Oct 24 2009

How to Give Your Writing Urgency

Published by at 2:13 pm under Pacing,Plotting,Writing Articles

1. Use a ticking clock. That helps remind us what’s at stake for the characters.  Perhaps a bad event is timed to go off at a particular moment, like a bomb set to blow up in eight minutes or fairy magic that ends at midnight.  However, a specific time is not required; for example, the protagonist in DOA has been poisoned and has only about two days to solve his own murder.  Ticking clocks are also interesting because they often force characters to move more quickly, cut corners, etc.  Desperation is dramatic.

2.  No chatting! A line like “How are you doing?” or “Can I get something to drink?” is probably unnecessary because it neither advances the plot or develops a character.  (If your goal was to show a character as polite, you could do much better than these bland niceties).  As a rule of thumb, I would always have two sets of goals in a conversation: what the characters hope to accomplish and what you hope to accomplish.  A conversation that takes place just because you want to develop the characters is probably going to lag unless it moves the characters closer towards their goals.  Additionally, I’d recommend trying to make the characters’ goals as opposed as possible.  “I want to go to prom” is far more interesting if it’s followed by “Not on your life” rather than “Have a nice time, honey.”

3.  The stakes don’t have to be life-and-death, but they should be high relative to the character.  A student might care enough about the SAT to cheat even though his life’s not on the line.  A 20-something might have trouble coming up with rent money.  Even in superhero stories, physical danger isn’t purely necessary. For example, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane focuses a lot more on romance than superpowered face-smashing.  As long as the characters have important goals at stake, it doesn’t matter whether their lives are.

4.  Don’t let your characters walk away from the plot. If the character can just bail out as soon as things get tough, the story won’t feel particularly urgent.  I would recommend making the costs of failure too high to contemplate and/or removing the option of walking away.  For example, a superhero might have to save his family and/or girlfriend from untimely decapitations.  Characters trapped on a spaceship with a killer alien have nowhere to run.  Etc.

5.  Use intrigue/suspense to heighten the sense of peril.  For example, in Signs, we hear the dog bark at the aliens outside and then whimper and then go silent.  It’s scarier because we don’t see the aliens.  And it’s engaging because we know what’s going on outside, even though we can’t see it.  No book has danger lurking around every corner, but with the right amount of suspense, we can fear that it is.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “How to Give Your Writing Urgency”

  1. Sean Higginson 01 Dec 2010 at 11:54 am

    “For example, a superhero might have to save his family and/or girlfriend from untimely decapitations.” – I just have to ask, when are decapitations timely?

  2. B. Macon 01 Dec 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Getting decapitated would irritate me less if it were after I died of natural causes.

    The way I drive, I’ll be lucky if I’m unconscious when I get decapitated. Being actually dead would take a miracle.

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