Saturday, September 19, 2009

Princess Bride--Perfectly Paced

You know, one of the most common mistakes we writers make is the dreaded sagging middle. No, I'm not talking about what happens after years of sitting at a computer, but about what happens when your story seems to run out of steam halfway through. We do pretty well at beginning and ends--heck, we work on those like crazy. But that darned middle can be so deadly.

Therein lies yet another reason I love The Princess Bride. The pacing is brilliant. We ease into the story, and then it's off to the races. But moments of humor and romance are all brought at just the right time to give us a rest. Consider the fire swamp scene.

Here Westley & Buttercup are, heading into the dreaded fire swamp. We know something bad is coming...just listen to the music! (You know, I've often said if life only came with a soundtrack, we'd know when to watch out for things!) Sure enough, the fire spurt erupts, as does Buttercup's dress. But Westley's calm as he puts the fire out, and his confident smile as he says, "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" brings the tension down. Next, the lightning sand swallows Buttercup, and the tension soars. Westley cuts a vine loose and dives in after her. Following are seconds that seem like lifetimes (and that allow the ROUS to come snuffing about), but then, music swells as Westley pulls them both free. We lie on the ground, gasping along with them, grateful for the few moments to recover. Finally they walk along, calm, in good humor, talking about how they've overcome the hazards even as Westley gracefully lifts Buttercup over said hazard. It's a lovely walk in the forest now. Until (ominous music, please), the ROUS attacks! Tension sky rockets as the beast sinks his overbite into Westley's shoulder! We're on the edge of the seat until that final jab of the sword and the end of the hideous ROUS. Westley and Buttercup hang on to each other, then rise and walk from the fire swamp, a bit bloodied but alive. Ahh...time to relax.

Oh, wait. Here comes Humperdink!

And on it goes, ebbing and flowing, just enough to keep us both engrossed and relieved. Of course, one of the greatest pacing tools is the scenes between the grandpa and grand son. (Remember, "Hold it! Hold it! Is this a kissing book?")

So how do we, as writers, ensure the right pacing in our books? Well, I have a few ideas. But first, let's hear from you.


Sandi Rog said...


I had no idea you had this blog! I'm so glad I found you here!

I've wanted to meet you in person for a long time, and I finally got to meet you at the ACFW conference. I absolutely admire your work! I was at your late night chat on whatever-night-that-was, and came up and told you how much I adore you. I don't know if you remember, but you gave me a hug. I wanted to stay, but I didn't want to be rude and hog all your time, so I dragged myself away from your presence. Boy, it wasn't easy. :-)

Anyway, I met with Julie Gwinn, and it's my manuscript you saw her carting around for the rest of the conference. I hope she's enjoying the story.

Okay, I'll try to answer your question by focusing on "middles."

Isn't the middle where a plot should "thicken?" Wouldn't this be the time for a possible turning point of events? Or perhaps a turning point for subplots? Maybe something needs to happen to draw the characters closer to their goals or away from them.

But now that I think of it, shouldn't every chapter do that? Maybe some in an intense way and others in a not so intense way—just to keep a nice balance like you mentioned above.

I'm looking forward to your answers!

Leanna said...

This is one of my fav movies! And one of my fav lines: Is this a kissing book? And you're right, it's a nice balance of conflict and humor throughout.

Pam Halter said...

I'm writing YA fantasy and one thing that works for me is to introduce a new character. It gives the other characters something to talk about and react to. Since the hero is on a quest, it stands to reason he'll come across new and different people or creatures from time to time.

Nicole said...

Robert Liparulo is the master of pacing in the thriller genre. He can leave a reader breathless from the ongoing conflict.

But you take romance and the novel slows down considerably, conflicts can be much more subtle, often the characters can be more "ordinary" people. So pacing can be less "definable", the conflict less major. (Notice I said "can" not "will".)(Breaking Point worked all the way through, Karen. Love that book.)

Mysteries can be intense but might move steadily rather than quickly.

Heck, who knows? ;)

Jim Rubart said...

I admit it. The Rubart's are P.B. whackos too. We quote lines from the movie all the time.

Last night I came in from my office to find my 14-year old son watching P.B. with a friend.

"This is such a GREAT movie, dad!"

Ah, gotta love that kid.