I have been ailing for the last few weeks with bronchitis and been unable to sustain for any meaningful length of time an upright writing position. Fortunately I feel I have begun to turn a corner (or at least outsmarted my symptoms) just as a topic popped into my head for an article. On twitter I follow a handle by the name of AdviceToWriters, which daily throws up advice about writing from famous and sometimes infamous writers. I cannot recall what the prompt was that got me thinking, but I’ve spent a lot of my time in bed considering what I consider to be my most important writing tools. Now it wasn’t an exhaustive vocabulary or an eye for detail that occurred to me, it was in fact the writers ability to pace his story and the use of the ‘cliff-hanger’. I’m going to look at both of them in turn.
Now pace for me, is the oil that keeps the story’s engine humming. I have seen a lot of tweets bemoaning the decline of print books because of how spacing, and font and layout of stories could have such an impact on readers but which in the days of the ebook are readily changed by the reader to maximise their experience and not necessarily the one the writer intended. Narrative pace, contained within the actual words that are read and dictated by the appropriate use (or abuse) of the rules of grammar and story structure need not be affected by this. When I write I envision a scene in my head, it could be relaxed, tense, jovial or violent and I express this not by changing my font to IMPACT when a window is smashed, but by controlling the rhythm of peoples reading. Books have a life force, and its character is derived from the pacing as much as the meaning of the words within.
Now cliff-hanger is a much abused word, and perhaps deserves to be more appropriately modelled as a ‘hook’ as cliff-hanger suggests some tumultuous ending with lives imperilled. When in truth the ‘hook’ can come at the end of chapters, at the end of a book, or within chapters where a change of focus is about to take place – leaving the reader wanting to keep turning those pages to pickup with what’s happening to Little Jimmy since falling down the well. Hooks need not be life imperilling situations or epic showdowns. In my recently published short story The Lazarus Experiment, I use variously a betrayal, an internal monologue and yes okay a violent conclusion as hooks. I complete the story my readers are following but end in such a way that I hope their imaginations are hooked onto a host of what if possibilities. Stories should be just the beginning, or just a part of peoples creative and imaginative processes. Hooks certainly come in under the topic of pacing because they influence how someone approaches what comes next. They offer natural breaks for the reader, that may last so long as a drink of coffee before caffeine fuelled they plunge back in to find out what happens next. They offer a chance for people to stop and reflect on what’s been happening and wonder what will happen next. When I read a book I don’t just flick monotonously from page 1 to page 600 and then forget it. I was constantly reflecting and checking up on plot points in Robert Goddards Past Caring.
In real life we don’t get breaks. We can’t stop in the middle of a crisis and opt to reflect on whats happened with a coffee. You can with books. When writing your stories pay close attention to your pacing and use the hooks – wherever they may lay – appropriately to enrich the readers experience.