Tag Archives: pacing

Deborah Ratliff: A Storm is Coming

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The news was full in recent days with updates regarding an impending hurricane headed for the Gulf shore of the United States. A severe storm in an area still smarting from the horrors of hurricanes past deserves our attention.

I will admit, however, that there is a little part of me that becomes excited when a hurricane is forecast. The writing muse that lurks in my head hears “hurricane” and immediately conjures up scenes of roiling dark seas, ragged gray clouds, and howling wind driving heavy rain sideways, stinging all it touches.

A storm is coming.

I love storms. I love the growl of thunder. The boom reverberating off my chest sometimes takes my breath away. A purple streak of lightning both startles and excites me. Along the shore I love so much, the rough waves slamming into the soft sand display the power of the weather. Those emotions are strong, and I find that I often use weather to establish a mood.

For example, this is the opening passage of my upcoming novel One of Those Days:

“It was another one of those days, like every day in southern Louisiana. The sun was a golden glare in a washed-out sky, the air thick with moisture, its weight heavy and clinging to her skin. Adie Morgan winced against the bright light despite the dark sunglasses hiding her eyes.”

Yes, I opened a novel by describing the weather despite Elmore Leonard’s first writing tip, “Never open a book with the weather.” In this instance, the main character has returned to Louisiana due to a near family tragedy. I needed to show it was an ordinary day and weather is a good measure of how ordinary a day can be.

Concerning Leonard’s epitaph regarding weather, many writers stop with that statement, considering it gospel. However, Leonard went on to offer a justification. “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.” Leonard also added an exception—“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”

Hemingway didn’t adhere to Leonard’s pronouncement either. He wrote to John Dos Passos: “Remember to include the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.” Going so far as to include a mention of the weather in the opening and in the body of such works as A Very Short Story, In Another Country, and Cross-Country.

Bullet-pointed rules rarely tell the entire story. The nuances of a subject are far better to use as guidance. In Leonard’s case, his apparent state of “never” is in truth a more thoughtful description of when using weather is appropriate.

I admit to employing weather as a tool whenever I can in my writing. I love the emotion invoked by weather. A gentle rain may be soothing or melancholy to a thoughtful character. A blizzard can be cozy and warm in front of a fire or bitter cold and frightening when stranded. Toss in a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, or volcano eruption, and you have chaos, fear, and often, heroism. You don’t need a significant weather event to invoke a mood, and that is precisely what the inclusion of weather can do to a story.

Foreshadowing is an invaluable tool in a writer’s arsenal and assists in building suspense. I wrote a character—a photographer—who ventured outside in a light rainstorm to take photographs, not realizing she was being followed. The rain provided a way for me to slow her down and become more aware of her surroundings, consequently becoming suspicious of the situation. Later in the day she went for a run, ominous clouds of a much stronger storm rolled in, and she increased her pace to hurry home. The storm broke before she reached safety and the bad guys following her caught up. As the subsequent scenes played out, the heavy rains remained as a constant, adding to the dark mood of the plot. The rain and later raging storm served to foreshadow the confrontation with the villains.

More than anything, weather can help set the mood of a story. The website Literary Devices defines mood “as a literary element that evokes certain feelings or vibes in readers through words and descriptions.” Mood is attained through setting, theme, word choice, and pacing. 

Setting:

Weather is a component of setting. Its impact is in the extremes of weather—blizzards, tornadoes, monsoons, heat waves—which have a wide-sweeping effect. Remember that even a calm, balmy evening can be integral to your story, but when the weather becomes too commonplace, better to keep the topic in the background as it is in real life.

Theme:

Theme is the message that you want to convey to your readers. The theme can be love, good vs. evil, overcoming odds, survival, heroism, or other emotional experiences. Weather can affect the mood of your theme. The pain of unrequited or lost love could be represented by thunder, lightning, high wind, or rain. Joy could be represented by a sunny, warm day with a gentle breeze.

Word Choice:

The selection of the proper word to use is crucial when writing and when setting a mood. When writing weather, referring to sunlight as bright or brilliant or blinding can convey different meanings.  Referring to the air as hot and dry provides a different environment than calling the air hot and humid. Be cognizant of the impact of the words you use on your reader. One word can make a huge difference in your message.

Pace:

Weather can augment the pacing of your story. Remember that alternating action with quieter narrative is essential. By providing “rest” sections in your story, the reader has a moment to take a breath before you ramp up the action again. Calm weather, even a soft rain or a cool breeze is restful. A powerful storm, an impending tornado, or the occurrence and aftermath of any significant weather event steps up the pace and suspense in your story.

A lesson learned is that all writing tips are not set in stone. There are exceptions to any opinion regardless of the experienced writers’ dictates. Use common sense and know when it is appropriate to follow your instincts. Break the “rule” when necessary but make sure it is for a reason and that it moves your story forward. Begin your story the way it needs to be begun.

Remember, opening with the weather is just fine. After all, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

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Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and a love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,600 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/writers-in-the-storm

http://j-nelson.net/2015/03/never-open-a-book-with-weather/

https://www.shmoop.com/quotes/it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night.html

https://literarydevices.net/mood/

 

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Go With the Flow. How to Keep Your Reader Interested.

 

My job as an author is to tell the story in the best way possible, to make it flow seamlessly and get the reader to keep turning the page. — Patrick Carman
Let’s face it. We write for many reasons, among them because we want someone to read our words, to listen to our story. The last thing we want is for them to throw the book down after the first chapter and walk away muttering they will never buy that author’s book again.

How do we keep them from being disappointed? We write a story so good that they cannot put the book down. Creating that story is not difficult if you pay attention to story structure components as you write.

When structuring a story, character development is imperative. You must create a main character that the reader identifies with and cheers for as the story unfolds. Reveal their goal early and make it your reader’s goal as well. Building your world, whether it is a planet in a far-off galaxy, a fantasy kingdom, or a small town in the Midwest is also a very important component. You need to provide your reader with an environment that catches their imagination and makes them feel present in your world as they read.

Your story needs to be coherent and plausible regardless of genre. You can be as imaginative as you want, but even in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, your magic and technology must be conceivable.

Grammar and sentence structure should be correct. You can take liberties with dialogue but not with narrative. The narrative should be without grammatical errors which cause the reader to break their immersion in the story.

It is flow, created by how you assemble these skills, which takes your story from ordinary to one your reader cannot put down.

 

Flow

The concept of flow in a novel has an elusive definition. It borders on the adage that you will know it when you ‘read’ it. Flow is a combination of several factors that create a cohesive story. The question is how to achieve flow. There are a few critical things that you should do.

 

The Hook:

You must connect with your reader. If you do not, they will never become engaged in your story. First, your opening sentence/paragraph, known as a hook, should set the mood and grab the reader’s attention. The following paragraphs, few pages, or even the first chapter can set the tone and interest of your novel.

There are a few do’s to creating a hook:

  • Place your character in a unique situation.
  • Create an interesting image, often of the locale your story is set in.
  • Start at a crucial point in your story.
  • Create mystery, allow your reader to wonder the why or where or what of your story.
  • Highlight an unusual character.

 

Do not do these things:

  • Be overly descriptive.
  • Start with useless information.
  • Start with dialogue. No one knows anything about your character yet.
  • Include a lot of characters in your opening.

 

The last “don’t” is quite telling. We discussed earlier that your reader must develop a relationship with your main character. They need to identify, sympathize or empathize, and root for the main character to achieve their goal. The opening of your story is where you create that bond. If you attempt to introduce too many characters too soon, your reader may bond with someone you will not be focusing on. The connection between the main character and the reader must be strong.

 

Make It Clear:

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences. ~Somerset Maugham

Coherency is required. Well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and carefully chosen words present a clear message and allow comprehension. If your reader does not understand the story, they will not continue to read. Think of it as if you were giving someone directions. You should not say, “Go two miles and turn left,” nor should you describe all the businesses, houses, and landmarks on the way. The former is too little information, the latter too much. Choose the precise words to convey meaning. Extraneous words lead to confusion.

There must also be continuity. If you state your character is a redhead and four chapters later declare her a brunette, your reader will notice, and the flow will be broken. Maintain the information you present about your characters, locale, notable events, and the timeline. They must remain consistent. If they do not, someone who has become engrossed in the story will disconnect at the mistake.

 

Transition:

Sentence to sentence, or chapter to chapter, how you connect your thoughts affects the flow of your story. A transition can be carried out in many ways: a single word, a phrase, or a paragraph, bridging one thought to another, including emotion, time, location, or characters. A ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of a chapter is an excellent transition and follows the intent of the transitional paragraph to propel your reader forward and connect two segments of your story.

Choose your words carefully as you write the transitional sequence. Don’t embellish, but instead, provide concise meaning so that your reader reacts the way you intend.

 

Sentence Structure:

Think of a beautiful piece of music and how it varies in tempo and volume. Slow or soft to create a relaxed or somber mood; fast, building to a crescendo, to denote excitement, action, or power. The structure of a novel mimics the patterns we recognize in music. Notes or words matter and how the reader or listener responds reveals how successful we are in conveying our intended meaning.

How to accomplish flow with sentence structure:

  • Vary sentence type. Mix simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences
  • Be cognizant of word order. Do not start several sentences with the same subject. Mix up nouns, gerunds, prepositions, or clauses. A lack of variety can be both distracting and irritating to the reader.
  • Incorporate sentences of varying lengths. Sentences that are too long will often bore a reader, and a bored reader will quickly lose interest. Sentences that are too short will quicken the pace of the story and leave your reader breathless.

 

 Pacing the Action

 Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write because you need to make constant decisions. — Jean Hanff Korelitz

 

Without a doubt, following these suggestions will improve the flow. The pacing of your story, how quickly it unfolds, also helps with story structure.

With the skills discussed so far, you can achieve the action needed to move your story along and the quiet times to give your readers a rest from the action. These periods should alternate while propelling your reader to continue reading.

In your first chapter, you have ‘hooked’ your reader with an opening that intrigues them. You should also introduce them to the main characters, as well as the plot and your main character’s goal.

Throughout your story, you will provide plot points to move the action forward. By recognizing how to place your minor and major action, you can maintain a smooth flow. Think of it as waxing and waning as the story builds to the final climax.

When writing a novel-length story, writers, at times, find themselves with issues when writing the middle, referred to as the ‘saggy’ middle. It is easy to lose your way to the ending unless, even if you write with an outline, you have a mid-action sequence in mind to keep the reader involved.

Many writers start a project with the beginning and ending in mind. Add what you want to happen in the middle of that formula. You will find that the story will move forward with ease using the tools suggested and pace the action to keep a smooth flow.

 

Keeping the Flow

Writing, despite misconceptions by some, is not an easy task. To create a story that a reader enjoys from the opening words until the closing sentence requires hard work and concentration. There are no shortcuts. A writer must consider each word as important or not, use correct grammar and structure, and ponder every action and every repose before declaring a story finished.

As stated, flow is an elusive task but one that must be conquered so the reader can simply go with the flow.

by D. A. Ratliff

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Resources:

https://writeitsideways.com/6-ways-to-hook-your-readers-from-the-very-first-line/

https://literarydevices.net/transition/

http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/transitional-words.html

https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/pacing

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-do-Writers-Write-Quotes-from-Famous-Writers-on-Writing