This week I am thrilled to have a guest post by the talented Lisa Mannetti. Lisa’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, won the 2008 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement In a First Novel.
A second edition of The Gentling Box is currently being released by Shadowfall Publications, and it’s available in both e-book and print (just a note that the e-book is available for $2.99 for a limited time).
The Gentling Box is one of the best paced novels I’ve read, so in celebration of the new edition I asked Lisa if she would share some advice with us on pacing. She generously wrote this extraordinary post chock full of good advice.
Pacing and Dialogue and Research, Oh My!
by Lisa Mannetti
Under the general heading of pacing, which is what Teresa asked me to write a little about, I thought I’d also tackle those heady subjects (sometimes known as the twin banes of a writer’s existence) dialogue and research and how they can be used to improve both your pacing and sense of timing in scenes and over the course of a book or a story.
We all know good writing involves craft as much as it does inspiration—and of course your goal is to keep the reader turning pages. Obviously you can’t keep the same mad-cap dash through the entire book because then it will have about as much appeal as gulping down an entire bucket of iced vodka during a Canadian blizzard. So just how do you slow down the action without bogging down the story? I learned this nifty trick from the brilliant Alexandra Sokoloff.
Think movie. That’s right, I said it. Think movie.
Why, you ask yourself, am I utilizing a film technique when I’m writing a book? Especially since there were books written long before anyone even dreamed there might be such a thing as a movie? Of course you’re writing a book—but the same principles that drive a film (or a play) forward can help you ferret out weak points in your novel or story—especially if it sags in the middle. We’ve all read books that had terrific openings and equally engaging endings, but that space in the center . . . well, the author didn’t devote enough time to cleaning it up, which meant it felt too long and dragged out for the reader. Ironic, eh?
Movies, like plays, are divided into three acts; and while movies are timed in minutes per act, in a book you can plan it out right to the number of pages in each section along with the goals you need to accomplish to keep the reader’s eyes glued to your elegant prose.
Act 1 (about 100 typed pages)
Act 2 (about 200 typed pages)
Act 3 (approximately 90 to 100 typed pages)
Act 1 is clearly your set up. All that stuff you’ve lavished all those hours just thinking about—characters, setting, situation, and situation here is going to mean conflict. What and why does your character want what he or she can’t have—yet? Who are the opponents or what are the forces or circumstances that prevent the character from getting what they want?
By way of an aside, I might as well mention that if a scene lacks tension, rewrite it so the character says no to whatever is being asked, directly or implicitly. In life we like smooth sailing, and we loath snags.
In fiction, those glitches and setbacks are your bread and butter. By the end of Act 1, the reader has to understand who the characters are (including their backgrounds, culture, the place that is giving rise to this situation and your setting should always be integral to your unique characters), what they want, why they want it, and what or who is opposing them. You end each chapter with an incident that propels the reader to the next, and you finish up Act 1 with a climax that spins the reader right into Act 2.
In Act 2, the stakes are always higher. You up the ante.
Maybe the character gets close to achieving his or her goals, or maybe they achieve the goals only to find they were mistaken. Whatever it is, the character has to struggle here. The struggle can’t be hopeless, of course, or there isn’t any point to the book, so it has to be tough enough to keep the character striving and the reader rooting for the character (even on an unconscious level).
So far we’ve covered exactly what your high school English teacher told you about understanding the romantic themes in Shakespeare: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. You’re in boy-loses-girl country right now—whether you’re writing a romance or a fantasy or a detective story.
In other words, Act 2 is conflict. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale and company are in Oz, and they’ve met the wiz, but now they’ve got to find and kill the wicked witch of the West. In Natural Born Killers, Mallory and Mickey are on the road too, merrily killing everyone who gets in their way and thereby creating the myth of themselves as heroes. And at the end of this act, the Native American is killed and they’re tromping through rattlesnake country and land in jail.
The climax in Act 2, (whether it’s emotional or action oriented and, in my opinion, even if it’s action oriented, it should carry plenty of emotional weight) not only pushes everything toward Act 3, it also sets up and prepares the character(s) and, by extension your reader, for the final battle that’s going to take place.
While you’re creating Act 1 and Act 2, keep in mind that you have to give enough information to your reader so that everything makes sense but not so much that you telegraph and they guess what’s going to occur. When something comes out of the blue, we feel cheated as readers or film goers. When the surprise has been telegraphed, we feel enervated and bored. Couldn’t the writer do better?
We don’t really want to be dead sure of what’s going to happen. We want to be surprised and pleased that in the end it all made sense and that what happens is right and fitting (no matter if it’s just or fair or the way we want it turn out for the protagonist). A good example of what I’m talking about is To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Because we love Atticus Finch and things seem to be going so well in court, we truly want that Southern jury to acquit Tom Robinson. Not only do they fail to do so, but Tom is shot trying to escape. It’s not what we hope (nor what the characters hope—and remember, the reader will be tied emotionally to what your characters want) but we intuit that it’s right and fitting; it makes sense in the logic of Lee’s magnificent novel. Wouldn’t we all love to have written that book!
Back to our Shakespearian romantic template—with the understanding that this template works for every fictional project even if there’s not a hint of a kiss in your entire piece.
Act 1: Boy meets girl—or, for example, in a film like Erin Brokovich, Erin goes to work for her lawyer Ed Masry and persuades him to let her dig deeper into the medical cases affected by the deal PG & E is offering (you get the idea that I mean boy meets girl is short hand for whatever your particular plot-character-situation is).
Act 2: Boy loses girl, i.e. setbacks and reversals.
Act 3 in a Shakespearean or any other comedy, and comedy is used loosely to mean a happy or satisfactorily resolved ending, boy wins or marries girl. In tragedy, boy loses girl and most likely his life or fails to achieve the goals he’s worked for.
In a strict tragedy or any dark story, the pain and suffering that come at the end cannot be adventitious, that is by chance or through fate. In a sense, the protagonist must choose that suffering or pain and, if you’ve got a happy or resolved ending, your protagonist must have chosen that too.
Need an example of a book and film that shows the character determining the end? How about Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is absolutely convinced she can win Rhett back. Melanie—the rival she’s despised throughout the course of the story—is dead and Scarlett comes to the knowledge that she’s misjudged her. More importantly, our headstrong belle finally realizes that Ashley is the worm we’ve always known him to be and it’s Rhett she really loves. And what is Rhett’s response? One of the most famous lines ever uttered. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Scarlett resolves that she’ll keep trying, but we all know the book is done, the story (as it’s written) has come to a fitting conclusion because it’s very much in keeping with Scarlett’s and Rhett’s characters. As we read the final pages we might have been rooting for Scarlett to get him easily and we’ve certainly seen Rhett respond earlier in such a way that indicates the depth of his love for her—but the end, as Mitchell wrote it, is fitting.
Knowing the emotional wallop that a sense of the “fitness” brings will give your final climax the oomph it needs. It also gives the drive to the book—in essence—even without knowing the end, it still carries the action all the way through. We all have different moods: sometimes we want to watch Steve Martin and crack up laughing, and sometimes we want to watch Sophie’s Choice and have a good cry. But good books deliver: the end is always a pay off.
Finally, when you’ve hit that denouement, wrap up quickly and get off stage.
Okay, now you’ve gotten the gist of this crafted approach to your work, and you can think about this Act 1, 2, and 3 business in terms of books (and stories and films and plays) you love and analyze them broadly according to our principles. After you’ve thought about a favorite book or story or movie, see if you can find those lines that delineate Acts 1, 2 and 3.
You also know that writing is about re-writing, so get yourself a tough critical reader and gird up. You want someone to tell you what is not working in whatever you have so far—not pat your hand and tell you it’s wonderful. There may be wonderful parts, scenes, ideas, characters, but as you go through your drafts, you want someone who can help you find what is not working so you can fix it. Your job in draft one is just to get it all down with as much detail as you can manage, but expect to go back and layer your themes, add resonance, notch up scenes to make them more vivid, etc.
Here’s where dialogue and research can help—and you can make them your allies—instead of hindrances that drag down the level of your work. Think of them both as two more tools in your “kit” to help get the overall job done and to keep your story’s pacing lively and interesting.
The key to writing crisp dialogue and integrating research seamlessly is actually the same key—and it’s a very simple one: verisimilitude. In other words, when it comes to dialogue, you are not running a tape recorder, and when it comes to research, you are not writing the encyclopedia.
Let’s look at them separately first.
What you are doing is creating conversation that is close enough to real life to sound convincing, but in all probability would never happen. I know that sounds contradictory, but it isn’t and here’s why: for the most part real life conversation, even when it’s highly emotional, is only interesting to the people actually having that conversation. I know you don’t believe this, but it’s true. Take a love-making scene: in real life she says, “Oh yeah, baby, you turn me on.” Her partner says, “Yeah, me too.” In real life, everyone is happy and things are going along swimmingly in the sack—especially in the early days of a great romance. And that’s real life dialogue.
In a book or a movie, the characters are true to themselves (i.e. someone playing Queen Elizabeth is not going to say, “Honey, do it to me like we done that time when we was camping in the Adirondacks”) but those selves are larger than life—and that’s why the dialogue your characters have is interesting.
In Gone with the Wind, Rhett says “If I could crush your skull to blot out his image, I would,” as he’s pressing his hands to Scarlett’s temples. When he sweeps her into his arms and carries her up the stairs, he says, “This is one time there’s only going to be one man in your bed.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea—he doesn’t say, “Scarlett, I really love you” . . . or any of the things we do love to hear in real life. He says very particular and interesting things—which, if actually said in your bedroom, might cause a huge fight or a break-up.)
This brings us to the “write what you know” axiom, which, for my money, is no axiom at all. Time and again, people will write something and, during a critique session, will say in defense of the story or the dialogue, but this is exactly the way it actually happened.
Never defend a story on that basis. It doesn’t matter what really happened. It only matters if what you’ve written works. Because even if you write “Based on a True Story” in 50 point type all over the book jacket, people only care about the story you’ve written—they don’t care what actually happened.
‘Writing what you know’ can stymie you and shut down the creative process. On one end of the scale, you have a book like Rosemary’s Baby. What are the chances that Ira Levin knew a coven of witches who summoned the devil out of hell to father a child on an unsuspecting woman? Okay, you argue, “But my book is about growing up in Texas with an alcoholic mother (who was actually my aunt or my best friend’s mother) and . . .”
And, the answer to that is, you’re still telling a story and every story has structure—real life is messy. That means when you write something based on what happened, you get to keep some things, make up some things, and jettison others because you’re imposing order on the frame of the story. Remember, at the end of Annie Hall, Woody Allen rewrites what happened between him and Annie for his play and gives it a happy ending. So, when you “write what you know” based on life experience, read your dialogue out loud and make it serve the story—not the other way around.
Well written dialogue not only moves a story along more quickly and heightens tension, but it can be used very effectively after a big scene to descend gracefully from the peak of an arc so that the reader has a sort of mental “breather” before the next big climax.
On the subject we’ve all heard ad nauseam, “write what you know,” my opinion is that it’s a very misleading phrase—and that’s where research comes in.
You don’t believe me? Well you know math, and you had to learn it. Arithmetic didn’t suddenly spring into your mind. You learned it. And now you know how to add, how to subtract, multiply—hey, you can even solve a problem for x.
I think a better maxim for a writer is “write what you love.” Chances are you know a hell of a lot about what you love. Maybe it’s tennis (and you’ve got an aging pro and he wants to help someone younger and more talented but he’s jealous at the same time); or film (so you have a main character who’s an actress or a movie critic); maybe you’ve never been to the prairie, but you want to write about crossing the country in a Conestoga wagon in 1870.
You’re going to learn about whatever it is you’re writing (and it’s more than half the fun), and you’re going to give just enough detail to make it interesting, but not so much that you wind up with a text-book.
No, you read the text books yourself. You write verisimilitude.
A nice approximation on life, but not real life. Judicious research cannot only help the pacing in your story or book (speeding it up or slowing it down ever so slightly as needed) but it can inspire new directions for the book or story to take. The main thing to remember is that the information you impart must arise out of both the character and the situation.
Two tennis pros are probably not going to sit around and discuss the best way to deliver a lob—but our tennis pro who’s working with the talented youth he wants to help but is jealous of may tell the trusting phenom how to lob—and maybe the reader knows what the pro says is wrong—and that creates tension.
Just because a lot of lawyers write courtroom dramas, that doesn’t mean if you’re not a lawyer you can’t write one too. Trust me, I didn’t visit Hungary or Romania (and even then it was two small sea-coast cities) till long after I wrote my first novel, and I certainly never cut off my own arm. What I did was read about it, put it in the story and then ask someone who knew plenty about surgery to go over those sections. And you can do it too—no matter if you’re writing about a city you’ve never seen or a planet like Mars—which none of us has seen. If you’re interested you’ll learn about it—and then your character will know exactly what to say and when to say it.
The most important thing is to keep writing. Your imagination is a muscle, and it’s got to be flexed and exercised. And with practice—like everything else—it gets better and faster and stronger. Read as much as you can in a wide array of fiction and non-fiction and pay attention to what works—and what doesn’t.
I’d like to thank Lisa for her wonderful article! I can’t help but leave you with this super trailer for The Gentling Box. It is awesome, but hey, so is the book.