Monday, June 24, 2013


Reading can teach you a lot about writing. It teaches you not only what is good writing but it shows why it works in the over all story. Reading can also teach a lot about wrong techniques, no matter how pretty the words and phrases, and what it does to a story.

Why do I mention this?

As writers we hear a great deal about pacing, character POV, info dumps, exposition, and building and sustaining tension. Our critique partners have probably harped on some of those very things in our writing, or content editors have given us pages of edits that address those issues.

Recently I downloaded a story that had a good premise and an interesting take on the shifter world. I was looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to its promise. If I were officially reviewing the book I would have given it maybe 3 stars.

This particular story really did have a lot of potential of being a solid series. The world had an original twist, the characters were, for the most part, well thought out with a distinct voice, and I could see their goals, motivation, and conflict. The plot bones were good.

The problem? 

The plot got lost in words. The author could have seriously lost 40% of her word count and had a better and tighter story. The pacing and tension tripped over action stopping scenes that didn't move the story forward but stalled it. Instead of telling the story from the POV of the main characters and bits from the villain, she pulled in five or six more characters and three more villains like characters. It made me dizzy. The tension waxed and waned. I mean pages and pages that had nothing to do with moving the story forward or upping the tension. Or telling me anything I needed to know.

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Tension in a story is like a rafting down a rogue river. The journey starts in relatively tranquil waters but you can feel the pull of the current. Unseen inland rainstorms can suddenly increase the water’s texture and speed. The river narrows, rocks and boulders start to appear, there are tricky eddies with dips and sudden drops in the water surface. Your senses are engaged because you see, feel, and hear the changes in the river. It’s moving faster, the ride is rougher, you have seconds to push off from rocks or capsize. You
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see more twists and turns in the river, more white water, and the river’s roar is deafening. The current is incredibly strong and you have to fight to stay in the safe zone. You whip around a treacherous curve in the river and holy crap a waterfall! You have minutes to fight against the current to get to shore. One of the rafts capsize and a mad scramble to rescue the strays. Your heart pounding because one wrong move and someone dies or is swept over the falls.

Afterward, you’re laying on the shore trying to catch your breath and noticing all the scrapes and abrasions and laughing over the close calls. Wind down chat—did you see? Man that last turn…and I lost my oar…I hit that rock and almost went head first in the water… And despite it all the feeling is wow! Oh my god that was so much fun and worth every scrape. That’s what we want our readers to feel. The tension pulling them forward, turning the pages to reach the climax and then satisfaction at the end. If we’re lucky, they will be thinking about events of the story long after ‘the end’.

What we don’t want is the reader feeling ticked off and thinking, ever heard of a content editor?What a waste of my time! 


Jill Lynn said...

Great post, Sia!

Jo said...

You are so right Sia.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Perfect analogy.
I try to keep my words to the bare minimum.

Kat Sheridan said...

You're so right. And that pause/wind down stuff is important as well. Give the reader a moment to catch their breath before they are suddenly cronfronted with the bear running out of the woods and race off to the next action!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Alex--nothing wrong with words so long as they're moving the story forward and not dead weight. The thing was, she's a good writer and this story had all the elements of a great story.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Thanks, Jill. I'll tell you, this story reminded me of some Wombat discussions. :-)

Jo--this was a promotional read. What ticked me off the most was the story had some great elements but I got so irritated with being brought up to a point and dropped into a flood of unnecessary words when all I wanted was to see how it ended.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Kat--Amen. The tension needs to tighten as the story progress and pauses and a switch to another aspect of the story is fine so long as it continues the build up. All the pieces and subplots have to come together in the pull to the climax.

Good tension and pacing is something that every story has to have, regardless of the genre. It the reason we turn the pages to see what happens next.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Sia,

Well I guess I am one of those guilty parties. I love description and beautiful prose. I enjoy SETTING SCENES with so much atmosphere that the reader is PLUNGED into the world I have created.

This WAS a former flaw... I have learned to put just enough in to create the atmosphere while economizing my words.

Balance is the key. I know "fast paced" is in and pushing the story along at a 100 miles an hour is what's expected.... HOWEVER .... What is wrong with taking a Sunday afternoon ride through glorious nature to hear the birds sing. A reader needs down time too.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Michael, I've enjoyed many stories that are lush and a feast to the senses. I want to hear the birds sing too.

As you say, balance. Enough words to create the atmosphere of the world and what the character is seeing or feeling. That takes skill and time to develop.

I'm not saying that every story has to be a rush to the climax--it doesn't and it shouldn't be. But the tension and pacing have to consistently pull your reader forward.

When I said pages of writing that had nothing to do with moving the story forward, this wasn't layering in description. It was high volume backstory and info dumps that detracted and stalled the story rather than enriching it.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Sia. When the writer has too many subsidiary characters, it gets harder for the reader to follow. A good editor will point out chances to consolidate or delete characters and focus the narrative on the main story line. Side plots are good, but mustn't derail the reader.

~Sia McKye~ said...

James, oh, how true and well said. A good editor is worth their weight in gold.

Like I said, reading teaches a writer a lot and that's true whether you're reading a story or critiquing one. It brings home lessons to apply in our own writing because we can see how both good and bad affects the overall story and much better than just hearing the writing term.

L.G. Smith said...

I just had this come up in a couple of beta reads I did for people. You can feel when the momentum stops. It's like you've hit an eddie in the story where you just sit and spin instead of moving forward. Sometimes people think they are adding character background or a nice emotive moment, but usually it backfires if the reader feels like the story has stalled.

Mark Koopmans said...

Trying to keep this as short as possible - but well said.

Verbal diarrhea *is* absolutely one of my weaknesses, sigh...

PS... I stayed with Oma for three months until a much-younger uncle took pity on his Mama and took me in :)

Donna Volkenannt said...

You've given me lots to think about in this post. The analogy of the rapid water is apt.

And I enjoy your music selections.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That is a wonderful way to describe the reading process. Leave the reader breathless.

Stephen Tremp said...

My editor is constantly telling me to do.this and keep the words.tight. This is especially important for action stories.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great! I started out writing short stories and articles to word count. And I still write flash fiction from time to time. Flash is a great exercise for cutting the fat. But the best cure is an awesome editor :)

nutschell said...

I agree. You can learn a lot by analyzing other writers techniques--one of the reasons I love reading (aside from the fact that I just enjoy reading).