Friday, September 19, 2014

Conference Insights: Questions Drive Pacing

This just in from the Writer's Digest Conference East in New York this past August, in a session about how to write a page turner.

Presenter Paula Munier, senior literary agent and content strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services, contended that the best story is a long question-and-answer (Q&A) session, a dialogue between the author and the reader.

Let's break that down. What does that look like? What does it mean that questions drive the pacing of your novel?


Pacing in a novel is how quickly the story line moves forward. If your pacing is too slow, readers get bored and throw the book at the wall (or, if they're less mercurial than I am, just put it back on the shelf). Pacing has to be fast to keep readers engaged.

To maintain pacing, do one of two things. First, make things happen. Something must always be happening in your novel --- one something after another after another after another, from the very first line all the way to the conclusion.

The things that happen need to pertain to the overall story goal. If the story goal is, as in the Disney movie Frozen, for Anna and Kristoff to find Elsa and reverse the winter curse on the kingdom, then a scene in which Anna and Kristoff climb pine trees along the trail just for the heck of it doesn't move the story forward. That scene won't contribute to pacing in a good way --- it would slow down the overall story goal and risk boring the reader.

Second, to maintain pacing, lead your reader through the novel with questions, like a Q&A dialogue, a back-and-forth exchange all the way along that keeps the reader interested enough to keep turning pages.

Like this.

Stage a Q&A Session

From the first line, a novel needs to spark questions.

Here's the opening line from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (yes, even classic literary novels need pacing to keep the reader interested; it's not just something that thrillers and adventure stories need):

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Immediately, the reader starts asking (or thinking) questions:

> Who actually believes that truth?
> What single man are we talking about?
> Are being single and possessing a "good fortune" the only two characteristics a man has to have in order to look for a wife?
> What constitutes a "good" fortune?
> Why must a rich single man want a wife?
> What kind of a wife would that kind of a man look for?
> Is this story going to be about the single man looking for a wife, or the prospective wife?

And so on.

The reader keeps reading to find the answers to his or her questions in the text. As the author, it's your job to lead the reader through with questions, and then satisfy reader curiosity by answering each question at the right time in the story line; spilling all the answers at once is called an information dump, and readers will hate you for it, but answers trickled out slowly, one by one, even as other questions arise and remain unanswered, will keep the reader turning pages.

Answering Story Questions

If there aren't any questions about what's happening in the story, the reader won't be interested enough to keep reading. Check the two examples below:

Example 1: "Gina sat at the dining room table, glancing from the front window to the microwave clock and back to the window. Her hands trembled, and her tongue was dry enough to sand wood."

Example 2: "Gina Stewart, wife and homemaker of seven years to her husband Matt, sat at the dining room table waiting for Matt to get back from work so she could give him the bad news about his sister Suzanne dying this morning. Gina looked from the window, which he'd pass by on his way to the front door, to the microwave clock because he was running late and he never ran late. Her hands trembled with nervousness. Her mouth was dry because she couldn't even bring herself to get up from the dining room table to pour a glass of water."

Granting that neither example is a spectacular sample of fine literature, which excerpt would you prefer to keep reading?

Example 1 leaves you with questions. Who is Gina? Why is she looking from the front window to the clock and back? Is she waiting for something? Or someone? Or a specific time? Or a phone call? Or a visit? Why are her hands trembling? Fear or anticipation? Anxiety or barely contained excitement? Why is her mouth so dry? Worry or a medical condition?

Example 2, on the other hand, gives you all the information. You don't have to ask any questions. You know who Gina is, who she's married to, how long they've been married, what Gina does for a living, why she's sitting at the table, what she has to tell her husband, and how she feels about it. There isn't much room for tension or interest to be sparked when the reader already knows everything.

Food for Thought

Do you have enough questions in your manuscript to keep your reader turning pages? Does your very first line introduce at least one (preferably more) question to make your reader turn the page? Does every scene leave the reader asking questions and turning to the next one? If you answer one story question, do you introduce two or three more to keep your reader guessing all the way through?

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