Timing is Everything

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Many thanks to Latrina and Talis, members of the online role-playing group Themiscyra Amazons, who allowed use of their excerpts in the following article. A community of all women, the authors are also the characters in an ongoing story all 34 of the members write together. Themiscyra encourages creativity in its members, but also edits for better writing ability as well. Boots has been a member for five years.

In writing, timing can be critical. If your story goes too fast, your readers could miss important details. If your story goes too slow, your readers could become bored and put the book away. Keep your writing balanced and you’ll keep your readers interested.

Background Image: Zan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Speed Writing

It’s important to remember that readers aren’t with you when you’re writing. They don’t know what you had in mind, or where you were going with your story. All they can do is guess what you meant and follow your words to a logical conclusion.

If you skip words, phrases, or actions that are important to the story, you might leave your reader behind, confused. Instead, lead them along step by step, doling out information along the way.

Here’s an example of what can happen when writing is too quick:

Latrina felt like she belonged in the tribe as she had helped them set up for the talent show and it had been a long time since she felt that. Even after she had been cured from madness, it seemed very right to be part of the talent show.

The writer, Latrina, didn’t go slow enough for the reader to keep up. This paragraph reads like a dream, where little makes sense and where nothing is in order. It’s simply a jumble of thoughts that poured out of her mind and onto the page.

You can tell Latrina is trying to show the feelings of the character today compared to those of her past. She meant to work in a piece of the character’s recent past—the madness. She wanted to tie it to the happenings of the character’s present—the talent show. Latrina presents everything, but she should have had it all laid out for the reader, from beginning to middle to end. Instead, she forces the reader to straighten out the ideas for themselves.

When edited, the paragraph became two paragraphs that explored the depths of the character. It’s clearer and more concise, and a lot easier for the reader to understand.

Since being cured of her madness, Latrina had felt a distance from the tribe. She knew what she’d done, and they knew she’d done it. They’d all been sympathetic, of course, and understanding. Almost too understanding. It was like she walked around the village with a sign on that said, “Be nice to me, I’m sick.”

But today, as she’d prepared for the talent show, she’d felt part of the tribe. Her sisters had forgotten to treat her as if she were fragile and had instead given her hard jobs and playful jokes as they’d worked. It had been a long time since she felt so good about a day’s work. She smiled to herself as she thought about the warm friendship she’d enjoyed.

Let’s look at a paragraph where the story unfolds slowly:

The fish was heavy and slipped from her grasp, landing on her foot. The fish’s mouth plopped fully open. The sun was now higher up in the sky and its light made something gleam inside the fish’s mouth. Noemi peered down and gasped. She brought out her knife and dislodged from inside the fish’s mouth a gemstone, as large as a robin’s egg, smooth and perfectly round. She held it up to the sun. A rainbow of colors swirled within. Noemi stared at the gemstone, a wide grin spreading across her face, for she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

Here the writer, Talis, leads us along slowly, showing us what’s going on in the scene. We have a feeling for the boat, the fish, the sky, the water, and the gem. There’s a flow here that’s missing from Latrina’s original paragraph, a sense of story.

Slow Motion

While too little detail can confuse, too much can bore. While it’s important for the reader to know there is flickering candlelight, it’s not important that they know it’s a white candle with long drips of wax down the side and a flame that’s more yellow than orange. Sometimes, less is more.

Over-explanations detract from the story and can become too distracting. It’s not necessary for us to know the history of candle making to see the one in your scene. It’s more important to blow up the mood of the scene and play up the shadows and the tension.

Let’s explore an example of slow writing:

The horses, along with the rest of the livestock being taken on the voyage, were lowered into the hold. A net of strong rope was brought under their bellies while another rope ran around their chest and another around their rump under their tails, to keep them from sliding either forward or backward. Two thick ropes attached the net to a pulley. The horses were lowered in one by one, Halken first, then Ponzol, followed by Nexus and then Zara. They went calmly, their legs hanging limply till their hooves touched the floor, then they neighed for their mistresses. They were the last of the animals to be lowered into the hold, for all the others had been taken down before the group had even arrived.

The writer, Talis, said everything she needed to say in this paragraph, and conveyed it well. However, the reader doesn’t really need to see all the details of the rope and pulley system in this scene. The importance should have remained on the animal’s nervousness, and the owner’s worry. It would have kept the action moving and the reader reading.

In her rewrite, Talis changed her paragraph to:

Talis kept her eyes fixed on the man who brought a net of strong rope up under the belly of her horse. He cast a glance at her as she watched him run a rope around Zara’s chest and another around her rump under her tail, to keep her from sliding either forward or backward. When he had finished, Talis brushed him aside. She tested the firmness of the ropes by pulling on them. Then she tugged on the two thick ropes that attached the net to a pulley. Satisfied they were strong enough, she stepped back and motioned for the man to continue. Catching the irate look he flashed at Talis, Kiran hastily spoke to the man.

“What did you tell him?” Talis whispered, waiting for her companion to translate the Latin.

“I reminded him that these horses come from the Royal Stables and that their safety was paramount to us,” Kiran replied. Then she rubbed Talis’s shoulder. “Relax, Talis. They may be Romans, but they know what they are doing.”

Talis caught her breath. Then she gave a slight nod. She did not interfere any further, but Kiran knew without looking at her that Talis was still holding her breath as Zara was slowly lowered into the hold.

As you can see, the rewrite is more engaging. The focus is on the characters feelings and worry instead of on the nuts and bolts of the rigging. Talis left in the how, but changed it so it was interesting and part of the story instead of apart from it.

Details don’t always have to slow you down. Here’s an example of great timing:

After a few seconds, a cloaked and hooded figure entered and slowly descended the steps. He was bent over at the shoulders and hung his head forward. He made his way towards the hearth where he stopped. Extending his hands out, he rubbed them together as he warmed them. Then he reached up and slid back his hood, revealing a head of gray hair. The man reached out his hands again over the fire and stood warming himself when both Kiran and Talis saw him do a double take. Talis caught her breath as the figure picked up the torch Talis had laid on the edge of the hearth.

Here, Talis’s details flow naturally and build tension. The slow reveal of the man, the little facts that give him instant character and definition. Nothing here is boring, and everything builds toward a tense moment. Talis did a great job not over-explaining the moment while still showing incredible detail.

Pace your writing correctly if you want your reader to hang around until the last word. Go too fast, and you’ll leave them behind. Go too slow, and they’ll leave you behind. You’ll find a devoted reader if you can keep the right balance.

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