Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Pacing Graph

A question came in yesterday about how I edit—on a hardcopy of the manuscript or on the computer. I do everything on the computer. Way quicker.

Okay. As promised, here’s my handy-dandy way to check pacing. It ain’t exactly rocket science, but it works.

As I said yesterday, I did this first for Web of Lies because I started to get antsy about 60 pages from the end. I was worried that the story was boring. I always worry that my stories are boring. It’s this fear that creeps over me—a generalized emotion not really based on anything solid. So I decided to fight this pure subjectivity with pure objectivity. See if the story really was boring or not.

1. I made an outline of the book, chapter by chapter on sheets of paper. I wrote down each chapter number and a one-line description of what happens in that chapter just to remind myself of its events. And I noted what happens at the end of that chapter as a hook.

2. I devised a scale to measure the intensity level of conflict in each chapter, using 1-10, with 1 being no conflict whatsoever (better not have any of those!) and 10 being oh, sheesh, somebody’s gonna die.

3. I went through my list of chapters and ranked each one with a number according to events in that chapter. I was surprised at the results. That is, I knew major chapters of crisis/climax would be 9s and 10s. But I was surprised to see that most of the chapters fell in the 7-8 range. Still high on the conflict/intensity scale. A few fell to 5s or 6s.

4. I’m a visual person, so I wanted something I could see all at once to give me a clearer sense of the flow of the book’s pacing/intensity. I took about 3 typing paper sheets, turned ’em horizontally and taped them together to create one long piece of paper. On the left side I wrote the numbers 1 through 10, starting at the bottom of the paper and working up. Across the bottom of this long sheet, I wrote the chapter numbers.

5. I went through my chapter rankings and plotted them on this graph I’d created. For instance, I made a dot at #9 for the prologue, #8 for chapter one, etc. (Or whatever they happened to be.) When I had all the dots in place, I connected them. Now I had a clear graph to show me the highs and lows of the manuscript.

Again, I was surprised to see how high on the intensity scale the book ranked. Just goes to show how my emotions about a book can have little to do with reality. Mostly, I wanted to make sure of the lowest rankings of 5s or 6s. Were any of them together? The lowest rankings should be found after a peak. These are the passages where the reader is allowed to catch his/her breath until the next ramp-up. And, of course, I wanted to make sure that the most important parts of the book—beginning, major turning points, and crisis/climax—were at the high end of the scale.

This process can be done with a book in any genre. You just have to adjust your definitions of the rankings. Since I’m writing high-tension suspense, I expect my chapters to fall in the higher numbers. If I were writing women’s fiction, I wouldn’t expect so many high numbers. The entire graph would be brought down. But I’d still be looking for proper pacing (that is, ups and downs) within that graph. If you see even two chapters of your lowest ranking back-to-back, you’d better take a look at how to pump one up.

One note--I plotted the graph by chapters because my chapters tend to be shorter, with only one scene. (My books can run over 50 chapters long.) Some writers have longer chapters made up of various scenes. If this is your case, you'll need to graph each scene

As part of my Hidden Faces series, Web of Lies is written in first person, except for the short “bad guy” chapters in third person. So there wasn’t much rearranging of chapters I could do if I’d happened to see a graphing problem. However, I can rearrange to an extent in my current story, Violet Dawn, since it’s written in third person multiple POV. The story’s events all take place in less than 24 hours and are told in a linear fashion. But when you bounce from one character to another, and they’re doing various things, you do have a bit of leeway in chapter arrangement. Also, there’s one character whose story is not a part of the current events. Her story is told in scattered, episodic chapters starting from when she’s seven up to when she’s 22. I have lots of leeway regarding when I insert one of her chapters.

In doing the intensity graph for Violet Dawn, I’ve been able to see when I should rearrange chapters for pacing’s sake. When I saw that I needed to do some rearranging, I referred to the list of chapters and their hooks to see how best to rearrange. A chapter with a stronger hook can better support a subsequent chapter that’s less on the intensity scale, because readers will keep reading to see what happens with the hook.

Give this a try with your wip—see how it ranks. I’d be interested to hear how the process works for you.


Grady Houger said...

This is a great idea, why couldn't I think of it? I had been trying to write about each chapter before, explaining what happens and how things fit togather. Graphing works a lot better.
My graph ain't too hot. So I added a column for what where the chapter ought to be. I also realize this isn't just for danger/peril intensity, a person could use the same idea to chart emotional conflict as well.
Now hopefully making excel charts of story variables won't distract me too much from writing!

Anonymous said...

This is well timed. I'm reviewing what I've written to see how I can up the instensity before I launch into the next big conflict. I haven't sat down and graphed, but my gut instinct is I'll go from a 10 to several chapters of 4. I think I'm spending too much time explaining the investigation and need to summarize in quick bursts to keep things moving and suspenseful.


Anonymous said...

Here's another question:

When you have a police investigation going on and the suspense building, how do you balnace between the necessary deatils of the investigation and keeping the suspense up? I know: I should take a day or two to reread one of your books. :-) But I am struggling with that balance.

Anonymous said...

This will be a terrific addition to the spreadsheet I have with my scenes plotted out! No, I'm not a SOTP writer. :) I won't have to use a lot of pesky paper - I can just use the graphing capability in Excel to create my graph. Thanks for sharing this fantastic tool, Brandilyn!

D. Gudger said...

Thanks for addressing my question re: editing on paper vs. computer.
Your graphing each chapter and creating a one sentence description sounds like a great tool! I was wondering you one keeps track of what's going on in such a long ms.

Sara Mills said...

Okay that's just hilarious. Last week I sat at my kitchen table with my homeade plot/pacing graph (almost exactly as you described, I used 2 sheets of paper instead of three) multiple highlighters and a ruler thinking that I must be the most desperate writer in existance to try this. My husband thought I was losing my mind, and now I find out that there are more of us grapher/plotter/pacers out there. Glad to know that I'm not obsessive and nuts to try something like that. Or at least I'm not the only one.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I found your blog recently and I've really enjoyed reading it!! It's entertaining and insightful. Like most people who comment here, I'm also an aspiring author (who has a procrastination problem). Thanks for the helpful tips though! And it's nice to find an exciting Christian author too. I've tried Christian literature before and alot of it seems to be romance novels or shallow stories. Kudos for breaking the mold!

Unknown said...

This is a great idea. I'm glad you shared it with us. I'm going to do this first thing tomorrow. I also had a question about the way you do chapters. What is the reason for shorter chapters? And since most books are written with longer chapters, can a first time novelist get by with just one scene per chapter? (Sorry, that was actually two questions.)

Lynette Sowell said...

THANKS! This sounds like a handy technique that I'm going to use. I need to 'see' if I'm getting tension right. Do these scenes really move the story along or flatline it? Things like that. I'm looking forward to Violet Dawn. Only 24 hours in this one.

Pammer said...

This is GREAT. I am going to do that tomorrow, too tired to do it tonight. Working long and hard to make sure the polish is on. :0)