Anticipating What’s Going to Happen Next
There was a fascinating article by Donald Maass on pacing recently on Writer Unboxed – if you don’t know the website, I highly recommend it, they’ve got really good blog posts.
Maass pointed out a couple of really interesting things that got me thinking. First, he said that we anticipate what’s going to happen next in a story – whether it is one we’re watching in the movie theatre (you remember those days, don’t you?), on television, or in a book. We do this all the time.
It’s so true! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been watching a television program and told my husband what was going to happen next and 9 times out of 10 I’m right.
But does that take all the surprise out of watching or reading? Nope. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s extremely satisfying. Not only do you feel good for having correctly guessed at what was going to happen next, you are also comforted by a storyline that goes according to the norm.
Some people claim that they don’t read romance novels because they always know how they’re going to end – the hero and heroine are going to live happily ever after. Yup. That’s true. That’s what defines a romance. But just because you know this, doesn’t mean that you know exactly how they’re going to get to that happy end, or if you can figure it out as you read (which is the assumption here) what’s wrong with that? The very same people who complain about romances, turn around and happily read a murder mystery knowing full well how that book is going to end – the murderer is going to be discovered and caught. Does that mean they shouldn’t read the book? Not at all!
We love to anticipate what’s going to happen next!
So what does this have to do with pacing?
Well, according to Maass, the trick to increasing the pacing and create a page-turning book, you need to skip directly to the part that’s anticipated without all the build-up that will slowly get your reader to where they know they are going.
That’s all well and good if you are writing a thriller, but I don’t believe it works for romance (or mystery or many other genres). If you skip steps, yes, your pacing will speed up. You probably won’t lose your reader; they’ll know precisely what was skipped or not care. What you will lose, however, is the bit where we get to know your character better by experiencing their thought process. What you lose is the fun part where you wallow in possibilities. You miss the romance or opportunities to lay down some clues (or red herrings). You miss the fun stuff.
The second thought I had when I read this article is to wonder whether it’s even possible to catch your reader unaware anymore. Our readers are extremely intelligent people (they are reading our books, after all). They have loads of experience with story and so they’re going to be able to predict what comes next pretty accurately. So can you and is it worth it to do the unexpected with your story?
I think it’s definitely worth it to try, but I wouldn’t worry too much about working really hard at finding the one catch that isn’t expected. Allow your story to flow along as it will and, yes, do put in those unexpected twists and turns, but don’t worry if there aren’t “enough” of them. Your readers are going to enjoy reading and being able to anticipate what’s going to happen next and if you happen to surprise them, all the better. But don’t stress about it.
And as for pacing? You don’t always want it to be super-fast. You don’t always want to skip those steps to get ahead. Sometimes it’s better to wallow, to show, to draw things out. That’s where the beauty lies.