Sunday, March 22

Day Twenty-Two: Sharpen the Hooks and Tighten the Pacing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-Two of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Up until now, we’ve been adding and tweaking our stories, focusing more on getting the missing information in, and cutting the unnecessary information out. Odds are we’ve gotten some scenes a little messy, but the overall novel is working from a plot, character, and scene to scene standpoint. Now is the time to tighten things back up.

Now that our characters sound good inside and out, let’s pull back and focus on the little things that keep readers reading.

Today, we’ll take a look at our hooks and how the novel’s pacing works.

With luck, the typical things that negatively affect a novel’s pace have been dealt with in the previous sessions, but since pacing is a critical element to keeping readers engaged, it deserves a session all of its own.

1. Examine the Pacing

Pacing is all about the speed in which information is conveyed to readers. There’s no one “ideal” pacing, it varies by novel and genre to achieve the best impact for readers. Grab your editorial map and look at the pacing as a whole:
  • What’s the common pace for your genre? Is your pace consistent with that genre?
  • Does the pace speed up during major plot moments? 
  • Are there waves of fast and slow pacing throughout the novel? 
  • Is the pace quick enough to keep readers reading? 
  • Are there any spots that feel too fast where readers might have trouble absorbing the information? 
  • Are there any slow spots that might lose readers? 
  • Are there any spots that encourage readers to skim? 

Make notes of any issues, then start tackling them one by one.

Pacing problems generally come in three flavors: too slow, too fast, and inconsistent. Let's take a look at all three.

2. Revise Pacing That’s Too Slow

While any number of things can contribute to a slow pace, too much of “something” is usually the culprit. Long sentences, heavy exposition, speeches. Things readers have to slog through to get to the actual story.

When it’s Too Wordy

The more unnecessary words you add, the slower the pace will be. The usual suspects here:

Description: Look for long descriptive passages, especially if the scene is supposed to be fast-paced or have a lot of action. Trim it back or spread it out to help pick up the pace.

Empty dialog: Look for lines that add nothing to the story, like greetings and good-byes, single questions that are there solely to keep someone talking. “You won’t believe what Bob said.” “What? Tell me!” “He said…” - “What? Tell me?” can easily go.

Internalization: Look for spots where you kinda forget what the last line of dialog was or what the next speaker is responding to. If the dialog and responses are supposed to sound snappy and come right after each other, don’t put a lot of internalization (or anything else) between them.

Stage direction: Skip the obvious stuff or the things that don’t add anything to the scene. Be especially wary of places where a character speaks, moves, speaks, moves, speaks all in the same paragraph.

When it’s Too “Boring”

Look for scenes you know could be better, but aren’t sure how to get there. They drag, but they’re well-written and you kinda like them. Offenders here:

Missing or weak goals: Most times, if a well-written scene drags there’s a goal issue. The protagonist isn’t being proactive, she doesn’t want anything, and we’re just watching her go about her day in some fashion. Try adding or strengthening (or just stating) the goal to drive the scene and make the protagonist actively trying to accomplish something.

Missing or weak stakes: Next biggest offender here is a lack of stakes. The protagonist is acting, she has a goal, but readers just don’t care if she achieves it or not. Try making the consequences of the goal matter more on a personal level. Give readers something to worry about as the scene unfolds.

Missing or weak character: Sometimes a character isn’t “in” the scene even when she is. Readers feel detached, like they’re watching from a distance rather than experiencing things with the character. This usually happens when there’s little internalization or personal input from the POV character. We see her act, but don’t really know why or why it matters so we can’t connect to her.

When it’s Too Long

Sometimes structure is the issue, and how we break up our novel affects how it reads. Problem areas:

Bad chapter enders: Chapters typically end with something unresolved or left hanging. If the chapter just stops with nothing to entice readers to read on, the novel doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Try breaking slow scenes where something is left unresolved, or places where readers will want to know what happens next.

Not enough scene breaks: A lack of scene breaks can indicate that there might be a lot of unnecessary transition description bogging the story down (traveling to get somewhere, filler between scenes that change location). Look for transition summaries between things happening. Chances are you can cut those and just break the scene.

3. Revise Pacing That’s Too Fast

Dialog is fast-paced, as is action, but if we skimp on the rest of what makes a story interesting, we end up with a breathless ride that goes by too quickly for readers to enjoy.

When it’s Too Much

A too-fast pace often comes with a lot of action thrown at the reader. So much is going on it’s hard to absorb it all as it goes by. You might check on:

Complicated complications: Having things go wrong is good, but if every little thing that can go wrong does go wrong, they all start merging together. Do you really need all those problems? Can any be combined or eliminated? Try breaking down the steps of your scenes and see how many things the protagonist has to do (and overcome) to reach the end. If the number looks high, or the obstacles are just delaying tactics with no consequence, try trimming a few out.

No breathers: If the protagonist never gets a chance to catch her breath, readers won’t either. Look for places where you can let the protagonist pause and reflect on what’s happened to her. These include: right after a problem is discovered, when one is resolved, when she learns something new, etc. Reflection gives you a chance to remind readers why all this matters.

Large crowds:
A sudden influx of characters (and the names that comes with them) can trigger “you can skim over this part” to readers. It’s clear they’re not supposed to remember all those people, so the scene takes on less importance and flies by. Try naming only those who need to be remembered and limiting the number of people in the scene.

When it’s Too Shallow

An all-action plot might be missing the emotional depth that brings its characters to life and really fleshes out the world they live in. Try looking at:

Flat characters: You know those action movies where you can’t remember the hero’s name? Skimping on characterization is the book equivalent. Give readers the time they need to get to know the characters and care about what happens to them. Offering glimpses into their personality is great ways to slow down when things are going full tilt.

White rooms: A lack of setting makes everything feel like it’s happening in a blank room. Are you describing the setting enough? Are there enough details for readers to put everything in context? Setting can also be used to raise tension and heighten conflict, and a little goes a long way to slowing a too-fast pace.

Weak motivations:
Is the protagonist going through the motions and acting out plot for the sake of plot? If she’s just a body there for things to happen to, the action has no point and becomes background noise. Try showing why you chose this protagonist to handle these problems. Let readers get to know her so they understand why she’s going through all this trouble. Adding moments of internalization or discussion help transition from scene to scene at a more manageable pace.

When it’s Too Short

Short sentences, shorts chapters, short scenes. They all pick up the pace, but when used too much, it can be overwhelming.

Choppy sentences: Short sentences are fast. We read them quickly, and the staccato nature adds to the tension of the scene, but there comes a point when it reads like a strobe light, showing freeze-frame images in a row, not a story unfolding. Trying mixing it up, adding longer sentences as well as the short quick ones. Use the length of the sentences to raise and lower the pacing where you need it.

Scenes for chapters: There is no average size for a chapter, but too many short ones in a row can start to feel choppy. It’s the nature of chapters, since they usually end on that “oh no!” moment of some type, but a cliffhanger every few pages never allows for the tension to build. Look at where combining small chapters would provide a better (and slower) narrative flow. Perhaps turn the small chapters into individual scenes and ease up a little on the enders for a slower transition.

Talking heads: Dialog is also fast paced, but a lot of it without any exposition makes it hard for readers to keep up. Check on large sections of dialog and make sure you have some narrative breaks in there to remind readers who’s speaking, and provide context for what’s happening.

4. Examine the Hooks and Discoveries

Keeping readers hooked is about making them want answers to their story questions. What happens next? What else will these characters do? How will they get out of this? What's the deal with X? Why is Y doing that? Learning new things keeps readers interested and wanting to know more. Break out your editorial map and mystery arc:

List or highlight the big reveals and discoveries and what chapter they happen in: How many do you have? Are they evenly spread across the entire novel or all they all clumped at the beginning or the end?

Revision red flag: Too many reveals at the start of the book could indicate too much backstory or exposition. Heavy reveals at the end could indicate a lack of discovery during the story, or that you’re “holding out” on readers and not giving them enough reveals to keep them interested.

How many are plot related? This is a good indicator of your pacing, as things are (or are not) happening to move the story along. Few plot reveals or discoveries suggests too many similar scenes or a novel that's episodic in nature. 

How many are character related? This is a good indicator of how your character growth arc or internal conflict is moving along. If the character isn't learning/revealing new things about herself, she might not be growing. Few character reveals suggests nothing is changing about that character and she’s not trying or learning new things.

How many are backstory/world building related?
If you have a lot here (or the balance is way off in favor of this), it's a red flag that your protagonist might not be driving the story. The focus is more on telling the history of a place or person, not so much on what the characters are doing. Some backstory reveals are fine since readers will want to know that history if it bears heavily on the plot or a character arc, but if a lot of the reveals or discoveries are “cool” aspects of the world or situation, it could indicate you have a premise novel on your hands.

5. Examine Your Hook Lines

Hook lines are those great one liners that make you want to read on because they do just what the name implies. They hook you. Often these lines read by themselves because you’re trying to emphasize that thought. The importance and poignancy is what makes them hook. If they’re not alone, they’re almost always the last line in a paragraph.

I’ve found that hook lines work well when they’re playing on an emotion. Joy, sadness, hope, fear, regret. Even sarcasm, as that’s often covering for a strong emotion. There’s a hint of something happening in a good hook line, either a goal stated outright, or a subtle sense of danger or failure.

Ways to create good hook lines:

Use humor: Make readers laugh and they’ll stay with you.

Use emotion: Make readers feel something.

Suggest there’s more: That hint of danger or what’s to come. Or maybe a hint that a secret is here somewhere.

Get personal: Hook lines usually aren’t descriptions. A beautifully written line can make readers pause, but they’re typically static, and hook lines are active. Personal connections make them about something, which makes them draw you in and push you on.

Put them at the end: Hooks tend to be the last thing you read. End of a paragraph, all alone on a line. It’s the punch right before a pause, so it stands out even more.

How many hooks should you have per page? There’s no set formula, so trust your instincts. Put in too many and the manuscript starts to feel like a slew of one-liners.

General rule of thumb: I try to have one to three hook lines most pages, unless it’s an action scene where the high stakes themselves are doing the hooking. If you don’t have at least one hook line per page, that could be a red flag that something is off. You might have too much description or backstory, or your protagonist isn’t driving the scene.

If you don’t have a hook line, look for spots where you can add one. Is there a place where your protagonist can think or say something funny? Can you remind readers of the goal or the stakes in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way? Hint at a secret?

Like all “rules,” don’t add a hook like just because there’s not one there. They work because they fit the scene and highlight some aspect of it that re-kindles the reader’s interest in the story. A joke for the sake of a joke probably won’t work. A joke that fits the scene and says something deeper about it, will. Don’t force the hooks, bring out the hooks.

After today's session, our novels should be fairly tight and unfolding at the pace we want. Tomorrow, we go back in and smooth out any rough transitions we might have created. 

Tomorrow: Smooth Any Rough Transitions

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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