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Monday, July 16, 2018

5 Tricks that Help with Hooks

If you have been writing very long, you've probably heard the term "hook"--those sentences or tidbits of information that "hook" the reader and "reel" them into the story. It's important to have a hook in the opening, and years ago, I even did a whole post on coming up with a good first sentence. But today, I want to move beyond just opening lines. Because, really, to keep a reader, you should have more than an opening hook. Ideally, you should have hooks at ends and through middles--whether it's a scene, chapter, or a short story. Here are five things I've learned that can help with hooks, based off my own experience and off helping other writers as an editor. (As with everything in writing, there are exceptions, but here ya go.)

 Look Forward, Not Back

A surprisingly common trait with new writers, is they start a story and then look backwards, sometimes going directly into a flashback or even a summary of what happened before. Looking backwards is often a problem for a few reasons but the main one is that it takes immediacy and tension out of a story--because what's already happened has happened, and it's in the past and can't be changed.

In contrast, looking and thinking forward in a story can create more tension because it hasn't happened yet. Tension is the anticipation of what might happen. Therefore, it pulls the readers in and along and as such relates to crafting hooks. Looking forward is a particularly good hook for ending scenes or chapters--to entice the reader to start the next one.

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. That doesn't need to be directly stated, but it can be. It might be straightforward, or it might be implied.

Here are some examples of using this to end a scene or chapter. Keep in mind that the context of what came before lends power behind it (we don't care about what could happen until we know what is happening), so they may not sound as riveting as one-liners here, but they illustrate the point.


To her dread, their alliance only made things worse.


Of course my odds have not been very dependable as of late.

Be More Specific, Not Vague

Tension and suspense comes from what could happen (which is looking forward), and thereby getting the audience to wonder and question the outcome. One way writers try to do this is by writing vaguely, which almost always has the opposite effect. They will think that by not telling what something is, what something can do, what could happen or could be, that they are getting the audience to wonder and question. But most of the time the opposite is true. If it's too vague, the audience has nothing concrete to grasp onto to wonder about. They can't anticipate because they don't know enough about what is going on.

Often the best hooks are more specific, not vague. Sure, they may not lay everything out on the page directly--I get that--but they at least suggest a possible outcome or problem, so that the audience has something, some line of thought or possibility to dread or hope for, for anticipation.

Sometimes I see this sort of problem happen when a POV character is unsure or indecisive about something, and then the writer tries to use that as a hook to get the reader to read on. It's okay to have your character be unsure or indecisive, but keep in mind that because there is no decision or knowledge, there is likely little anticipation. We can't predict what may happen, because we don't have a decision or the information to build off.

Instead, to write a great hook, you might want to have your character sound certain about something, even if the audience is not. In fact, sometimes it's even better that way, because that adds a new layer of tension--the audience is about to witness the character go confidently into uncertainty.

For hooks, it's better to have your character come to a wrong conclusion and look forward, then it is to have them be indecisive and therefore unable to look forward and create tension.

(Again, that's not to say you can't ever have indecisive characters, you can, but if you do, that means there needs to be something bigger and more prominent that is specific and decisive so you can build anticipation, and have their indecision make that bigger thing more dooming.)

I stood on the platform trying to decide whether to run for the water as Haymitch told me or take a chance and grab the bow and arrows near the cornucopia. 


There, resting on a mound of blanket rolls, is a silver sheath of arrows and a bow, already strung, waiting to engage. That's mine, I think. It's meant for me. I'm fast. . . . Haymitch has never seen me run.

The first example isn't wrong, but notice how having Katniss decisive over a wrong decision creates much greater anticipation.

Ambiguity > Vague

Related to the last section, but different. Ambiguity is not the same as vague. In ambiguity there is enough specificity, context, and knowledge that multiple outcomes fit the same setup. Vagueness is when there isn't enough specificity, context, or knowledge to confidently argue a specific outcome. I did a whole post on the difference and when to use each here, so I won't repeat all of it. Ambiguity works because it gives us enough to build off to anticipate outcomes. Readers read to find out which outcome takes place, not because they don't have enough info to predict any outcome.

In Catching Fire, the tributes hear twelve gongs in the arena. One character says, "Twelve, for midnight." Another says, "Or twelve districts." At that point in the story, the reader doesn't know which character (if either) is right, but each suggestion makes sense. The twelve gongs are ambiguous, and you have to keep reading to figure out which it is.

Use Promising Buzzwords

Tension isn't the only way a hook can work, but it's probably the most common, and you always need regular hooks of tension. But you can also add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully.

On a line-by-line basis (which is how hooks typically work), you can build or amplify those by using what I think of as "buzzwords." Sometimes what makes a good hook is the right word choice.

"Secret" is more powerful than "Unknown" for example. "Secret" has an extra buzz to it. We naturally want to know more.

If you think about what your audience picked up your book for, you can use related buzzwords to promise them that. If they picked up your book because it's about vampires, use that word in one of your early hooks. If they're hoping for romance, use words that appeal to a possible romance. If you are writing fantasy, use a hook that has words that foreshadow a sense of wonder.

The problem was, strange things often happened around Harry.

Less is More

Stylistically, hooks are one or a few lines. Brevity often creates more of a punch. You want to leave the audience wanting more. After all, that's the whole point. You want the audience to continue anticipating, thinking, planning, and predicting, not necessarily the character. This means allowing the audience room to ponder and do some of the intellectual work on their own--don't do all the work for them on the page through the POV character. Leave enough room for subtext.

Does this sound contradictory when just a few paragraphs ago I talked about how you need to be specific and not vague?

You need to be more specific and less vague in order to give the audience enough to anticipate what could happen, but in crafting the hook itself, you don't need to spell out every detail on the page directly.

It's like I talked about in this article.

When structuring and actually writing the hook, you don't need to show us the entire cat in the bag all at once, you need to suggest that there is a cat in the bag (see how this relates to anticipation again?). Give the audience enough specificity and info to start down a conclusion on their own, by suggesting a paw or whisker (see how these are specific things?). There isn't tension in the inevitable. There is anticipation in suggestion.

Don't write us a big lengthy hook that gives us all the details and ramifications in 1 - 5 paragraphs. That's not going to feel like a hook. Instead simply say, "The timer began the countdown"--and through what you built up prior, the audience will naturally anticipate the ramifications (the work is happening inside them), and they'll want to continue.

Save length for dramatic moments--which should generally happen at climaxes of one sort or another, not rising actions and build-ups (when you need hooks most). (I talked about dramatic moments when I talked about structural pacing and purple prose.)

I almost fall out of the tree. The voice belongs to Peeta.

All rules and guidelines have exceptions, but these are five things that I've found to be helpful when crafting hooks. I hope they help you with yours. I'll probably talk about hooks some more in the future.

* Some examples came from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and a few I made up.

Tone Example

At Storymakers I taught a class on tone. And last night I found a good example of how tone can affect everything and how you can control it by choosing the right emotional beats.

You can read an article I did all about tone here.

Here is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone edited into movie trailers that illustrate seven different movie genres.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Writing Extreme Characteristics

A couple of weeks ago, Jurassic World was on t.v., and I watched the starting of it. Now, I like that movie, but from a writing perspective, there are a few things about it that, for me, make it feel like it was written by an intermediate writer rather than a professional, Hollywood screenwriter. One of those things is Claire's characterization. Within the first few minutes, the film shows us (basically back-to-back) multiple instances that illustrate how distant and cold Claire is to other living things. Dinosaurs, people she works with, family members, one-time love interests. She doesn't even understand why it's a problem the I. Rex has no socialization.

Claire isn't just kind of distant and cold.

She's really distant and cold.

Those attributes of her are extreme.

Most human beings aren't that extreme. Sometimes when I'm writing, I have to remind myself that very rarely is someone 100% anything. Instead, it's more like human beings have boundaries. It's the villain who is killing people left and right, but then opens a can of cat food for a stray feline. It's the hero who swears he'll never kill anyone, but when he can't find a way out and wants to protect other innocents, he pulls the trigger. The other day I was researching how Thomas Jefferson owned one of the largest plantations and yet spoke out against slavery.

When you boil behaviors down like these, it feels quite hypocritical or contradictory, but that's because we've cut out the thought processes and details and complexities. The realities are that all of us have characteristics that have conditions or boundaries. As I've said before, smashing contrasts in characters, and then exploring those is how we create complexity. Political opinions aside, let's look at Thomas Jefferson as an example of a real human being like this. Jefferson spoke out against and fought slavery, but he also had a tremendous amount of debt, and didn't think it was helpful to simply release slaves with no place to go or no means of employment. The more you dig into his relationship with slavery--a seeming contradiction--the more you understand his thought process--whether or not you agree (again, just using him as an example of a real person like this).

But once in a while you run into characters who are walking extremes. And they can be very difficult to write, simply because of what I've just talked about. If they don't have boundaries and conditions, and they are extreme, they often don't feel complex. They may feel unreal or flat.

Claire has a character arc, and yet, when I watch her on screen, she still feels rather flat to me. Part of this is because she's so extreme. The other part is that the filmmakers made the mistake of illustrating the same extreme characteristic back-to-back-to-back, moment after moment, scene after scene. It almost feels as if distance and coldness are the only characteristics Claire has.

I've said this a lot lately: hitting the same thing over and over in a story doesn't make it stronger to the audience, it makes it weaker.

Because Claire is so distant and cold, we really only needed one or two (and definitely no more than three) moments that showed us that in the beginning, not 100. We get it.

Something like that might work in an "unreality" story, like a Dr. Seuss book or  Lemony Snicket, where seeing it back-to-back is sorta of tongue-in-cheek or comical or serves a higher purpose in and of itself, beyond the character.

So how do you make an extreme character work?

If you have an extreme character, it's almost always important (as it is with any character) to give them multiple dominating qualities.

(Sorry, not sorry, but I recently saw Hamilton and loved it, so I'll probably be referring to it in some of my posts.)

Hamilton is extreme as well. In fact, I heard his thematic line ("I'm not throwing away my shot!") so many times that I was sick of it before I even gave the musical a chance (now that I'm familiar with the story, it doesn't bother me). It's an important line and characteristic because it relates directly to the theme and his character arc. And he's extreme. Hamilton never says no to an opportunity to move ahead and doesn't consider opportunities and lifestyles that he views as stagnant--he's determined not to throw away his shot, regardless of what others--Burr or Eliza or Angelica or George Washington--say or imply to him.

It's extreme. Like Claire, when we meet him, he's in it 100%.

But it's not his only dominating attribute that we are introduced to.

We get plenty of others. He's "obnoxious, arrogant, loud," a powerful writer, ambitious to the point of being a workaholic, and popular with the ladies ;)

We now have several characteristics to hit and play with through the story, rather than his most extreme.

If you have a main character that has an extreme attribute, it's highly likely it's going to come into play in the character arc (aka how the character grows). If the extreme attribute doesn't relate primarily to the arc, it will probably be secondary to it.

It's hard to have a dominating extreme characteristic through the whole novel without an arc, because it's difficult to sustain. It becomes stagnant. It's not changing or contrasting and it draws so much attention. It's hitting the same thing. As Brandon Sanderson says, what's interesting about Superman is not his extreme, larger-than-life abilities, it's his limitations--it's when his superpowers are undone by kryptonite.

What's interesting about Hermione is when she actually breaks rules, not adheres to them. If she went through the entire series without ever breaking any, it'd be annoying because there is no change.

In Hamilton, it's Hamiltion's own extreme characteristic that brings his undoing. When he's writing the Reynolds Pamphlet, what does the song say? "Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it"--and it gets louder the closer he is to completing the pamphlet. But does he wait for it? No. Because he's extreme, he's at 100%. Not even his own family gets considered before he publishes the thing. But the result and what happens after forces him to change, forces him into a character arc--because it ruins both his public and personal life.

At one point, even when Hamilton is trying to say no to something, literally praying to God to help him to say no something, he still fails--"I do not say no!"

The only way to get him to change is to force him by having him wreck havoc upon himself. The story wouldn't be half as interesting or half as meaningful if he'd stayed at 100% the entire time.

Worth noting, too, is that he's foiled nicely by Burr, who is extreme in the opposite direction. He never takes risks; he never stands for what he truly believes. He waits around and only gets involved when it's safe. But with that attitude, he's not excelling at the rate Hamilton is. But again, Burr doesn't stay the same. He has his own arc. In fact, as foils, Burr and Hamilton intersect and end up on different sides. Hamilton throws away his shot, and Burr takes his too quickly.

Setting up foils like this also helps round out extremes, and again, having contrasts gives the story complexity, because it allows us to explore the differences in the opposing ends. That's what gives us depth. (I've heard people argue that Shakespeare was amazing because he used foils so well.)

Whatever extreme characteristic you are dealing with, it almost always needs some kind of motion. Luckily, Claire does get an arc, but it would have been richer and more powerful if it included other characteristics.

For Hamilton, all his other dominating characteristics feed into the arc of his most extreme:

Because he's such a non-stop workaholic, he refuses to go on vacation, worried he'll lose his job . . . but ultimately ends up losing his whole political career by staying behind.

Because he likes ladies, is good with ladies, and has a reputation for it . . . he makes a great target for a setup with one. And he's more likely to give in, when in a state of weakness and loneliness (from staying behind).

Because he's a loudmouth and always speaks his mind he's sure (maybe to the point of being arrogant) that being honest in the Reynolds Pamphlet will save him from political problems.

Because he's a fantastic writer, he thinks the answer is writing his way to safety.

These don't all have to be direct, but notice how his other qualities fed into what happens.

I was watching Lucy the other day, and I felt bad for Scarlett Johansson, because the character she plays is extreme and has hardly any other dominating characteristics and little motion on the personal level. Time and again it's just Lucy getting smarter and more powerful with little emotional development. Boring. And one of the reasons the movie was a flop.

BBC's Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is another great example of a character with extreme qualities, in fact, several extreme qualities--and they are in motion. Sure, even those that aren't at first glance, like his great deductions, still have moments of limitation and at one point work, like Hamilton, to bring havoc upon himself because Sherlock wants things to be more complicated than they are.

Even if the qualities are universally considered good, they probably need to be in some kind of motion. For example, it's good that Hermione isn't a rule-breaker. But as the series goes on, she becomes more of one, and that's interesting.

However, if you are working with a dominate character that is extreme and yet doesn't change, you have to make up for it by ramping up the costs. For universally good qualities, you do this by following the motto "No good deed goes unpunished"--the cost of adhering to that extreme needs to be huge, but worthwhile. Choosing to be 100% something--it takes a lot. In Les Mis, if Fantine made a decent salary, it'd be easy to send that money to Cosette, and that's a good thing to do. But she doesn't have a decent salary; she has to sell her hair, teeth, and body in order to do a good thing--"No good deed goes unpunished." (Note that while Fantine isn't an "extreme" character, it illustrates my point.)

Here is another one. It's a good idea to rescue people. But what if pushing a child out of the way of a car meant that a renowned doctor would have to live the rest of his life paralyzed? That's a big sacrifice, not only for the doctor doing the rescuing, but for the community he's helping. The cost and sacrifice to be 100% anything is a lot. Life isn't clear-cut. It's messy and complicated.

So when working with extreme characteristics, here are some things to consider:

1. Give them additional dominating qualities (bonus points if they can play into the arc of the extreme in some way)

2. In the opening, don't illustrate the same extreme quality in ten different situations. Trust that the audience will get it with one or two good instances then move on with the story. Remember that hitting the same thing over and over makes it dull and annoying, not stronger and more interesting.

3. The more extreme and dominating the quality, the more likely it needs to be part of the character arc.

4. In any case, put it in some kind of motion or at least explore limitations or how it can be used against them.

5. Set up a foil to help create more depth and complexity in the story.

6. Look at the cost and sacrifice it takes to maintain an extreme and maybe the havoc and pain it brings upon the individual adhering it and those around him or her.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Working with Multiple Plot Lines--Is There a Specific Way?

Anonymous asked: I absolutely loved your guide for outlining! How can I apply that when I have numerous plot lines, though? Thanks!

Hey thanks! I’m glad it was helpful.

Well, that outlining post actually has two parts, so I’m not sure which one you saw or if you saw both, but here is what to outline and here is how to outline. The second one does touch a little bit on that.

But maybe you want something more detailed, which can be a little trickier to nail down, and it sort of depends on the story structure you are going for.

Most stories have like a primary, secondary, tertiary (and onward) plot line.

But another story structure seems to have multiple, separate stories linked together by a theme or topic or event, and the narrative goes back and forth between each story.

In most stories, the primary plot line will be the obvious one--the main conflict with the main antagonist.

The secondary plot line usually relates to an inner struggle (if the primary isn’t already a person vs. self conflict) and plays into the story’s theme. It’s usually the main character’s arc--how they change, personally. Usually in the secondary plot line, the character overcomes a personal struggle which then enables them to overcome the antagonist of the primary plot line, or vice versa.

For example, in Moana, the primary conflict relates to Maui having stolen the heart of Tafiti which is destroying the islands, and for the primary plot line, Moana has to get Maui, pass Te Ka, and restore the heart to save her island.

But the story’s secondary plot revolves around Moana’s inner struggle--of being drawn to the sea, when she’s supposed to find happiness and peace on the island she’s already on. As a result, she struggles within herself about who she is. She tries to believe what she’s been told: that all she needs is on her island. But despite how she tries, she can’t find true fulfillment there (and wishes she could be “the perfect daughter”).

During the course of the story, she learns about her ancestors, does what they do, and the climax of the secondary plot line happens after Maui leaves, and she both understands and remembers who she is.

Because she now understands who she is, and what that knowledge gives her, she is then able to understand how to “defeat” Te Ka--who is really Tafiti--and Tafiti has lost her sense of identity--who she is, because her heart was taken.

So often the secondary plot’s climax happens near the primary plot’s climax, which cements the theme into place.

In this post, author Amanda Rawson Hill talks about how you can use theme to come up with subplots, which might also relate to what you are asking (as I think you can apply it to other plot lines, rather than just subplots), and might be an approach that helps you.

The outer and inner journeys usually play off each other. The resolution of one often leads to the resolution of the other. Either the inner saves the outer, or the outer saves the inner (because of a realization the character has in the process of whichever comes first).

But still, not all stories are like that, it’s just an approach that might be helpful. I will argue that most powerful stories, do that, though.

There might other plot lines still. For example, what about a romantic plot line? What if (for sake of discussion) Moana had a love interest? That might have its own conflicts, and affect the other plot lines.

The thing with nailing this down, is that there are so many right ways you can handle various plot lines and so many story structures, that it’s hard for me to say “THIS is how you do it!” (though I’m sure you don’t expect me to say that either).

For example, in a different story structure, the different plot lines might be referring to different character lines, such as in the Lord of the Rings movies. Frodo is the primary protagonist, and his main conflict involves taking the Ring to Mordor. However, Aragorn has his own plot line and journey. And later, so does Merry and Pippin. You could even map out Gollum as having a plot line if you wanted.

Then within each of those, you could say there are primary and secondary plot lines and maybe even more. Frodo’s secondary is that he has to struggle with the power of the Ring within himself. Aragorn struggles with being king and is reluctant to take the crown--that has its own rising action and climax itself.

It could go on and on, so it’s a slippery thing to try to package in one way. It’s helpful to consider what story structure you are writing and maybe look at other stories within that structure to see what and how they handled it.

I will say, that with different plot lines, you almost always need some variety. For example, if the primary conflict is a person vs. person conflict, you probably don’t want to make all the other plot lines a person vs. person conflict. It loses power and can become monotonous. This is one reason why an outer journey and and inner journey is so great to work with. I’d also recommend considering the different kinds of conflicts that exist: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. god, and trying to see if you can use a different one than your primary plot line.

Another similar approach is to look at the emotional draws your audience wants. Maybe they’d appreciate a romantic plot line. Or maybe they would like a mystery plot line. Maybe you are writing in a fantasy setting, and they’d like a plot line that relates to the setting, so they can experience that wonder with it (like a person vs. nature conflict). Or maybe they’d like more humor, so you come up with a humorous plot line. In this approach, it sort of depends on what emotions you want your story to evoke--the emotional experience you want for the audience.

As for the process of actually mapping and outlining it out--for what scene of what plot line happens when--it’s hard to pinpoint, because again, there are different story structures, and it also depends on what kind of effect you want. If it’s more of a subplot, the plot line may not actually go through the entire length of the story--it might end early or start late.

Like the primary plot line, the other plot lines may have their own beginnings, inciting incidents, rising actions, midpoints, climaxes, and denouements. But they may be briefer or more condensed or only implied.

However, often the more you can keep the climaxes of each line close together, the more powerful the ending--as long as it doesn’t get too gaudy. It’s a balancing act. If each climax is complicated for example, having them all close together might be too much.

Like I said, while there are wrong ways to do it, there are a lot of right ways to do it. The main thing, in my opinion, is to balance it out so there is some variety and the pacing doesn’t drag in one direction. If you’ve had a lot of suspense in the primary line, but you also have a comedy line, you might want to switch into that comedy line after several scenes of suspense so the audience can get some variety and a break.

Usually it’s a good idea if what is happening in one plot line affects another (like the Moana example), but some stories are successful without plot lines really affecting each other or crossing over

So . . . I’m not sure that I answered your question to your satisfaction, but I hope that something in there is helpful to you! The real answer is, it depends on your story, but that you should aim for balance and variety, while paying attention to pacing, and that it’s usually good if the plot lines affect one another and the outcomes.

Have a writing question? You can tweet me, send a message through Facebook, "ask" me on Tumblr, or email me at SeptemberCFawkes[at]gmail[dot]com

Monday, June 25, 2018

How Structure Affects Pacing

Last week I talked about 8 Common Problems with Pacing and discussed pacing overall. Today I'm going to get more technical and talk about how structure affects pacing, and how and when to use structure to speed up or slow down, and then follow up with an example.

How fast and how slow you go in a chapter, scene, or paragraph depends on the content, story, and the effect you want the reader to experience. 

Speed Up


Speed up when you want a moment to feel more intense, snappy, energetic, or even the obvious one, quick.

Often (not always) you want to speed up moments of action, especially fights. Intense scenes, quick thinking, and arguments can work well too.


Speed up the story in these ways.

Shorten - Shorten the chapter, scene, paragraphs, sentences, or even words. This makes the moment feel faster (for obvious reasons).

Short Syllables - Use words that have few syllables. Choose the word "dance" over "promenade," for example.

Familiar > Unusual - Choose words and concepts that are more familiar or common to the audience. For example, choose "guess" instead of "hypothesize."

Simple > Complex - Similarly, choose words and concepts that are simpler. The more technical you get, the more the audience needs to slow down and digest.

The field that Steve stumbled upon was prodigiously verdigris with anthophilia circumnavigating every inflorescence.


The field that Steve stumbled upon was largely green with a love of flowers sailing around every floral arrangement.

Use More Telling - Telling is faster than showing. Tell what's happening when a quick pace is absolutely needed. Showing always takes more time.

Note: Often beginner writers will write action blow-by-blow, which might work in some entertainment mediums, but can be boring in the writing medium. It slows the pacing down, especially if the action is too complicated and technical. Sure, some writers know how to break this rule well, but as a generality, you usually don't want to write blow-by-blow passages. Instead, simplify and shorten the moment, and make sure to infuse it with your character's thoughts and emotions.

Note: Fast doesn't mean sloppy.

Slow Down


Slow down to create a more dramatic effect; to take time to be more serious, weighty, intellectual, technical, or leisurely; to give the audience important details; and to let them catch their breath and digest.


You would think that slowing down would be most effective by doing everything opposite of what it says above and some of that is true, but it depends on the situation. Yes, writing longer sentences will help slow a passage down, but if you simply do the opposite of everything listed above, you can easily run into The Purple Prose problem.

Often the best way to slow down is to add more showing, details, and/or concepts.

It's like watching slow motion in a movie. The audience can see more detail. We get specific shots. Time itself seems to slow or even stop.

Slowing down in a story can work in the same way.

Notice how this moment (from an action scene) in Harry Potter slows down by getting more specific and more detailed. Up to this point there has been fighting and action, and then something important happens, so it slows down and gets detailed.

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch.

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather's, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment as though in a high wind, then fell back into place.

But here's the thing about slowing pacing way down for dramatic effect, and an aspect that I see writers get a bit mixed up on a lot. Do not try to slow it down by repeating the same information the same way or even the exact same information in the same way.

That doesn't slow the pacing, it positively kills it to a dead, annoying stop. Instead, add more ideas, images, and concepts, as I explained in more detail in the second half of this article here.  (I'll also touch more on this in the example below).

Sometimes you can slow down in a novel simply by the content of the scene. Two characters trying to figure out what just happened through a dialogue exchange will help the audience digest it themselves and catch their breath.

If there is something complicated the audience needs to understand, you may need to slow down, just a bit. (Just make sure it doesn't turn into an info-dump.)

Example: Hamilton

The duels in Hamilton are a perfect example of when to speed up and when to slow down, and the effects of each.

The first duel has what I'll call an establishing, even pace. It explains to the audience how duels work, but in an even enough pace so that it doesn't feel like a boring info-dump (the information is balanced by the quickness of the actual music.)

Notice the song is 1:47

In the second duel, the pacing is quick and the duel itself is only about 20 seconds long (starting at 2:30) . We understand how duels work now. Not only do we not need them re-explained, but because it's so short, it emphasizes the speed at which the action happens, and likewise emphasizes how quick life can change or be taken.

As another note, notice that one of the shooters only waits until seven to shoot instead of ten. (I'm not sure if this is historically what actually happened or just an artistic choice.) This increases the speed even more.

The final duel is more important and dramatic, and it slows waaaaaay down. In fact, you get like an entire song as the bullet is coming toward Hamilton (notice this duel is about 4:30 minutes long).

Now, imagine for a second if  Miranda wrote that song and it really did just sing literally about a bullet coming closer to Hamilton, over and over, for an entire song. It doesn't work. It's boring. It feels slow. It feels melodramatic.

Yet this is the mistake I see writers make when trying to heighten drama by slowing pacing. It's one of the aspects of purple prose that new writers slip into. They understand that a "slow-motion" moment can make the scene more dramatic, but all they literally do is slow down the bullet--they repeat the same information over and over, with or without different words. But, as I talk about in that post, it's the ideas, images, and concepts that are important.

So when the bullet is coming towards Hamilton, it becomes dramatic and significant because of all the culminating ideas, images, and concepts within that moment. It ties back to everything--his childhood, his family, his political journey, and perhaps most importantly the theme--how he will be remembered. It resonates with everything that's been established and builds off it for more power (both in content and in the actual music).

When you need to slow down for a dramatic moment, you do the same thing.

How much you slow down depends on how much drama the moment merits. In this Hamilton example, this is the climax of the story, so it merits a lot of attention to fulfill its significance. But if you tried to slow that much down elsewhere, it might come across as melodramatic because it's more than the moment deserves. It hasn't gotten the same level of build up. It's not as important.

So, make the moment dramatic by getting detailed, but make it more dramatic by adding more concepts and resonating with what came before. Everything should either be significant or contribute to the significance of whatever you are slowing down.

Then, notice also in this example how everything else seems to stop, including the music itself. It's quiet. It's only Hamilton and the bullet. All the focus is on that moment, nothing else detracting from it.

Finally, notice how something similar happens again with Burr. We get details. There's wailing in the street. He's getting a drink. He's told he "better hide." The music isn't fast and snappy, it's slower.

And that, my friends, is pacing according to Hamilton.

Monday, June 18, 2018

8 Common Pacing Problems

"Pacing" refers  to how fast or slow a scene, chapter, or overall novel is relayed to the audience. It essentially refers to the speed of the story. Some stories have more of a leisurely pace. Others may be fast-paced. In most stories, you will have slower paced scenes and faster paced scenes. When to use what depends on the story you are telling, but one thing is clear, pacing can have problems just like any other writing element.

When I started working in this industry, I figured that problems with pacing mainly related to how many words were being used to convey something--too much or too little. And surely (I thought) fixing slow pacing meant we should always "cut to the chase" (as they would say when making movies in Hollywood), or if it was too fast, we needed to add words to slow it down, but I soon learned that pacing has a lot more layers to it than that, and while that's not always a wrong way to deal with pacing . . . it's more of a beginner's way.

And even then, it sometimes doesn't fix the problem.

Sometimes the problem with pacing is that it's too "fast," but almost always, I've found for the majority of writers, the problem is that it's too "slow." (Why are these terms in quotes? Because they may not necessarily deal with strictly adding or cutting words to change reading speeds.)

But here are some of the reoccurring problems I've discovered and how to fix them.

Problem 1: Not Enough Potential Conflicts To Feed Enough Tension

Pacing actually has a lot to do with tension. And tension and conflict are two different things. However, they work together, because tension is the anticipation or potential for conflict to happen. Conflict is the actual problem happening.

Dealing with one conflict (or potential conflict) at a time is rarely enough to hold the audience through a whole story. Sure, in some scenes, there may be one overarching conflict, but there should be multiple types of conflict--however small, however subtle--in each scene. It might be the viewpoint character having an inner conflict about how to deal with the overarching conflict. It might be the protagonist and his best friend having some tension between them--a disagreement that wants to surface. It might the heroine worrying she won't get through the desert without dying from dehydration, while the main conflict is trying to rescue her sister from some outlaws. But in a scene, there should almost always be multiple potential conflicts in order to create tension (which is the anticipation of conflict).

Sometimes you can have multiple important conflicts at once. Other times you only need small, tiny micro-tensions.

But because tension is often so important to pacing, you need enough of it to pull it tight. Lack of potential conflicts and tension often mean the pacing feels too slow and boring. So brainstorm how to add more, even if they are subtle.

Note: In some cases, rather than adding tension, you can add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully, but usually you should still have potential for more than one conflict.

Problem 2: No Hooks

Someday I'm going to do a post just on hooks, but today is not yet that day. Hooks can relate a lot to tension and even everything in that "Note" above. They can often relate to how those potentials are actually written or addressed on the page. It's sort of what I talk about in this post "Mastering Stylistic Tension"

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. They may offer promises (at the line level). Like the note above, they may be intriguing and intellectually stimulating. They may promise if the reader keeps reading, they'll experience a particular emotion.

Sometimes the writer has the right concepts and content for the scene, but there aren't any lines that are actually written in a hooking way. Work on mastering hooks to keep the pacing tight.

Problem 3: No Subtext

I was once editing a manuscript that had all the right beats and emotional draws and even the plotting was turning out to be pretty good. But it felt slow and boring. As I paid attention, I discovered it was because it had next to no subtext, and therefore, as a reader, I wasn't intellectually invested in understanding and figuring out the text, and though the emotion was on the page, I didn't feel it because it was so direct.

In this case, subtext needs to be understood, mastered, and added. You can study all about subtext and how to write it here.

Problem 4: Showing AND Telling

Another problem happens when the writer explains everything and doesn't trust the audience to "get it." They might "show" something and then write sentences or paragraphs "telling" the audience what they already put together. They don't need the author to spell out that Suzy loves Donald--they saw their interactions, and it was clear that Suzy loves Donald, so to repeat that with a long explanation slows the pacing down. If you are going to tell about it after showing it, the telling needs to add new information and value and meaning, not just restate what the audience already knows.

You can learn more about showing and telling in this post: Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell."

Problem 5:  The Audience comes to the Right (Obvious) Conclusion Long Before the Characters

This is not to be confused with suspense, where the audience knows both what the protagonist and antagonist plan to do and are anticipating, sitting on the edge of their seat, wondering how that's going to play out.

This is often a problem of using a common, overused trope without changing it in any way. One of the most common ones is the "prophecy" story line, where the protagonist discovers there is a prophecy about him defeating the antagonist, but even though the audience has seen this story line a dozen times, the author still writes it as if it were the first. They might make the prophecy a main focus in the plot, then drag it out so that the protagonist discovers the "shocking" truth at the climax. (This isn't to say you can never use any kind of cliche in your writing. You can, but you need to do it right.)

If the audience has figured something out, and the characters are still acting like it's a mystery for pages longer, it's going to slow down the pacing.

Problem 6: Misunderstanding What's Significant 

Sometimes the writer spends too much time (or words) on things that don't merit that kind of attention. Other time they may not spend enough on what deserves more. They are misunderstanding what is significant in the story.

The more words you spend talking about something, the more the weight of the story shifts in that direction. If you are putting a lot of "weight" where it doesn't belong, it can make the story feel too slow. If you are skipping over things that deserve more weight, the pacing may feel too fast in those spots.

This is a case where adding and cutting words can be the solution to your pacing problem. Just make sure in adding, you aren't simply repeating the same thing, but expanding or deepening the subject.

More on this and how it actually works here. And more on discerning what's significant here.

Problem 7: Misunderstanding What the Target Audience Came for and/or Cares About

Imagine a Jurassic movie where the main plot centered on two characters working at the theme park falling in love, with no dino terror until the end.

For most people who go to that movie, it's going to feel slow. Really slow. They'll walk out at after and say, "Nothing happened until the end!"

This is one of the reasons it's important to keep your target audience in mind. It's also worth keeping in mind that you can't please everyone. Someone who likes a lot of magical action may not actually like Harry Potter, which is more of a slice-of-life magic mystery. Why is your target reader reading your book? Are you delivering on what was promised?

This can happen on a small scale. For example, when editing last week, I came across some nice descriptions of a side character, and while well written, realized the audience doesn't care enough about that character to get that much description in that moment. They care about what's about to be revealed in the plot.

Putting in what your audience doesn't really care about slows the pacing down in all the wrong ways. Speeding over something your audience picked the book up for can make pacing seem too fast.

Problem 8: Not Enough Variety

Hitting the same story element over and over doesn't make it more powerful, it makes it less. And in the worst-case scenario, it makes it not only boring, but annoying. Contrast and variety make a good story.

Comedies that only try to be funny won't hold an audience for long. It's why comedy movies are short and usually have a life lesson weaved in. If it's always trying to be funny, it's not funny. It will start to feel long and slow and bloated. Make sure your story is balanced out. If it's funny, weave in something serious. If it's about love, weave in some heartache. If it's about dinosaurs terrorizing people, weave in moments of dinosaurs looking beautiful and amazing.

Variety strengthens pacing.


The thing with pacing is that I think many writers eventually learn it intuitively. Often we can tell when pacing is off and sometimes even what to do to fix it, before we can consciously explain what's going on. This is one of the reasons why reading both published and unpublished fiction can be really helpful, because your subconscious will gain a better sense of pacing if you consciously can't put it to words.

I remember working on a short story in college, and cutting lines for pacing. I liked the lines, and they weren't bad, but I just knew that it would make the pacing better, even if I couldn't explain why.

Hopefully, though, this post will help by jump-starting the conscious part of your mind on what to watch for.

On Cutting

One of the reasons cutting is a good beginner's tool is because usually beginners write too much about the less significant stuff anyway, and you can cut and cut and it brings back tension into the story because there is less space between each tension line, each hook, and each moment of conflict. Therefore, you are getting more of all that on a page and condensing the story to the most significant, meaningful components.

More on Pacing

Today I talked about the overall problems of pacing, but you can break pacing down in more structural ways: chapters, scenes, sentences. Next time I'll talk about how structure affects pacing and how to use that to your advantage.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Prologues Actually Function & 6 Types to Consider

In a lot of ways, I'm an atypical person, but one of the ways I'm atypical is that I actually love prologues, and always have. As a teenager, I would be excited when I opened a book that said "Prologue"--years later I'd learn over and over again that a lot of people in the writing industry actually hate prologues! And the first few times I heard that, I was baffled.

I think some of the hate stems from not understanding how they actually function or when to best use them--two things I'm going to cover today.

First, let's talk about some of the reasons why people have said not to use prologues.

1. Some readers (can't remember the exact stats, but I think it might have been half) skip prologues anyway.

2. Story openings are very difficult to write, and by having a prologue, you are having to essentially write two openings--why would you do that to yourself? And you have to win the audience over--twice!

3. Prologues often contain unnecessary information, so you can just discard them. Start with the beginning of the story--chapter one!

I don't know about you, but all of these explanations left me wanting. And none of them felt like good enough reasons to ax prologues altogether (especially the second--if you want to be a writer, you probably won't make it far if you are scared of difficulty). Furthermore, a couple of years ago I perused bookshelves at a bookstore and found loads of novels that opened with prologues. Huh? Haven't I been advised not to do that?

You mean I don't actually have to hate prologues as much as I've been told?

Let's dig into them.

The Most Important Function of a Prologue

You can look all over online about when and why you should or should not use a prologue, and I'll touch on some of that in the types. But in my opinion at its bare bones--when you strip away all the differences between prologues out there--prologues are about making promises of one kind or another to the audience. That is the main function of a prologue.

Like all writing rules, there may be some exceptions to that once in a while, but I'd argue almost always prologues = promises.

Some might say that prologues only relate to giving out information that the audience can't get otherwise. I think it's fair to use them that way, but not all good prologues actually function that way, and even those that do still simultaneously makes promises. The promise comes from giving that information.

Prologues are also often displaced from the rest of the novel in some way--so one might argue that's what makes a prologue. But when I look at prologues, that doesn't quite hold up either. The only function that seems to, is promises.

Now, there are a lot of different promises you can make.

- You can make an emotional promise by communicating to the audience what kind of emotions this story is going to appeal to.

- You can make a promise about what kind of plot this story is going to have. Does the prologue cover an old unsolved murder case that's gone cold? The reader will assume the plot is going to involve that.

- You can make thematic promises about the theme topic or what sort of takeaway value this story might have.

- You can make promises about a type of character.

- About a relationship.

- About worldbuilding, setting, or a time period.

- Or about any kind of draws that your audience picked up your book or genre for in the first place.

- And you can make promises by foreshadowing

But most of the time, the most important function of a prologue is that it makes promises. For some, that might come strictly by providing information. But if you provide information with no sense of promise, it's probably a lousy prologue.

Some of you might be wondering if the first chapter of the story makes promises anyway, why do you need a prologue?

It's true that many, if not most, stories don't need a prologue at all. There are enough clear promises in the first chapter, and enough information in the actual novel, and adding a prologue would make the story weaker.

But for the stories that would benefit, there are a few different kinds of prologues with different functions that you might want to consider when you are wondering about packaging those additional promises (or critiquing someone else's).

Types of Prologues


I've talked in a previous post that in the film industry, there are two types of movie trailers: the theatrical trailer and the teaser trailer. (And what do trailers do? They make promises to audiences about what kind of movie this is going to be.)

A theatrical trailer is longer than a teaser trailer. It conveys the basic plot of the story. It communicates what the story is about. It gives us the setup. Here is an example of a theatrical trailer. (Notice how the setup is clear and chronological.)

Books are obviously a different format, but you can have a theatrical prologue in the same way.

The prologue promises what the plot is going to be about and clues us into the setup.

It simply introduces an overall plot of the story or series that may not be the main focus in the beginning chapters of the book itself--so it's a prologue.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater is a good example of this, and you can read it here.

This is the opening line to give you a good idea:

Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she'd been told she'd kill her true love.

The prologue goes on to introduce us to the sorts of magic the book includes (psychics and fortune-telling, for example). It introduces us to the setting. It establishes a particular lifestyle, or what's "normal" and ends on something (or someone) that changes that normal.

But the prologue continues to come back to the same topic: If Blue kisses her true love, he will die.

This gives us a sense of what this book series will probably be about. But since this is the first book, it's not going to be the sole focus, so the prologue is a good place for the introduction.


In film, teaser trailers are different than theatrical trailers. While theatrical trailers make promises to the audience by conveying the setup and introducing the plot, teaser trailers make promises to the audiences by focusing largely on raw emotional appeals.

Here is an example of a teaser trailer.

Notice how unlike the theatrical trailer, we don't really get a clear setup or plot. Sure, we see and hear snippets of it, but the trailer functions off making promises to the audience about what kinds of emotions they'll experience if they watch this movie.

Teasers lack context--that's one reason why they are so short (and why they are teasers). You can't hold an audience long if you don't give them enough context. But the audience knows that if they go to the movie, they will get the context and plot.

Some prologues are teasers. They promise a certain experience and also promise that if the audience reads the story, they will understand (aka, get the context) the event. I did a whole post on teasers here, so I'm not going to repeat everything.

I know a lot of people don't like Twilight, but I'm actually fine with the series. And I'm aware that technically the opening is a "Preface," but I'm going to grab it because it's an example of opening with a teaser nonetheless:

I'd never given much thought to how I would die — though I'd had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me. 

Notice we don't get a lot of context. We don't know exactly what's happening or how the character got here. But the passage makes emotional (maybe even thematic) promises to the audience of what will be included in the story.

Stephenie Meyer's The Host does open with a prologue that is teaserly as well. And so does I am Number Four. We lack a lot of context when we start reading, but it will become clearer as we get into the actual novel.

Dual Draws

Some opening chapters have quite different draws (or promises) than later chapters. A prologue might be a good way to bridge that and help balance the appeals for the audience.

The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of this.

The story really starts with Barnum being a child. He doesn't even come up with the circus until maybe a third into the movie. Filmmakers understand, though, that one of the film's major appeals is the circus. So what did they do?

They essentially opened with a "prologue"--promising the audience a set of draws that can't fit into the actual beginning--because Barnum hasn't made the circus yet.

It's arguably one of the best film openings today.

Here is the opening.

And here is the actual "first chapter."

This is a case in particular where having two "openings" really is a strength. By having dual openings, you can showcase the story's draws on opposite sides of the spectrum. So, within the first 15 minutes of The Greatest Showman you get a taste of the spectacle and the fantastical of the circus as well as the personal and intimate conflicts and relationships that Barnum has.

Use this prologue when some of the powerful appeals don't appear until later in the story, so that you can promise them to the audience right out of the gate.

Christopher Paolini's Eragon might be a a good example of this. In the prologue, we get a sense of battle and other creatures and magic and even dragons, but the protagonist himself doesn't really encounter those things until later in the story. The prologue promises that those things will come.

Alternative Viewpoint

For some stories, the audience would benefit from information or a perspective that the main viewpoint character or characters can't give. Sometimes prologues are in a different viewpoint to give the audience access to that information.

The City of Ember is an example of this.

The characters don't really have access to what the builders of the city knew. So the prologue is used to convey that to the audience.

When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the Chief Builder and the Assistant Builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak of the future.

"They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years," said the Chief Builder. "Or perhaps two hundred and twenty."

"Is that long enough?" asked his Assistant.

"It should be. We can't know for sure."

"And when the time comes," said the Assistant, "how will they know what to do?"

"We'll provide them with instructions, of course," the Chief Builder replied.

"But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe and secret all that time?"

"The mayor of the city will keep the instructions," said the Chief Builder. "We'll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the proper date."

In any case, promises come through the information and context given to the audience (that the main characters don't have and therefore can't give.)

Sometimes the prologue may be different in how viewpoint is actually handled. It might be in second person when the story is in third. In third person with the novel is in first. But the decision should have a point and not be random.

Time Displacement

Use a prologue when you need to include scenes (in order to provide context and promises and/or foreshadowing or information) that take place during a different time than the rest of the novel--when it's out of sequence with the rest of the story. Usually this means that the prologue takes place in the past, but it can also mean future. It may or may not have the same viewpoint character.

Some of you might laugh, but the first chapter of Harry Potter is a good example of this. I'm aware that it's called a first chapter, but go read it again, and you'll realize it's really a prologue in disguise (maybe the people behind it didn't like prologues and thought it would be clever to call it chapter one). The entire chapter takes place about a decade before the rest of the story (also in other viewpoints), when Harry is a baby. It's out of sync with the rest of the novel and we don't meet Harry until the end. It also contains elements of the other prologue types I've outlined here. In fact, like many prologues, you could essentially skip the first chapter of Harry Potter--though that gives you an entirely different opening context since you don't have that information or those promises. (Sort of like starting The Greatest Showman with Barnum as a child.)


Like some of the others, this one can blend in and overlap with the different types, but just to help us with discernment, and because I have a few things to say about it, I'm making it its own category.

Some people say that a prologue is only good if it contains essential information--but that simply is not the case. You could cut off a lot of teaser prologues, dual draw prologues, and even others and still follow the story. (Besides, if half of readers skip a prologue, then you sometimes have to weave that information in another way anyway.) Like I said, you could cut off the first chapter of Harry Potter and you'll essentially get all the information you missed in other parts of the story. This is why I argue that it's promises, not information, that is the driving force of prologues. You can cut off the opening of The Greatest Showman and you would miss out on zero information (what you miss out on is the promises).

But some prologues are strictly there to provide information to the audience, and in some rare cases a prologue might be the only way to deliver that (skip at your own risk). In order to be good though, that information is going to provide promises too (and not read like an info-dump).

Star Wars movies essentially start with an informational prologue--but remember, books and movies are different, and if you write a prologue like Star Wars does at the front of your story it will not be acceptable by today's standards. Lord of the Rings (both book and movie) has an informational prologue--which once again would actually not be acceptable to write in today's day and age in front of a novel. Why? Because it will come across as an info-dump and probably read kind of boring. (Does anyone actually remember the real book prologue to Lord of the Rings? It's basically a long author note about Hobbits.) The Fellowship's prologue on Hobbits worked in Tolkien's time, but it wouldn't get published today. (Because of film and technology, audiences today don't need that much help and guidance to imagine and understand something that doesn't exist in the real world.)

This is one way that I see prologues go wrong. The prologue should almost never read like an info-dump. Instead, think of the information you need to convey and see if you can convey it in a nice scene. An actual scene, with a character and event.

The City of Ember example doubles as an informational prologue. It's telling the audience the beginnings of the city. Notice that it has the audience focus on actual characters having a conversation, and isn't just a big long paragraph of the narrator giving out information.

Sometimes the information itself isn't essential, but is instead significant in some way. The other night I watched The Prestige (cause you know I love Christopher Nolan's writing and seeing Hugh Jackman performing spectacle shows in the 19th century). The opening works as a prologue, but the information isn't necessarily vital to understanding the story. Instead, it's important because it introduces a theme weaved into the movie. With the prologue the audience can watch the film with the idea that the knowledge will be significant in some way. (Notice how the film example doubles as a teaser.)

Here is the opening.

More Types

I'm sure there are more types you could categorize, and I'll have to keep my eyes out for them. And as I said above, many prologues fit into more than one type. But I still think it's helpful to have the categories, because it helps us understand them.

People often don't understand that because a prologue works differently than the rest of the novel--that's why it's a prologue and not just lumped in with everything else--it can't usually be criticized like the rest of the novel.

And because people don't understand the true core of their function (promises), prologues can draw a lot of (inaccurate) criticism from critique groups and others.

I've been to a number of writing conferences where editors have said they always skip the prologue in a submission. I used to think it was because they didn't like prologues--hated them even. Now that I'm an editor, I find myself doing the same thing--and I like prologues. It's not because it's bad. It's because it functions differently. And I'm geared up to be critical of the first chapter. So often I'll skip or just scan the prologue and come back later to take a closer look--a clearer look--when I have a better idea of how that prologue should be functioning in relation to the rest of the work (and the promises it should be making). For example, if the prologue is a teaser, I'll read through it, but often wait until I get more context to come back and edit it. But whatever the case, you should always be looking at the promises it's making.