Timeline Perception

Pacing in a novel involves more than just the frequency of events; novel pacing includes structuring the scenes so that the reader maintains an internal timeline of events corresponding to their place in the story and presentation in the text. Events in a story may occur concurrently or consecutively, but may only be presented consecutively. The reader forms an impression of event sequence based on presentation, and the writer controls this impression through scene breaks and chapter structure.

 

As a kind of “default”, the reader will perceive events in the novel to occur more or less in the order they are presented. Flashbacks and other devices that present scenes out of order in the story should be clearly set apart so that the reader places them properly within the story. The reader perceives time to pass while scenes take place; more importantly the reader perceives that time passes within the larger story while a scene takes place.

 

Chapters and scenes occasionally end on a cliffhanger or on another dramatic moment. This device uses another scene to interrupt the action and increase the dramatic tension; it is often meant to return the reader exactly to the moment in time from which he departed. This can be effective as long as the reader understands what is happening, and can place the interrupting scene into an appropriate context.

 

For flashbacks and other events that occur out of sequence with the main story, the reader can be returned to exactly the breaking point without disrupting his perceived timeline of events. Because the interrupting scene takes place in a separate time, the reader can return to the action and resume the correct event context. When the interrupting event occurs in a different place but at or near the same time, the reader will perceive time to pass at the point of the cliffhanger while the new scene takes place. When the writer returns to the action at the same point he left, the reader perceives his timeline of events to be interrupted, leading to a disjointed reading experience.

 

A common way of dealing with this interruption of the reader’s timeline is to set the interrupting scene so completely in the past or future that the reader makes a perceived break from the current action. Another common way of dealing with timeline perception is to have the interrupting scene return the reader to the present action by having the seqeuence of events lead into the point in time. The two scenes converge into one, and the action resumes at the point fo interruption, taking the new information into account.

 

Constructing scenes so that action in another location takes place during naturally occuring breaks in the story allows the reader to feel that time is passing in the larger story while events continue to occur in the world around them. This allows the reader to feel like the story hasn’t been constructed solely for his own benefit, that the story has a larger context and feel, and that he is participating in something larger than merely the central characters. Careful attention to the reader’s perceived timeline creates a smooth and desirable reading experience.

Do You See What I See

Stories are told from a point of view. In fiction this is either first-person, third-person, or narrative. The popular Choose Your Own Adventure series used the second-person point of view in their books, but this is a very rare exception. Some novels will use a single POV exclusively; other writers prefer to mix up the POV choice and employ multiple POVs in telling the whole story. All of these choices are valid from a technical and artistic standpoint; the writer who understands how each one affects the reader and limits his other choices will be able to them to best advantage.

 

When dealing with a novel, Point of View (POV) defines the perceptive angle from which events are viewed and narratives are related. It shapes the way events are presented to the reader and limits the availability of information to both the reader and characters. Properly employed, a single POV will last at least for an entire scene; dramatic shifts in POV are more suited to chapter breaks than to scene breaks. Once the choice of POV has been made, the writer must commit to using it faithfully in spite of the limitations inherent in each choice. Consistent presentation allows the reader to approach the story with familiarity, already comfortable with the style of storytelling.

 

First-person POV selects a single character and follows him for the duration of the scene. The reader is privy only to the same information as that character. This device often uses the character as the narrator, resulting in a first-hand account of the story; in this case, the reader is not only restricted to the character’s information but also subject to the character’s perceptive failings and prejudices. This allows the reader to form an intimate connection with the character, emotionally investing in his triumphs and failures. It also prevents the reader from forming his own opinion of the story, and potentially missing out on the more complete picture. The writer also runs the risk that the reader will fail to connect with the character, or even grow to dislike him; either scenario damages the reader’s investment in the story.

 

Third-person POV selects a character and follows events in a story “over the shoulder” of this character. The selected character does not narrate the story, and the chosen character may shift from scene to scene as events unfold. This common device allows characters to be developed individually while also progressing events within the story. Although the reader is subject to the perceptions and prejudices of the character, he is not constrained by them; more complete information be passed to the reader by observing not only what the character sees and does, but by observing what the character fails to see and do. The reader is rewarded for emotionally investing in the character, but is also allowed to form his own opinion of story events.

 

Narrative POV may be said to look on the events of the story from the outside. This device follows no single character during the action of a scene, and usually relies on observation rather than the internal exposition that accompanies the other two POVs. The reader not only receives all of the information available to all of the characters, but does so without being subjected to individual perceptions and prejudices. The reader must form his own opinion of character motivations and emotions from the narrative; this device works well for setting a scene or imparting historical or technical exposition to the reader.

 

Narrative and third-person POVs often mix within a story, and often within a chapter. Shifting the focus of the POV device within a scene, either changing device or changing character focus, forces the reader to change his expectations abruptly, and does not create a smooth reading experience. Consistency in application is the best use of this device, even if that leads to separating beats within a scene and using line breaks to identify them.

Functional Chapter Composition

A novel is a difficult thing to read directly through from beginning to end. Chapter divisions form an important part of novel construction, one that governs how a reader perceives the story and instructs the reader in the best way to consume it. Effective chapter construction provides the reader with the cue he needs in order to enjoy a story. Chapters must be the right length, contain the right mix of subject matter, and control the pacing of the story. No hard and fast rule governs any one of these aspects, but there are several “best practices” that can make a chapter more or less effective.

 

In a novel, a chapter is a division of words arbitrarily defined by separation markings. The important word is “arbitrary” because the purpose of the chapter governs the proper length, usually defined by the mix of subject matter and the pacing of the story. A novel may place chapters at naturally occurring breaks int eh content, isolating scenes or locations while creating tension or diffusing pacing.

 

Content divides chapters naturally, and chapters may be thought of as a series of individual short stories that intertwine in order to form a greater whole. For the writer, this means choosing the dividing line for an individual chapter and then writing to the completion of that divider. If the divider is a particular action sequence, a chapter may start at the beginning of the action and end with the conclusion of the action. If the divider centers around a location, then all of the action that needs to occur in that location at this time should be dealt with in the chapter.

 

As with any short story, the beginning of the chapter introduces the important elements to the current development in the action, follow those developments as they progress, and end with the logical conclusion of those elements at this time. This allows the reader to process the scene or related set of scenes, take a break, and change mental gears before moving on to the next chapter. It reduces reader fatigue, and creates reader engagement by encouraging the reader to consider the scene he’s just finished and imagine how it is going to impact future scenes.

 

Chapters serve two primary purposes in regulating pacing. A chapter that immediately returns to the events of the previous chapter emphasizes the importance of those events. It should resolve lingering cliffhangers and go on to set up additional action. Lengthy action sequences and intense emotional scenes can be effectively divided into separate chapters, allowing the reader to take a mental break from the intensity and read on without “burning out”.

 

Chapters that change the action to a new location or set of characters inform the reader as to the pacing of the novel in one of two ways. This may take the form of a consecutive passage of time, detailing a separate series of events while unimportant details like travel, dining, or sleeping occur between scenes. The chapter division has already told the reader there was a break in time, but actual time spent reading the chapter reinforces that perception. Alternately, a chapter may occur concurrently with the previous one, allowing the writer to coordinate events in the reader’s mind without forcing him to jump between simultaneous narrations.

 

Finally, chapter length should be long enough that the reader feels real development has occurred in the story, but short enough to prevent reader fatigue and naturally break up the action. Often this is only a single scene, but may combine two or three related short scenes. Chapters less than 2000 words are likely too short for a novel, while more than 4000 borders on too lengthy. Too short chapters cause a reader to fell rushed, while too long chapters create fatigue.

Paragraphically Speaking

If sentences may thought of as the bones of a story, the humble paragraph provides the muscle that gives a story strength and endurance. Artistic strength and endurance come from another source; paragraphs provide the technical construction and govern the approachability of a story. Paragraphs hold the reader’s attention during a scene and lead him to important plot points. Paragraphs provide order for description, and cohesion for exposition.

 

As far as the reader is concerned, approachability is the single most important factor in your writing. The reader wants your story to be easily understood and digestible in bite-sized chunks; part of this comes from your lexicon, but just as much of it comes from your paragraph construction. Paragraphs visually break up the text on a printed page, causing the reader to take a brief mental break from his reading and process the information just presented.

 

Matching subject breaks to paragraph breaks ease the reader’s transition. Every time the subject of a description, exposition, or dialog changes, a new paragraph should be started. Dialog provides the obvious example; paragraphs change when speakers change. Exposition tends to break up fairly naturally as well; we are accustomed to dividing our thoughts and information processing according to subject matter. Description provides the greatest challenge for the writer, because the subject of the paragraph can be different from the various subjects of its separate sentences.

 

Paragraph subjects need to be divided into naturally discreet portions in order to avoid following a subject through several descriptions or narratives without a break. The writer may avoid this pitfall by employing one of the Rules of 4: a paragraph may devote up to four descriptive, narrative, or dialog sentences to a subject, and may mix these with up to two sentences of one other type. This rule means the paragraph breaks whenever it reaches six sentences, whether it needs to or not. This point is technically and gramatically arguable, but is employed primarily to retain the reader’s attention and promote the visual appeal of the text.

 

Lengthy paragraphs intimidate the reader and tire him out, forcing more information to be retained and processed in large bites. Counter-intuitively, paragraphs that are too small have exactly the same effect, with the added reader perception that the text is disjointed and choppy even if all of the sentence share a subject. Using a single sentence as a paragraph is usually okay, provided it occurs predominantly in dialog. The reader will forgive much and occasionally embrace short dialog exchanges, which are seen as “snappy” and “witty”.

 

Double sentences are discouraged, as readers are accustomed to finding thoughts in groups of three: premise, argument, and conclusion. The double sentence paragraphs presents only a portion of this trifecta, leaving the reader unconsciously aware that something is missing. This means it is desirable to use shorter sentences than necessary when writing description or exposition if it will extend a too-short paragraph to three to four sentences. The purpose of the paragraph construction is to present the reader with information in cohesive portions which he will recognize as such.

 

The reader is entirely at the mercy of the writer for the duration of a story. It becomes the writer’s responsibility to govern the flow of words in order to stem a deluge and stave off a drought. The reader cannot enjoy a story if he has been dried up or drowned.

Dial Log

Dialog allows characters to interact with their setting, with each other, and with the reader. Dialog challenges the writer in both use and execution, both technically and artistically. The rules of use follow the same pattern as the use of description and exposition, but because dialog feels like a different animal the temptation to treat it differently can be excruciating.

 

Dialog serves the same purpose as exposition, and can be treated the same way. There is nothing intrinsically special about dialog to set it apart from narrative or descriptive exposition, only the “voice” and perceptions of the speaker should differentiate it from the surrounding text. As small a thing as this is, it serves the very important purpose of introducing variety into the reader’s experience and serves to break up descriptive and narrative passages.

 

Dialog may partially substitute for description, and descriptive dialog should be treated the same way. Having characters witness and describe a setting or event allows the writer to introduce uncertainty in the form of selective perception and expression. Descriptive passages by the “narrator” carry the weight of law, but characters have the same flaws as other people. This ability lets the writer focus the reader’s attention on a single portion of the setting or events and cast it in a specific light.

 

Dialog should never present information that the reader already has or is about to receive. Although dialog serves the same purpose as description and exposition, readers expect characters to do more than simple recite their experiences and describe their surroundings. If the details of a scene have already been given to the reader, characters can assume knowledge and refer to things without repeating the details. If a reader is about to receive this kind of information, characters need not go into it at all. Never make the reader read twice what he only needs to read once. A particular danger here is the “recap report”, where one character repeats the action of a previous scene to another character. The reader was there, don’t make him read it all again.

 

Dialog should always serve to move the plot forward or to advance character development. Real people spend hours a day in repetitive, boring, mindless, and meaningless conversation. The last thing a reader wants is to be subjected to the same experience in a novel. Characters can and should display “realistic” behavior such as engaging in small talk and reviewing their grocery lists, but unless that small talk reveals a dramatic development in their relationship or that grocery list suddenly turns out to be a treasure map, the writer should gloss over the experience in favor of a few narrative words. The reader’s time and attention are precious; do not waste them on trivialities.

 

Dialog should always be accompanied by an identifier. Novels do not contain pictures, verbal cues, or other identifiers. Readers must put an effort into identifying the speaker of any given line of dialog, and readers often have a very different mental picture of a scene than does the writer. Simply identifying the speaker for the reader in every passage of dialog promotes readability and helps the reader more accurately reproduce the story. This may be done by linking dialog to descriptive or narrative sentences explicitly featuring a character, or by including the underused “John said” at some point in the speech. Although grammatically permissable, dialog should never be left without an explicit identifier.

 

Long speeches have the same effect as long descriptive and narrative passages. Dialog has its own Rule of 4 to help break this up: a paragraph may only contain four lines of dialog, and one of those must refer to the setting. A second Rule of 4 follows: for every four continuous lines of dialog, an explicit identifier must be used. Your readers will thank you.

A Brief Time of History

Exposition lays out all the groundwork in a novel that the reader cannot experience directly. Description provides those images and sensations that can be sense or felt, completing a mental picture of the setting and the characters. Dialog helps shape character through verbal interaction, and informs the reader at the same time that it moves action forward. Exposition fills in the gaps left by relying on purely observable description and involves the reader more intimately with the source material. Properly employed exposition addresses history, functionality, or purpose with information the reader needs but cannot witness or easily deduce. It may be presented in dialog, descriptively, or in narrative passages.

 

Many of the same dangers and rules that surround descriptive passages also apply to expository passages, including information overload from a data dump, the need to anchor the passage with a character, and the Rules of 4. To recap: expository passages should provide only the minimum amount of information necessary for the reader to frame the present and immediate future action, every paragraph should relate the information to a character, and (Rule of 4) a writer may include up to four expositional sentences in a paragraph, one of which must relate the information directly to a character.

 

Exposition addresses a different type of information that does description, and runs a danger particular to this type of discourse. Where descriptive passages run the risk of turning into hyper-detailed travelouges or catalogs, expositional passages may easily turn into a lecture about the subject matter, and stray from the immediate action. The Rules of 4 help to mediate this risk, but a writer may sometimes decide in the middle of a scene that the reader needs more detail or a more complex concept than can easily be presented using (Rule of 4) only four points of information. At this point, the writer should backtrack in the manuscript and present all the necessary information before the scene begins; this will avoid causing the reader to wander down rabbit trails in the middle of a scene, and potentially lose the flow of action. Exposition presented within a scene should relate closely to the scene; exposition presented outside of a scene’s framework or preparatory to its commencement has more freedom to develop its purpose.

 

The purpose of exposition once again is to present the reader with necessary information that he cannot witness or easily deduce. This information may be historical, functional, or purposeful. Because the reader does not possess perfect knowledge of the story’s setting, historical information will need to be provided in order to frame the context of a setting or scene. The writer often has far more information about the history of a setting than the reader needs, and should only present those portions that relate to the immediate scene. Because a reader does not possess perfect technical knowledge about how everything in the story functions, it will occassionally become necessary to detail technological workings or the process involved in a procedure. The reader will not wish to have his story interrupted with a technical manual, and will be looking for just enough information to understand what is happening. Purposeful exposition is extremely common, and often takes the form of internal character dialog and thought processes; rather than addressing the what or how of a scene, it speaks to the why. Purposeful exposition enables the reader to understand the instigating circumstances and consequences of an action, but the reader seeks this information only as it relates to the current scene instead of a character’s entire existence.

 

Presenting exposition often proves problematic; the largest difficulty by far may be avoiding a data dump for the reader’s benefit and working exposition naturally into a scene. Strict exercise of the Rules of 4 will assist with this effort, as will the conscious separation of expository passages from character scenes. Readers need information, but they need it in bite-sized portions, with room to fill in for themselves those portions the writer leaves to their imagination.

Scene It

Action in a novel happens through dialog, description, and exposition. Dialog is the beating emotional heart of your characters, but it cannot stand alone; dialog needs setting and motion in order to give it meaning. Setting the scene needs to be high on a writer’s priority list in order to give his characters a place to act and emote. Description treats the current setting of the story, detailing those persons, places, and things around which the action is currently taking place and often are performing those actions themselve. Exposition provides the reader with information that cannot be observed, or explicitly lays out information that must be deduced. Description and exposition provide the foundation for dialog, and we will treat all three this week.

 

Description lays the groundwork for most of a novel, impersonally detailing the surroundings containing the characters and their world. Description is a powerful tool that substitutes for the reader’s eyes and ears in the novel. The reader is wholly dependent on the writer to provide the information through which the world of the novel will be interpreted. The writer has an obligation to make that description complete. In this sense, complete doesn’t mean that the descriptive passage details everything in the area, but that the descriptive passage contains all of the information immediately or presently relevant to the reader. As the reader needs to observe new things about the setting, more description can be layered in order to provide the details of the setting.

 

There is a particular danger in using descriptive passages when providing the initial setting for a scene; the writer often faces the temptation of providing all the information possible all at once. This tendency is sometimes referred to as a data dump. The reader is overwhelmed with information, experiencing a virtual sensory overload as he does not yet know which part of the description is going to be relevant to the immediate action of the story. As additional portions of the setting become important or additional details become relevant, they may be revealed in future paragraphs. This is a good place to introduce one of the Rules of 4: a paragraph may only contain four descriptive sentences, and one of those must describe the characters.

 

For the purpose of description, a “character” need not be a person. A “character” need only be the subject of an action. In describing a storm, the writer is allowed to spend three sentences detailing the wind, the rain, and the ocean swells. His last sentence must describe the plight and condition of the boat navigating the fearsome waters. As far as the reader is concerned, the boat is their point of identification within the setting, that makes it a “character”. Applying this rule in this way breaks up long descriptive passages, and gives the reader a context in which to frame the action and setting.

 

Description is applied to people and objects as well as settings. Detail-oriented writers can provide every crease and fold of their character’s garments, but few readers are going to appreciate this level of detail. Another Rule of 4 applies when detailing people or objects within a setting: when detailing a person or thing, only four points of identification may be used for each paragraph. Trimming the details in this way allows the reader to participate in describing characters and important objects by filling in the nuances from his own imagination. This also forces the writer to focus on things that are truly important to advancing the action within his story.

 

Descriptive passages only apply to those things that can be observed with the five senses, anything else is exposition. The truth is that the reader will always fill in the details of any given scene, setting, or person from bits and pieces of his own experience. The writer’s job is to provide the reader with just enough particulars so that the readers’ perception materially resembles the images the writer is attempting to convey. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a reader’s attention only lasts for a paragraph.

Reading Verbs

Know your verbs and your story will flow smoothly and read naturally. Verbs find two expressions relevant to the storyteller, tense and voice. Voice defines the perception of the action, controls transitions, and enables the dynamic presentation of both action and description. Verb tense controls the pacing of the action, aligns the reader’s perception of time passage with the events of the story, and affects the readability of the material. The correct technical use of verbs will do more for your story than any other technical element of writing.

 

Verb voice is either active or passive. Passive verbs describe a state of static being, and are often called the “be” verbs: is, was, were, will be, and similar verbs that are used with non-specific subjects. A good rule of thumb (and popular internet meme) is that if you can end your sentence with the phrase “by zombies” you are using a passive voice. Passive voice has its place, most notably in descriptive passages and instructional writing. Passive verbs draw little attention to the subject or action in a sentence, and focus the reader’s attention on those phrases that end the sentence. Continual use of the passive voice results in predictable, repetitive sentence structures that quickly blur together in the reader’s perception. The reader loses focus on the subject of the sentence and what that subject is doing in favor of descriptive phrases that typically end the sentence. For instruction manuals, this enables a technical writer to impart a large amount of information quickly. For the novelist, it means the reader pays little attention to your characters and their world, forming no strong impression or connection to your story. For all the reader knows, your story is just another novel … by zombies.

 

Active verbs describe a state of transitive change, and place the reader’s focus squarely on the front part of a sentence. The strict subject/predicate relationship means that reader perception processes both subject and verb twice, once for the beginning of the sentence and again once the rest of the sentence is read. This places an intense focus on the action, keeping characters foremost in the reader’s mind and forcing the reader to notice what the character is doing. Active verbs may be used continually without straining reader perception or becoming repetitive due to the wide variety of active verbs. Active verbs may be used in place of passive verbs in almost any situation, and are always preferable. Identify active verbs by using the “zombies” trick already mentioned or by removing forms of “do”, “be”, and “is”.

 

Verb tense is a complex and extremely technical subject. Most writers really only need to be concerned with one verb expression: the simple past tense. Most stories are told in the past tense; sometimes a first-person account will use the present tense. In both cases, best practices always use exclusively the simple forms of the verb. Simple verbs allow the reader to focus on the action of the story and nuances of the character. It preserves pacing and leaves the reader’s timeline of events. Simple verb forms don’t require the reader to devote attention to thinking about what he’s just read. Simple verbs communicate clearly because they can only be interpreted in a limited number of ways. Simple verbs can be identified by their use of a single word, and should not be modified by a following phrase. Zombies unfortunately are of little use in isolating simple verbs from complex ones.

 

Verbs and their proper use are one of the most varied and complex structures in the English language. Proper use of verbs can be treated at textbook length. Best practices can be summed up with only two rules: always use the active voice, and always use the simple form of your chosen tense. Strict observation of this practice dramatically improves any manuscripts readability.