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Getting Ahead of Yourself…and Your Reader


Have you ever read a novel that was a slog?  I know.  Kidding.  You don’t have to answer that question.  Of course you have.

What makes a novel a slog?  Slow pace, mostly.  But what is “pace”?  It’s the speed with which narrative events unfold.  Here’s the thing, though.  There are exceptions.  There are mile-a-minute plots that make us yawn, and riveting novels in which very little happens.

Fast plot pace isn’t a magic bullet.  So what is?  Voice?  Inner Journey?  Micro-tension?  (A favorite topic of mine.)  All the familiar craft elements we might discuss are important, but there’s an intangible one less often discussed that also deserves a look.

It’s leaping ahead.  By that I mean zooming ahead of your readers, keeping them surprised by bringing them quickly to a place they haven’t yet anticipated.  Readers are speedy.  They’re shrewd.  They like to guess what’s going to happen.  Drop onto the page any plot or character bombshell and readers are already zipping ahead.  They’re weighing the implications.  They’re second guessing your characters, and you.

Put plainly, they’re writing your novel in their heads.  What produces a sense of slog, then, is when readers get your story’s direction and developments right.  When you eventually, slowly, catch up to where they’ve already arrived, it’s a letdown.  A slog.

I’m not just talking about predictable plot.  Relationships can unfold predictably too.  Scenes can go exactly as we expect.  The inner lives of characters can plod down an obvious path.  Inner journeys can unfold obviously, too, their outcomes signaled from the beginning and no surprise when they arrive.

Most of all there is an inner rhythm to characters’ experiences.  Characters dwell in a state, that state shifts, in turn producing a feeling of dynamic human evolution, change, movement.  Raw human experience has pace, just like plot.

That kind of pace is harder to manage.  Some authors aren’t even aware of it.  What I’m talking about are inner shifts in self-perception, awakenings, new understandings, ah-ha’s, and anything that produces a feeling that, okay, things somehow just got different.  Screenwriters call these beats.  On camera they’re caught in reaction shots.  Dialogue ceases.  The actors’ faces say it all: something unnamed has just changed.

Change, in turn, has implications and that especially is where your readers may speed ahead of you.  The solution is to bring about inner changes, and to address their implications, before your readers arrive on their own.  Accelerate what cannot be seen.  Spring surprises of self-perception, awareness, or insights and the actions that result from those.

Jazz drummers keep swing music lively by slightly anticipating the beat.  You can do the same in POV writing.  Let’s take it from a practical standpoint:

Leaping ahead can be done in many ways.  Dialogue can take sudden turns.  Hidden truths can pop to the surface.  Characters can smack their foreheads before we realize they need to be smacked.  They can call each other out.  They can unexpectedly withdraw.  They can see things about others before we do.  They can see things about themselves that aren’t obvious to anyone else.

When your POV characters leap ahead of your readers, you’re evolving those characters’ inner states at a smart pace.  What you’re pacing brightly is a kind of shadow plot, the always-unfolding story not of events but of a human being.

How can you leap ahead of your readers in the scene you’re writing today?  Surprise us!

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].