Podcast Reviews: I’ve always listened to the occasional podcast, but after attending a recent talk, I made a resolution to make this a more usual part of my entertainment. Since podcasts still sort of operate on the periphery of most people’s consciousness, I’ve decided to help you out by scouring the internet for the podcast shows that I think you, as readers, writers, and generally thoughtful human beings, should be listening to. I’ll take notes on the show, give you the cliff notes version, and then let you decide if you want to venture over and become a regular listener.
Today, I’m listening to the guys over at Writing Excuses.
Episode: 4.6: Pacing with James Dashner
In this episode, James Dashner, acclaimed YA author of The Maze Runner, helps the Writing Excuses guys discuss techniques and tricks for pacing a novel.
1. Dashner presents structure as the main method to control pacing. He says to end chapters with things that make the reader want to continue to the next chapter. Like a $20 bill, Brandon Sanderson suggests? No. In fact, Dashner? Not so much a fan of the cheap chapter end. He says this is one major way he has matured as an author. For instance, he used to end a chapter by writing, “He opened the door and he gasped!” Chapter done. But now, Dashner will end the chapter by saying, “He opened the door and on the doorstep there was a seeping, wet cardboard box. He stooped to pick it up.”
Dashner calls the first method the “false reveal.” It’s often used in stories that need the string the reader along forever–like LOST. It’s this idea that the character comes upon something really startling that we don’t get to see, but then the episode ends and the next episode starts out at something completely unrelated.
Conversely, Star Wars gives you the reveal. “Luke, I am your father,” says Darth Vader. He doesn’t say, “Luke, I am your…” And your left to wonder, What? No, the reveal should be strong and interesting enough to keep the reader going to the next chapter.
2. Chapter Lengths. Dashner says there are differing opinions of this, especially for YA. One author feels that at the chapter ending a kid has the excuse to close the book. Under this theory, the author should make longer chapters. But Dashner feels that shorter chapters allow the kid to say, “Oh I can read just one more.”
Brandon Sanderson weighs in to say that for what he writes, epic fantasy, he also feels that the long chapters are more appropriate. An epic fantasy is not meant to be torn through. It’s too much to take in at one sitting. As opposed to a shorter book, you might want to make the reader tear through it with the shorter chapters.
3. Dashner’s rules of thumb: Don’t want scenes of dialogue to be too long or paragraphs of description to be too long either. Chapters need to be interspersed with both, creating mini stories that are compelling enough on their own. He’s not a big outliner, but he sits for five minutes or so and thinks how to structure the chapter this way.
4. Howard talks about as a cartoonist how the length is driven by the punchline.
5. Big Reveals. Dashner paces with the “big reveals.” He is currently working on the third book of the Maze Runner trilogy. The 3rd book has two major reveals at the beginning of the book, but he didn’t want to lump them all together. He wanted to create momentum through the first. So he has a hint at the first reveal in the 1st chapter. 1st reveal in the 2nd chapter and 2nd reveal in the 3rd chapter.
6. Sentence/Paragraphs. Pay attention to how much you use one sentence paragraphs so that they maintain impact. Short sentences create a chaotic feel. People love the white space of shorter paragraphs.
7. Space out the bad things that happen; space out the mysteries. Something interesting should continue to happen at a good clip but they should be different sorts of things (mystery v. bad thing).
8. Avoid the “Brandon Avalanche” – too many climaxes of different plot threads at once creating confusion.
9. Example of LOST. Remember, there is a certain power in finishing an episode of LOST and having to wait until the next episode. You have time to think about it, to digest the episode. Often, when you watch DVDs of shows, you can feel a bit…saturated.
10. From thriller writer standpoint, you need to deflate the tension occasionally, but not let out too much of the tension you’ve built.
11. Tagless dialogue – less words, just as much content –need to establish character voices well before this
What’s my verdict? I could have listened to these guys forever. In this episode, they rambled for a bit, which ate into some of their content. Each episode is only 15 minutes, which is delightfully bite-sized and the info is truly valuable. They stop in the middle to discuss their audiobook choice for the week, but don’t stop listening then because they get back to the discussion within a few minute. “Writing Excuses” 100% makes my regular listening list.