most part, I hate the way he has ghostwriters. I can stomach MR because he does write it himself… These posts are great, with so much information that will appeal to a lot of writers. Great job, hon!

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