In the last post, we talked about the first two elements we must revise during the structural edit–plot and setting, and characters. Today, we’ll wrap up the last three.
- Flow and pace
- Conflict and resolution
- Voice and style
Let’s get right to it.
Flow and Pace
I’ve grouped these two elements together, because most of the things that will influence the story’s flow will also influence the pace.
We all know what pace is–the speed at which the story is told–and we all know it can be bad if the entire story is told either too fast or too slow.
But what is flow anyway? Well, like a river, the writing should flow from point a to point b. What does that mean? The writing should be easy to follow, and the reader should be drawn in and want to keep reading.
We want to hurl roadblocks and obstacles at our characters, sure, but never at our readers.
So, when revising flow, we have to look out for anything that might cause the reader to lose interest, cause confusion, or anything that might become jarring as the reader progresses. And guess what–we’ll search for the same things concerning pace.
Things that might hinder the story’s flow and pace:
Ah, the dreaded info dump. We all know we’re supposed to avoid this, but the question is how?
Also, so many books that went big have massive info dumps (I’m looking at you, Ready Player One). If they can get away with it, so can I. Right?
Well, you could. The problem is, you’ll lose readers along the way. Sure, it’s impossible for everyone who reads a book to love it–we’re all just too different for that–but don’t we at least want to try to make our books enjoyable for our readers?
Whenever we have to read looong info dumps, our eyes gloss over a bit. Not only do they slow down the pace, but they hinder the flow.
Here’s a fact. Many readers don’t read info dumps at all. Early on in the story, they don’t yet know the world and characters well enough to care about the inner workings, while later on, they know enough to have drawn their own conclusions.
When the story features many, long info dumps, some readers jump forward until they see quotation marks, and read on from there. By putting in pages of information, we’re forcing our readers to leave out chunks of the story that might as well not have been included in the first place.
So, what to do with our info dumps? The best way to revise info dumps is to extract the information necessary to make a scene work, and deliver that in small fragments here and there. Later, if we need to elaborate on a subject, we throw in a few more fragments.
See it as adding salt to your plate. You don’t put one great heap of it in the middle of the dish, you sprinkle it here and there, and add more as needed.
Now, sometimes, we want to slow the pace. Maybe we have a small info dump in our books to do just that. But keep them short. A sentence of information sprinkled here and there will go the distance.
We all repeat words and phrases. It’s human. But the thing about repeated words and phrases is that it becomes jarring.
The minute a reader thinks along the lines of, ‘hey, I’ve read this before,’ they’ve been pulled from the story. Most readers will have a subconscious reaction where they’ll actively look for more instances of the repetition. That’s human too.
Point is, few readers can be pulled back into the story if something in the story pushes them away.
One of my favourite authors used an incredible metaphor to show the hurt in someone’s eyes. It was great. I realised again how great it was the second time she used the same metaphor. By the third time, I was keeping tally. Throughout three books, this same metaphor featured a total of 8 times. Instead of being the powerful metaphor that showed me exactly what was going on in the character’s expression, it pulled me from the story. I still enjoyed the book, but it would’ve been so much more amazing sans the repetitions.
But repetitions can concern more than just pet words and phrases. Maybe we show the emotions our characters are experiencing by always having them look at or look away from someone. Maybe we use the same words to describe the room from different POV’s. Maybe we repeat information already given in info dumps. I’ve been guilty of all three of these things.
Repetition can be a great tool to emphasise, but only if used sparingly. If we always grab for flowery metaphors, for example, the reader will become so used to it that they miss the one time we really wanted that metaphor to kick. If we save those punch-packing moments, they’ll hit home when they need to.
Lastly, you wouldn’t think it, but repeated sounds in words can also become jarring. Let’s say, after using simple past for the last five chapters, we write the next chapter entirely in the continuous tense. The constant repetition of -ing, -ing, -ing starts to sound like a lullaby and the reader loses interest.
Nine out of ten times, if one of my beta readers points out a scene they found boring and there is no info dump, it’s because I used words repeating the -ing sound. This also applies to scenes with too many made-up words, or technical jargon.
She blinks her eyes. They stood up. Her heart sped in her chest. Any one individual could do that. They were surrounded on all sides.
Each sentence above features a redundancy. What else would she blink but her eyes? The only way to stand is up, since it’s an upward motion. Hearts are always found in chests, except when they’re being transplanted or medically studied. One and individual come down to the same thing. And when we’re surrounded, it’s usually on all sides.
Redundancies slow the pace and break the flow because they tend to be overly wordy. We want to use as few as possible words to convey our message, especially since many editors charge per word. Remove words and save money. 🙂
Other redundancies include:
- Sitting/dropping/hunching down (because these are downward motions. Also, swaying side to side, standing/jumping up, nodding up and down, etc.)
- As an extension of the point above, nodding heads (because what else would we nod? Also, pouting/smiling lips, grabbing hands, etc.)
- Small/large in size (because small and large already tell us what the size is. Also, round or square in shape, fast/slow in speed, etc.)
- “Yes,” she agreed (because ‘yes’ already tells us she’s agreeing. Also, “No,” he denied, “Why?” she questioned, etc.)
- Whispered quietly (because a whisper is always quiet. Also, running quickly, shouting loudly, considering thoughtfully, etc.)
- And also (because both mean the same thing–I’m guilty of this one. Also, follow after, same exact, polar opposites, etc.)
And the list goes on.
I do want to note here that people tend to use redundancies in speech all the time, so it’ll lend our characters believability if they do too. Also, if we write in a conversational first POV, allowing the odd redundancy to slip into the narrative could make our characters seem more human.
The keywords here are sparingly and purposefully.
This is one of the more obvious elements that can alter pace and flow. If we break scenes or shift to new chapters often, we increase the story’s pace, while we can slow things a bit by allowing for longer scenes and chapters.
Beware, though. Too many breaks are choppy, and will read jarringly. Imagine a poorly edited montage of short clips–it’s no fun to watch when the visual changes before we get a moment to understand what we’re seeing.
Too few breaks can drag out the story. Experience talking here, but the reader doesn’t need to see the MC getting out of bed, brushing their hair and teeth, getting dressed, etc. Many of us feel the need to waffle on instead of saving time (and words) and placing a break.
Other things that influence pace and flow
- Too much/too little action/dialogue/description.
- Word choice.
- Sentence structure and paragraph lengths.
Conflict and Resolution
If we read through the story and it’s boring, it might be that the stakes are too low. Or maybe the protagonist grew continually stronger, but the antagonist stayed the same, and the final face-off had no oomph.
What we need is conflict.
Many of us read the word conflict and immediately think ‘fight’ but that’s not necessarily the case.
Conflict is anything that stands in the way of our protagonist reaching their goal. Anything. If Mary wants to be a fashion designer but is colour blind, we have conflict. We also find conflict if Michael is in love with Jade but she’s in love with Amy, or if Ryan wants to be an athlete but has a heart condition.
The best stories have the highest stakes. If we’re editing our manuscripts and find ourselves yawning, all we need to do is up the conflict.
A good rule of thumb is that every chapter should have at least a bit of conflict, which means issues will continuously arise and be resolved throughout the story. It also means each time a problem is solved, another shouldn’t be too far off.
At the end of each chapter, ask yourself if the conflict was resolved. When you have a yes or no answer, up the conflict by adding ‘and’ or ‘but’.
Was the conflict resolved?
- ‘Yes, and,’ typically means our character no longer has a problem and gained something. For example, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king.
- ‘Yes, but,’ typically means our character no longer has a problem, but all is not as it should be. For example, the ring is destroyed, but Frodo lost a finger.
- ‘No, but,’ typically means the conflict hasn’t been resolved, but our protagonist has gained something. Harry is unable to save Snape, but learns in Snape’s final moments that he was acting as a double agent, helping them all along, and Harry also learns how to defeat Voldemort.
- ‘No, and,’ is typically the worst of situations, because the problem remains unsolved and a new problem has been added to the mix. For example, President Snow is still in control, while Katniss is back in the hunger games arena with friends and previous winners of the games.
Let’s talk about chance for a moment. The inciting incident of many stories will be a coincidence. For example, in A Study of Ash & Smoke, Lance and Puck find a random corpse inside the Mantle, and this corpse happens to deliver a deadly plague to their closed-off world.
Prim being chosen for the Hunger Games is a chance event too, as is Tris being divergent, and Alina being near an amplifier to help her powers manifest when she most needs it.
What happens after the inciting event can’t be coincidental. If our characters find the answers they’re looking for by chance, or gain all their new allies by chance, it’ll read like a divine writerly hand is just passing them all they need. Where’s the fun in that?
IMO, chance is a conflict killer, and needs to be used frugally.
Voice and Style
I touched on character voice in the last post on structural editing, and many of the points raised there apply here, but on a personal level.
You see, the writer’s voice and writing style are just as unique as the character’s voice.
This part of the editing process comes down to the way the writer tells the story. Most editors have been trained to see the individuality of voice and style, and will always strive to edit a manuscript in such a way to preserve the individuality of the author.
So, your job while self-editing will be the same.
Look out for:
- Inconsistencies. If we make up a word, we have to spell it the same way throughout. If we use UK spelling instead of US, we have to use it consistently. Same with scene breaks, internal monologue, etc.
- The use of setting and props. If we draw the reader’s attention to something, there must be a reason. For example, the first time I describe Cara’s bedroom in ASOSAAS, I use the colours and simplicity of the room to tell the reader something about Cara. She’s anxious, wants to be invisible, and has been hiding her entire life so doesn’t own much.
- Language. Repeated words and pet phrases. Overuse of metaphors, modifiers, weak verbs, passive voice. Sentences that are too long, a cluster of same-length sentences, or too many sentences that are short. Maybe too many of our sentences start with pronouns, or any other grammatical gremlins we can find.
- Too much or too little description, action, or dialogue (just like pace and flow).
Phew, what a long pair of posts this has been! Thanks for sticking by me. 🙂 When we return to this miniseries on self-editing, we’ll talk about common mistakes in our manuscripts.
Until next time.