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As I Learn: How Your Story-Beast Moves

In the wild, lions live and hunt in prides. An adult male can weigh as much as 200 kg (mostly muscle), and an adult female can reach top speeds of 80 km/h—fitting since they do a lot of the hunting in the pride. These are creatures built for power and speed. Yet, these “Kings and Queens of the Jungle” seem to have a fair share of drawbacks. For one, all that muscle requires a lot of energy to move, they cannot sweat even when the savanna is baking hot, and their hearts are small relative to their bodies.

Lion King (concept)

Yet, lions thrive. They minimize their energy consumption by resting plenty—18-20 hours a day—they thermoregulate by panting and stay in the shade as much as possible, and they stalk their prey before attacking to ensure shorter hunts on account of their low stamina. In other words, their every motion, big or small, can be explained in light of their physiology. Of course, this is not unique to lions. In fact, all animals move according to their skeletons, joints, muscles, nerves, etc. Similarly, your story is a moving beast that you will build sinew by sinew, joint by interlocking joint.

Where Pacing Hides

Just as other animals move, breathe and function according to their unique anatomy, which has been adapted for their environment, so too must your story-beast move. Movements can be slow or quick; a wiggle of a whisker here or a swipe of a paw there, but it must move with purpose, and each movement should reveal something new. Let’s make this metaphor a little more concrete!

Cindermaw Tiger by Meteorskies

If your story is a beast then its habitat is (loosely) its genre, and its movement is the pacing. Pacing is the speed at which you tell your story. A well-paced story is one that guides its reader through a meadow, to immerse her in its sights and smells, then, once cornered, it pounces to terrify and excite. It can only do these things because, competent writer that you are, you have crafted the interlocking joints and connected the tendons to enable your story-beast to hunt. (Let’s ignore the bloody-minded implication that the reader is the prey, shall we?)

But if an alien asked you (phaser to the head) to find the pacing part of your story-beast, you might find it difficult (understandably) to point to a single part of it and say, “There, that’s the pacing!” Likewise, you would be equally at odds to point to the part of a living organism that constitutes its speed or strength. Although, you might get away with explaining how these properties arise from anatomy.

African Wingless Gryphon by Joshua Dunlop

Much like speed or strength, pacing is an emergent property, i.e. one that arises as a result of many story elements interacting. So, you might persuade our philosophically inclined alien overlord to accept a paltry list of some of the mechanisms that can lead to fast or slow pacing in a story.

So, I’m going to do just that.

Pace of the Page

It is worth asking what elements make a story move because once we know those, we can design stories that do complicated things. A writer deploys many tools to vary the pacing of their story-beast. Some of these elements are:

  • Dialogue
  • Paragraph length (sentence length)
  • Paragraphing frequency
  • Where scene breaks go
  • Description
  • Word choice
  • Punctuation and breath
  • Introspection
  • Chapter length

It’s important to keep in mind where you place these elements and how long each one persists. Every narrative element has its own “pacing stat” that can either accelerate or decelerate a scene in your story. For example, readers generally fly through dialogue, unless every line is followed by a modifier or an action tag. Likewise, description can be static or dynamic.

Static description stands aside from the plot and action: it tells me that the moon shines and the plains were still in the night. Dynamic description is interwoven into the scene’s natural motion, it tells me that moonlight reflected off Sam’s glass eye, and the grass tickled his bare ankles as he crossed the plain. Neither is inherently better. Long, well-written paragraphs of static description may have their place in immersion and worldbuilding, but they can slow a scene if done poorly. To have more dynamic description, pay attention to how you combine elements in a scene when revising.

Twilight Plains by Jack Jones

The above list, brief though it is, may be daunting. It’s a lot to keep in mind all at once especially when constructing that first draft skeleton. So, let’s zoom out from the specifics.

Writer as a Curator of Experience

As a writer, you are a curator of experience and a practitioner of empathy. The reader’s attention is at your mercy and you must work at holding it. Your job is to orient her, move to the action and trust that she will find her way.

Instead of tracking all the elements listed above and potentially more, focus on three big-picture considerations as you write your first draft: 1) showing vs telling, 2) the passage of time, and 3) cognitive load. In general, you will show when you want the reader to see something for themselves and to build empathy—it’s slower. Tell when you want the reader to know something or sympathise—it’s faster, and you will always try to minimize the amount of stuff the reader holds in her working memory to avoid confusion. Remember that not everything needs to be the focus of every scene. Does your reader really need to know your character’s every head bob as they argue with their mentor? Remember, orient your reader and then get out of there! Each sentence should do multiple things, but it should never do too much.

The Quantum Thief (cover)Minimizing cognitive load does not mean writing down to your audience, but it requires you to balance the complex elements, e.g. the science/magic, with simpler elements, e.g. plot/characterisation, or vice versa. In my opinion, Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut The Quantum Thief does a great job of walking this tightrope. The book kicked off my love for hard sci-fi, opening with the main character locked in a literal Prisoner’s Dilemma with an All-defector. Talks of gogols and Von Neumann machines were confusing to my pre-university brain, but the story announced itself as a heist in the vein of Arsène Lupin and hooked me. It crystallized for me the notion that a story need not hold your hand and stop to explain every element for it to be enjoyable. But to do this well, you must know your audience and your genre.

The Buried Giant (cover)Your story-beast’s habitat will determine its prey—or the type of reader you want to attract. If you’re on Fantasy-Faction, perhaps you like to read/write sci-fi or fantasy. That doesn’t really tell us too much because both genres come in many different flavours (noir, thriller, literary, horror). But if you consider which of these “flavours” you wish to incorporate into your narrative as well as the themes of your work, it might help you determine the story’s “habitat”. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a story with fantasy elements (if you are patient enough to wait for them). The book is about lost memories and so much more. The lingering narrative eye, eerie atmosphere, and the formal dialogue all combine to help the story achieve a slow, deliberate, and dream-like pace, keeping with the story’s themes. (I still don’t know how I feel about the book, but what it did, it did with intention, and that stuck with me.)

Returning briefly to our beastly metaphor, it is not enough that your story-beast “hunts”. Some story-beasts must be designed to crouch, some to camouflage, and some to stalk. Others may rotate their heads 360° before swooping down and catch the reader off guard. (Have I milked this metaphor enough yet?) The point is that the hunting actions of different animals require different physical characteristics, and similarly, your story will not necessarily grab attention in the same way as another one in your genre. But knowing the habitat will allow you to study other story-beasts that exist in the same space, which will help you design your story-beast. These considerations are best left till the editing phase, but there is no reason why they should not inform your drafting.

Finish First

It’s not just that your story should move, but that each movement, big or small, should create an effect in the reader. Every line communicates a new piece of characterisation, worldbuilding or plot development. In the end you cannot know how your story-beast moves until you complete your creation. At that point, you might find that you need to break up paragraphs, leave a scene earlier/later, or vary sentence length in the climax. All of these will help your story-beast successfully capture the type of attention that it hunts. It bears repeating though that this secondary work can only be done once you finish the story. So, finish those awesome creations Dr. Mad Scientist because I can’t wait to see how those story-beasts move.

When The King Speaks by Aaron Blaise (detail)

P.S. Mileage will vary with the beast metaphor, so here is another (much better crafted) music-based metaphor.

P.P.S. I think I only wrote this to prepare myself for Neal Stephenson’s behemoth Anathem, which has been eyeing me from my Kindle library for the last two months.

Title image by Aaron Blaise.

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3 Comments

  1. Great article Gibril! I will have to keep all these points in mind while writing my short fiction, thanks.

  2. Avatar Sam F. says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Very well done!

  3. Avatar Gibril K says:

    I hope it works as a useful summary. I really enjoyed writing it. 🙂

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