Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pacing Narrative: Establishing “Beats”

If you have seen any TV show, where it's the season finale or it's an episode with a shocking ending, you've probably had to bear the anguish of getting through the episode waiting for the "good part" to come. Generally the reason why TV shows do this is because they are trying to get you to stick around for every commercial break until the end of the show as to maximize the commercial viability of the show. Alternatively, there are other shows that are easier to get through because they flow from one plot to the next, the result being a show that keeps us involved in trying to discover the "ah-ha" moments when all the plot is laid bare before us. The latter example shows us the effectiveness of pacing. Pacing will make the show go by faster, yet keep us involved because we want to know what happens next after each increment of the show.

I would say that in books pacing is important, but it is hard to get good at it because the technique itself is very difficult. You can't learn how to be better at pacing, it's simply something you have to work at. Something that has helped me get batter at pacing has been looking at comic books and how action translates into the outlines. I would say the plot of a comic is generally linear, and what I mean by this is that the plot moves very directed through a sequence of events. If you shake down all the glitz and "KA-POWs" in comics you'll find narrative units that comprise the plot. For the sake of simplicity I'll refer to them as Beats and Issues. Beginning with Beats, these are pockets of interchange that occur in a comic book. Usually there are between 6 and 10 Beats per issue, each beat being an action sequence or the main character having dialogue with one person. Each beat is like a puzzle piece fitting the progression of the Issue. The Issue is the product of these beats strung together. But an issue itself is a unit altogether, one that serves to comprise and build the narrative arc in a comic. I would say that an Issue is analogous to a Chapter, and when seen in these two lights, I think writing a book gets a little easier.

Beats for Books

When writing a book, the Beats of a book are going to be conversation based. This is a hard thing to get good at and only practice will teach you the subtleties of this type of narrative. When you think of how characters move in and out of the narrative they are reactive and reflective, meaning they will react to events in the book by speaking, eating, fornicating, actively engaging someone in combat, etc. There are also reflective moments. Reflective moments involve the character thinking on an event that occurs. Beats, I believe, take place in these exchanges of dialogue, and other reactionary aspects of the characters. Reflective moments I think work best to bridge action and move from one beat to another. In a way it's teaching the reader to observe a scene, then analytically analyse it. When the beats are all written and lined up, you place a coda, or a final reflective thought, at the end and complete the chapter.

Chapters for Books

Chapters I'm sure you are all familiar with. Generally they will embody certain micro arcs that take place in the book, all amounting to a "finale" of sorts, but the key thing to remember in a chapter is that instead of building action to an inevitable conclusion, like a Beat, Chapters serve to build the development of a character. At the end of every Chapter there should be resolution in the Character, but not the plot. I've always liked doing this because the reader will feel a sense of movement in the narrative, and see the characters growing and discovering new things about themselves. And when you can do this, but leave the plot unresolved, it creates a beautiful tension. The character knows who he is, but doesn't know the world. 

The Formula

The best way to conceptualize the progression of a story is this:

Chapter =  Beat 1 -- Beat 2 -- Beat 3 -- Beat (N) -- Coda --

Plot Arc = Chapter 1 -- Chapter 2 -- Chapter 3
Main Arc = Plot Arc 1 -- Plot Arc 2 -- Plot arc 3

As you could tell this is all entirely up to you in how you employ this. Really there is no right or wrong formula. This approach works great for me, because as the story get more and more involved over time it helps me keep track of all the narrative units in the story. If I have control over the placing of each unit then I fell more in touch with the story as it unfolds. Consequently, I can also go to any part of the book and take a look, and see how it fits into the main structure of the story. I hope this helps. Next week will be a little more procedural, so I hope you can make it down to see what I have in store for you then!


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