Shape, Flow, Pace – notes

These notes are only for those who attended my teaching module on Shape, Flow, Pace. Please do not share them with others or post them on any public webpage. Thank you.

Shape

Shape can mean structure: how many chapters do you have, what length are they, how do they fit together, when do your flashbacks come if you have them, does the POV or time period shift and when? These are often things that your reader is not aware of but you can use them to your advantage. In my novel Swimming Lessons there is a prologue from the point of view of the father. The middle and majority of the book is letters and two different povs. Then there is an epilogue – possibly from the mother’s POV. It felt like a kind of neat structure.

But for me, shape is more than just structure, it’s about making your story stronger. Here’s a poor analogy: mashed potato. Your novel is mashed potato. If there’s too much milk and butter, it becomes sloppy, it has no shape – the narrative moves around without any underlying structure, the reader becomes lost, the words might taste nice, but by the end they’re left with the feeling – what was that all about? (Or if you’re writing an experimental novel – Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick – you might have very little structure and you want some confusion.) If you don’t add enough milk or butter what you have is craggy and lumpy and also difficult. The story jumps about unnecessarily, maybe too much happens too quickly, and the reader is aware of the structure when you don’t want them to be. Or you might want them to be very aware of the structure. In Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, the protagonist, Ursula Todd lives her life over and over again, and each chapter is clearly labelled. The reader is very aware of the structure.

Shape can also be about knowing what theme of your novel is and making sure it runs all the way through – but subtly. In the Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the theme is very clearly about identity and changing identity. It’s about black twins and one of them passing for white. I’m not sure if Bennett planned her novel or the elements of theme grew as she wrote, but using that theme of identity, she introduces a character who is an actor, one who checks fingerprints for the police, one who is a trans man, another who is a cross-dresser. Bennett certainly worked her theme and used it to give shape to the novel.

Shape can also be about motifs – a recurring element (word, object, idea, image) with symbolic meaning to the theme or something else. One of the themes in Bitter Orange was voyeurism. Frances, the main character, puts her eye to a hole in her bathroom floor and spies on her neighbours, Cara and Peter. So I used eyes as a motif in the book and they crop up in many places. In Our Endless Numbered Days fairy tales are a recurring motif.

Repetition. In Life after Life Atkinson uses the phrase or versions of it – and darkness fell (darkness and so on). This is obvious and clear and out there. It’s a kind of shorthand. The readers come to expect it, anticipate it, and the writer can either build with that, or suddenly mess with that repetition, and upset things on purpose. It can again help with themes. It can be used to remind the reader of something. In Unsettled Ground the lyrics of a song the characters play and sing is repeated. The way it is sung and the different times it is sung have different meanings for the main two characters, but also if the reader reads all the lyrics they get some idea of what might be coming in the main story.

Consider what experience you want your reader to have with the shape of your novel? This might need to fit the kind of novel it is. Something dystopian might be more jarring (less milk and butter), uplit is likely to be a smoother read, thrillers are more likely to build. You can use the shape of your novel to help with that. But all of them will be deepened by you thinking about shape.

Think about your own WIP

  1. What type of novel is it? Maybe genre, or maybe style: happy, tense, family drama, thriller, literary.
  2. What’s its current structure / your plan for its structure?
  3. How can you make that structure work for the type of novel you’re writing?
  4. Do you know your novel’s theme(s)?
  5. What could its motif be?
  6. How could you use repetition to your advantage?

Flow

We can talk about flow at the sentence, chapter and story level. Flow is how you create a smooth way (or not) from your reader to travel through your novel.

  • At the story level you need to make a decision about how aware you want your reader to be of you, the author? Do you want the reader to sink into the story so far that they forget they’re reading? Or are you happy to let your control of the story show? I think the more literary / experimental the novel is, the more the writer shows.  Anne Tyler’s novels usually remove the author completely and the reading is completely smooth – like watching a film. There are no real flourishes, no fancy descriptive passages. Other writers who might want to use more creative language will have the author on show. Even very subtle plays with language (Ali Smith for example) will show the author on the page. There is no right or wrong here, but it does affect the flow.
  • At the chapter or scene level, you need to think about how you handle transitions, mostly. Transitions between points of view, between time periods/ flashbacks, between scenes. In contemporary novels it’s very common to usually have a break between scenes – one doesn’t flow directly into the next – for me that feels more old fashioned, but that’s not wrong – depending on what you’re writing you might want to have that feel.
    • Signposting – if you are moving between POV in a big way or time periods or geography, how are you going to signal to your reader that you’re about to move, that you’re moving and that you’ve moved? Sometimes it’s as simple as starting a new chapter and giving it a date / geographical area. (But remember that readers are notoriously bad at keeping this information in their head. You are likely to need some other signposting as well when you start the new chapter.) You can do it by changing from present to past tense. Or you can start a new section or scene with the first three words in capital letters. In Bitter Orange it was more subtle: old woman in present tense, starts to think about the past, and within a sentence I use present tense and past tense for her and the reader to move backwards in time.
    • Transitions for flashbacks: Use past perfect to indicate moving into a long flashback and out again. Short ones can be done completely in past perfect. (Adding ‘had’ to any past verb) ‘She had gone to Glasgow on the train. [Scene, using past tense] She had come home a week later. Use a trigger to move into the past (an object, a mention of that event) and then move straight away into the flashback.

      3. Flow on a sentence level is about cadence and variety of sentence structure.

My non-flowing version

The road was heavily overgrown. They had to stop the car half a dozen times. They had to hack down shrubs or drag fallen trees aside. Once, a sizeable beech blocked the way. They attacked it with a cross-cut saw. Simon had never seen a cross-cut saw before. And he hadn’t used one. He was predictably useless. Ridiculing him was part of the fun.

Version as written by Mary Lawson

The road was heavily overgrown and they had to stop the car half a dozen times in order to hack down shrubs or drag fallen trees aside. Once, a sizeable beech blocked the way and they attacked it with a cross-cut saw. Simon had never seen a cross-cut saw before, far less used one, and he was predictably useless, but ridiculing him was part of the fun. [Road Ends by Mary Lawson]

It’s not content or ease of reading, it is variety that makes a sentence flow. And make sure this is not just variety in sentence length, but variety in construction. So, usually two or more clauses, and not just compound (joined with and, like, but or so) but complex (so there are clauses that are subordinate and depend on the main clause to make sense).

A simple sentence has just one clause.

A compound sentence joins simple sentences together, using words like and, but or so.

A complex sentence joins clauses together using words like after, because, who, where and whenever, making a main and subordinate clause.

Think about flow in your WIP

  • How much do you want your reader to be aware of you, the author?
  • Consider your transitions between chapters and scenes.
  • How are you going to signpost to your reader that you’re moving backwards or forwards in time, or moving geographically or POV?
  • Make sure your sentences have variety

Pace

Everyone knows what pace means. How fast or slow should your novel go and at which points. Pace is very clear for some area of a novel. The higher the tension, the faster the pace. Generally. So the climax of your novel is likely to have a faster pace than the end. But I’d say, throughout the novel you want variety. You might want to look at pace on a chapter by chapter basis – do they all have fast and slow sections?

Some thoughts about pace:

  • First drafts tend to start too slowly, and end too quickly. I often find that I’ve written myself into the story at the beginning and a lot of the beginning can be cut to get to a bit of action. Usually readers are reading faster at the end, and so you actually want to slow your writing down, extend the story even further to account for this.
  • Telling (as opposed to showing) will slow your story down, even though telling takes a shorter time on the page than showing. Do use telling, but judiciously. It’s helpful for places where you want to go slow for example to give your readers a breather between action scenes. Or to get some information over quickly.
  • Showing – showing moves faster than telling. So use it during the climax or denouement of your novel. Here it should all be about the full scene. You wouldn’t write the big battle scene: And then they had a fight and he was stabbed through the heart and he died. No… she hid the knife in her palm, and came up behind him, but he turned around too fast, and…
  • Are all your scenes necessary? A scene that doesn’t add to the story or character development will slow a story down. Delete it.
  • Is your middle sagging? Often early drafts have saggy middles, where the tension is lost and therefore the pace (or sometimes the issue is scene after scene without an escalation in conflict or tension). The solution is usually to create a new scene that ups the jeopardy.
  • Don’t include many (any?) flashbacks in the beginning of your novel. You need to get the reader invested in the present day story and characters before filling them in on the details that happened previously.
  • Dialogue – especially with little or no incidental action will make a scene pacier. Use it for arguments, raising the stakes and the tension.
  • Shorter sentences will up the pace – but don’t forget to think about flow on a sentence level. You don’t want the narrative to be too choppy for too long.
  • Focussing on the details will help slow down a scene, and often add to the tension. Making the readers wait.

Think about pace in your WIP

  • Do you take too long to get into the meat of the story?
  • Do you end too quickly (chapters as well as the end of the novel)?
  • Do you use telling and showing in appropriate places?
  • Is your middle saggy?
  • Are all your scenes necessary?
  • Have you included too many / any flashbacks at the beginning of your novel?
  • Is your dialogue pacey where it needs to be?
  • Consider your sentence construction
  • Consider focussing on details