Keep Up the Pacing

Today we’ll tread through the topic of pacing in fiction. If you’d like readers to maintain interest in your stories, you might want to step along with me.

PacingThe term ‘pacing’ refers to how fast the reader is reading, and the speed at which the story’s events take place. A good writer not only controls the pace of reading, but also varies that pace throughout the story. Fast-paced scenes are followed by slow-paced ones, and then another fast scene, etc. Jamming too many fast scenes together leaves a reader overwhelmed and lessens each scene’s impact. Slow scenes that are too long or not separated by a fast intermediate scene can bore the reader.

Even within a scene, some pacing should occur. There will be slightly fast moments in a slow scene and slightly slow moments in a fast one. Pacing relates to rhythm, and it’s important to keep varying it.


Use a fast pace for action-packed portions of the story. Examples of emotions felt by characters in these scenes are anger, fear, energy, excitement, joy, and surprise.

Create a fast pace with short sentences and short paragraphs. Keep the writing plain, free of modifiers. Use brief and impactful verbs. There should be more dialogue, and it should be snappy. Some sentence fragments.

In other words, you’re maximizing the “white space.”


A slower pace allows the reader to catch her breath and more fully absorb what happened in the faster scenes. A relaxed tempo serves to emphasize important points, let characters to refresh and recharge after action sequences, reveal character backgrounds and motivations, and permit characters to react and reflect on moments of high drama as well as to plan for future events.

The slow paced sequences allow better expression of these character emotions: anger, fear, astonishment, awe, and disbelief. Yes, anger and fear can belong in both the fast and slow parts.

To slow down the pace, stay with more narrative and less dialogue, make use of longer sentences, and embellish the prose with descriptions. Don’t overdo any of those, however; your aim is to keep the reader interested, not bore him.


As mentioned, my advice is to alternate the fast and slow sections. Also alternate fast and slow paragraphs, and sentences within a paragraph. Such variation avoids monotony and keeps the reader intrigued enough to stay with your story.

This isn’t the only fine blog post about pacing. You can find others here, here, here, and here.  Thanks for striding along with—

Poseidon’s Scribe


When I said I’d blog about choosing details wisely in writing fiction, I meant it; I just didn’t say how soon I’d get around to it!  Writers often have to describe scenes, characters, or objects in their stories.  Which details do they choose to mention, and why?

First let’s examine some of the things writers try to accomplish in their descriptions:

  • First and foremost, create an image in the reader’s mind
  • Convey the mood and theme of the story
  • Show the attitude, personality, and mood of the point-of-view character
  • Foreshadow a later event
  • Illustrate connections to, or separations from, other scenes, characters, or objects in the story

That seems like a lot to accomplish, a lot of baggage to weigh down a few words.  Partly for that reason, in books written in the Nineteenth Century and earlier, descriptions were long and tedious.  Writers weren’t as selective about details; they threw them all in.  Today’s readers won’t stand for that, so as a modern writer you’ll have to keep your descriptions brief.

Say you’re writing about something or someone and you want to convey the image to the reader’s mind.  How do you choose the details?  Here are some guidelines:

1.  Three is a magic number, as far as the number of details to pick.  Don’t stray too far from it either way.

2.  Specific details beat general ones every time.

3.  Nouns and verbs are better than adjectives, and adjectives are better than adverbs.

4.  Consider using a mind map to mentally play with all the details you can think of, then select the few that best serve your purposes.

5.  You don’t have to gather all the details together in one place, in one solid paragraph.  You can sprinkle some of them around later in the scene; that helps break up the narration and keeps the image fresh in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an exercise you can do to improve your skills in selecting details for your descriptions.  Pick something to describe–the scene out your window, a movie or TV character, a household object.  Now create a mind map filled with key words about your chosen thing.  Next write two description paragraphs, one in a happy mood and one in a sad mood.  Write two more paragraphs, each as if narrated by characters with opposite personalities.  Write another one that contrasts your chosen thing with some other.  Just as no two witnesses describe a traffic accident the same way, using the same details, there are innumerable ways to describe anything.

Let’s analyze how George Orwell described the scene outside a character’s window at the beginning of his novel, 1984.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, big_brother_is_watching_you_by_teabladezz-d20dgysthere seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs…

In addition to giving a concrete image, this certainly conveys mood and theme, and also foreshadows.   I like the contrast between nature (shining sun, blue sky) and man-made items (torn paper, poster flapping, commanding corners).  Well-chosen details.

More practice will increase your skills at picking details to include.  Leave me a detailed comment if you got something out of this blog post.  Knowing the devil is in the details, I’m—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 9, 2013Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Sorry, New Rule. You Can’t Do That!

In the original Star Trek TV series, there’s an episode where Captain Kirk invents a card game called Fizzbin in which he makes up the rules as he goes along.  The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes featured a game called Calvinball which may never be played by the same rules twice.

If you’re a writer of fiction, you might consider yourself to be playing such a game, too.  According to W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  With apologies to the famous novelist, I’d say the game has too many rules to memorize and they change with time, according to the tastes of readers.  Only by playing the game well can you can make money selling books.

You might try to emulate great writers of the past and imitate their writing styles, in an effort to achieve success.  Bad idea.  The rules were different in their time.  Let’s cover some of those former rules.

1.  Take all the time you need to create a vivid description, to ‘paint’  with words.  Writers of the 19th Century and earlier used extensive portrayals to convey the appearance of a scene or character, multi-paragraph descriptions abounding in adjectives.  That worked well in an era without movies or TV, but readers won’t wade through such long-winded descriptions today.

2.  Adverbs exist for a reason; use them.  Authors once used adverbs with abandon. Adverbs modify adjectives or verbs and often end in ‘ly’ like ‘crazily.’  These days it’s considered lazy to use too many adverbs, a sign you didn’t take time to select a powerful enough verb.

3.  Demonstrate your skill as an author in your narrative paragraphs; dialogue only interferes with that.  At one time, fiction was mostly narration, with occasional dialogue.  We’re now in an age of character-driven stories, and readers want characters to talk more.  No long, boring narrative paragraphs, and less narration overall.

4.  Incorporate a rather dull character who needs everything explained to him (even things he already knows); that’s a clever way to explain things to the reader. There was an era when authors could use this technique even if it strained the conversation a bit.  These days, that’s no longer tolerated and there’s even a term for it–As You Know, Bob or AYKB.  AYKB’s are tempting, an easy trap to fall into even if you make every effort to avoid them.

5.  Bring the narrator in as an entity the reader can trust, as one who helps foreshadow future events.  In a bygone past, writers could have the narrator speak directly to the reader.  And now, Gentle Reader, let us discover what Annabel must be thinking about this latest development.  That voice could be used to foreshadow future events in an ominous tone.  Little did Frank know, but his secure life would soon be altered forever.  Understand, it’s still okay to use foreshadowing, but do it with subtlety, and not with the narrator speaking to the reader.  Today that’s referred to as narrative intrusion.

6.  Find clever new ways to express your ideas.  As centuries of writers did this, many of the word combinations they used were so good the first time, they got used again, and re-used many times over.  And became clichés.  Now you don’t get to use those clichés, unless you add some twist on them.  Go think of your own clever word combo that might become a future cliché.  This rule didn’t change, but sorry, you can’t use the same tired clichés.

7.  Ease into your story by introducing the reader to the setting, time period, and major characters before any action occurs.  Readers in those times had nothing to compete with books for entertainment, and had the time to curl up near the fire and read a cozy story by its light.  Times are different.  You must grab your reader by the throat with a first sentence or paragraph that demands attention.  It’s called a hook, and stories without a good one stay un-bought.

So, are you up for a game like Fizzbin or Calvinball?  May the best writer win!  Unfortunately, the game’s rules aren’t known by you or—

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe


November 25, 2012Permalink

All Depends on Your POV

Every story has a point of view, and because POV is a basic element of story-telling, it’s important for beginning writers to understand the term.  There are some choices to make, and you’ll want to select the one that maximizes the reader’s enjoyment of your story.

Think of POV as knowing who’s holding the camera that “sees” the story.  There are three basic types.  First person POV is told from a single character’s perspective as if the narrator is the character–“I walked into the room.”  Second person POV is told from the reader’s perspective–“You walked into the room.”  Third person POV is told from a perspective outside both reader and the character–“She (or Susan) walked into the room.”  There are two kinds of 3rd person POV:  omniscient and limited.  In 3rd person omniscient, the narrator can relate the thoughts and emotions of any character.  In 3rd person limited, the narrator can only get in one character’s head, and can only describe other characters as sensed from that one character’s viewpoint.

In the early years of novels and short stories, 3rd person omniscient was, by far, the most common POV used.  I guess that’s because it’s easier.  Since authors feel a strong need to make the reader understand what each major character is thinking, 3rd person omniscient is a logical, safe choice.  Today, the most common is 3rd person limited, with 1st person coming in second.

Of the types, 1st person is the most personal.  The POV character may or may not be the focal character for the story, but the POV character should have an interesting, engaging personality, and not be just the boring person who happens to be standing there whenever something interesting happens.  The POV character can be an “unreliable narrator,” a person who sees things that aren’t there or thinks things that aren’t true.  The challenges with writing 1st person are to avoid repeating the word “I” an annoying number of times, and ensuring your POV character has a reason to be in all the key, dramatic scenes.  The major uses of 1st person are in horror and Young Adult (YA) fiction.

2nd person is rare in fiction, but more common in songs.  It can really make the reader feel a part of the story.

As I’ve said, 3rd person limited is the most common.  It allows a more objective view of the story.  Some markets accept only stories with this POV.  The challenges with 3rd person limited are (1) choosing a POV character who is intriguing to the reader and has a reason to be right there in every dramatic scene, and (2) avoiding what’s known as “POV wobble.”  POV wobble is where the writer shifts to a different character’s POV without a break in the narration.  This can be disconcerting to readers who suddenly find themselves “in another character’s head.”  This mistake sounds easier to avoid than it is.

For beginning writers, I recommend using 3rd person limited as the default POV for your early stories.  If you find a story not working, you could try rewriting it in a different POV.  It’s amazing how you can gain new insights in trying this.  Leonardo da Vinci invented the idea of various perspectives in art and engineering.  It’s a technique used in engineering drawings ever since.  Artists find that by looking at an object from the front, above, and one side, they understand more about its three dimensions.  There’s an analog there for POV in fiction, I think.

So whether it’s “I’ll conclude by saying I’m–” or “You’ve been reading a blog entry by–” or “He signed off by stating his name as–” the ending is the same…

                                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe


Coming to Your Senses (in Your Writing)

If Poseidon’s Scribe suggests you incorporate an appeal to all five senses in your writing, that’s not exactly original advice.  But why are writers told to do this?  And how do you go about it?

The reason for using all the senses is to make your scenes more vivid, distinct, and real for the reader.  You’re trying to take your reader away from her world where she is sitting and reading a book, just sweep her away to your made-up world.  We speak of “painting a picture” in writing, but it should be more than that.  It should be a multi-sensory experience.  It’s like a Star Trek transporter machine that can move a person in an instant to a different location for a full immersion experience.

Artists, too, often bring the senses into their work.  This is “Still-life with Chessboard (the Five Senses)” by the 17th Century painter Lubin Baugin.

Each of the senses has certain properties.  Although they are obvious from lifelong experience, let’s think about each one from a writer’s point of view.


  • Our primary sense is sight, and that’s usually the first way a character perceives his surroundings.  Human sight is most especially tuned to moving objects, so characters notice them first of all. Depriving a character of sight using darkness or interfering objects can heighten tension.
  • Hearing is our secondary sense, and also has a long range.  Characters can hear things around corners and thus detect them before seeing them at times.
  • Smell has a strong link to mood and memory, and thus can provide a great opportunity for the reader to understand the point-of-view character’s temperament and background.
  • Taste is coupled to the sense of smell.  Letting a character experience food and drink in a scene can enhance the overall impression for the reader.  Remember that characters can learn things by tasting even non-food items, such as deciding whether a liquid is water or oil, for example, when gathering evidence.
  • The sense of touch is probably the most intimate.  It’s the only sense without a specific organ, and the only one we can’t block out except through numbness.

If you open up your writing to appeal to all the senses, you’ll find a wealth of new adjectives at your disposal.  There are many great descriptive words that apply to the non-sight senses.  These sensory descriptions should be used with purposeful ends in mind, though.  You’re trying to advance your plot, reveal character attitudes, or set a scene, not to demonstrate your knowledge of the senses.

Through practice you can improve the perceptiveness and sharpness of your senses as well as your ability to write better sensory descriptions.  It’s just like improving any other skill.  I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog entry.

I should caution you not to overdo it, though.  Modern readers dislike, and often skip, long paragraphs of description.  It’s best to sprinkle your sense-based descriptions in small chunks between and among character thoughts and dialogue throughout the scene.  This avoids overloading and boring the reader, and also gives the reader occasional reminders about where the characters are and the state of their surroundings.

As always, I welcome your comments on this topic.  From what I’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt, this concludes another blog entry by–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

Just Thinking to Myself

The title of this blog entry is a little joke to remind me not to ever do that in my fiction–state that a character is “thinking to himself.”  How else would he be thinking?

But the broader question facing us today regards how a writer should convey a character’s thoughts.  To get your fiction published these days, it’s important to be able to let your readers know the thoughts of your point-of-view character.  Fiction, as I’ve said before, is about the human condition, and a large part of the human experience requires thinking.  In fiction, we expect to find a protagonist dealing with one or more conflicts, and a large part of understanding her struggle is to know her thoughts.

Thoughts reveal a lot about a character.  Often thoughts are more extreme and emotion-packed than spoken words.  In the cases where a character’s thoughts are just as restrained as his speech, that tells the reader this character has a great degree of self-control.  A character that “speaks his mind” likely does not have much tact in social situations.

It’s rather strange that English has quotation marks to indicate spoken dialogue, but no analogous, standard symbol for a character’s thoughts.  Without such a standard, practices vary:

  • “I sure could go for a hamburger,” Steve thought.
  • I sure could go for a hamburger.
  • Steve thought about how much he wanted a hamburger.

The first example with the quotation marks seems to have fallen out of favor.  It’s potentially confusing, since a reader could assume the character is speaking out loud, until the tag–Steve thought–appears.  Some say the second example with italics has run its course and is not recommended.  It may also lead to potential confusing ambiguity, since italics are also used for emphasis, or sometimes to indicate foreign words.

As for me, I prefer italics.  I like how italicized words leap out and distinguish themselves as different.  When used to indicate thought, they really help the reader separate “dialogue” from thought and narration.  I suppose the knock against italics is they can interrupt flow.

Although the last example reads just like narration, the tag “Steve thought” clues the reader in that the character is thinking.  The use of standard text makes for a smoother read.

In my view, there are three guidelines you should follow:  (1) stick with the publisher’s guidelines, if known; (2) avoid confusing the reader; and (3) be somewhat consistent through your story in the technique you use.

There are some other helpful blog post articles on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  As you’ll see from reading through them, there is general agreement, but some differences.  What are your thoughts on representing a character’s thoughts?  I welcome comments.

That’s another fine blog post I’ve written, thought–

                                                                               Poseidon’s Scribe


Show and Tell

Did you have Show-and-Tell in elementary school, where you brought in some object of interest, showed it to the class, and told them all about it?  The shown object gave something for the class to look at while listening to the speaker’s narration about it.  The whole process wouldn’t have worked as well if it were just Show or just Tell, would it?

Today I’m tackling the age-old caution given to writers to “Show, don’t Tell,” which I briefly mentioned here.  As with many of my blog topics, I’ll write about it as if I’m an expert, though I still struggle with the concept in my own fiction.  First let’s define terms.  In writing, “Show” means to convey to the reader a sense of being inside a character, experiencing what the character is going through, portraying the character’s senses, thoughts, and feelings.  “Tell” means to describe or inform in narrator fashion, mainly using facts much like a journalist would use his “who-what-when-where-why-how” model.

In Showing, you really engage the reader.  Remember that the purpose of storytelling is not just to convey information, but to create a reaction in the reader, to entertain (and I mean that in the broad sense, not the comedic sense).  Showing does that in a way Telling never can.  Think of the best stories you ever read.  Chances are you felt a part of the story as you read along, and that made you care about the characters and about the outcome.  Unfortunately, Showing typically takes more words.  It’s very hard to be blunt while Showing.

On the other hand, Telling can be very compact.  You can convey a lot of information with very few words.  However, Telling is often boring.  It doesn’t engage your reader for long or help her care about your characters.

My advice is to use both techniques, but learn when to use each.  Showing is necessary for the more dramatic moments of story scenes.  It’s vital to show the key moments of your protagonist’s struggle to resolve the conflict of your story.  However, events have to happen between these key dramatic moments.  Use Telling to catch the reader up on these in-between events.

The suggestion to combine some Telling with Showing isn’t just my idea, but any writer will pretty much tell you the same thing.  Why, then, do you still hear the “show, don’t tell” advice?  It’s because Showing is harder to write than Telling, and it’s easy to lapse back into that narrative, journalistic way of writing. It’s difficult getting into a character’s head and conveying the character’s feelings and impressions.  You have to force yourself to Show.  Although writers must Tell on occasion, they need not be reminded to do that.

One key to writing well in both the Show and the Tell mode is to choose details wisely.  That is well worth a future blog entry all by itself.

So just like in elementary school, it’s important to both show and tell.  For now, class dismissed.  Your homework assignment is to leave a comment with your opinion about the “show, don’t tell” admonition, to–

                                                                Poseidon’s Scribe


November 20, 2011Permalink

As You Know, Bob…

Perhaps your name isn’t Bob, but this post could still be for you, if you’re a beginning fiction writer.  One of the difficult parts of writing is creating believable dialogue, and one of the easy traps to fall into is called As You Know, Bob, or AYKB.

It stems from the writer’s need to convey information about the world of the story to readers who don’t know it yet.  Dialogue between story characters might seem like the perfect opportunity to convey the information, since dialogue stands out more than long, narrative paragraphs.  Trouble is, the characters are already in the story’s world, and already know about it.

Advertisers fall prey to AYKB too, often in radio ads.  Frequently you hear ads like this:

“I really enjoy Company XYZ.  Their product is superior to all competitors.”

“Yes, and I also like their friendly, knowledgeable staff.”

“And how about XYZ’s convenient location, right downtown at the corner of A Street and B Avenue?”

Advertisers have a limited time to convey information, and they know we pay attention to conversations more than we do to a single, blabbing announcer.  Problem is, the conversation above is just plain stupid.  People don’t talk that way.  In fact, we listeners often feel so insulted by such ads that we start to wonder if Company XYZ’s product can be any good if their ads are so terrible.

The same situation applies to your fiction writing.  Readers will be turned off if your characters talk like that; there’s plenty of good fiction by other writers they could be reading.

How do you avoid the AYKB problem in your writing, especially since it’s such an easy trap?  Review your character’s dialogue and ask yourself if that’s something someone already in the story’s world would say.  Is it realistic and believable?  Get inside your character’s head and cut the dialogue down to only what the characters would really say.

Of course, you still have the information to convey.  The best way to do that is bit by bit, with small amounts of narration or (better) action accompanying the dialogue.  Use the minimum amount necessary for the reader to understand the world of the story.  You’d be surprised how fast the reader will catch up and understand the world of the story with only teaspoonfuls of information sprinkled in from time to time.

AYKB is a well-known writing problem, and is part of a lexicon of writing problems known as the Turkey City Lexicon.  If you search you’ll find several listings and explanations of the many entries in the lexicon.

Good luck in your efforts to strengthen the dialogue in your writing.  And I can’t resist closing by saying:  As you know, Bob, I’m —

                                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

October 16, 2011Permalink