Writing Excuses 4.6: Pacing with James Dashner

This episode was recorded live at Life, The Universe, & Everything 28, The BYU Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy, and features, among other things, our largest audience ever.

Oh, and James Dashner, our friend and the author of The Maze Runner.

It also features what has to be our roughest start ever. We don’t get to actual content until around four minutes in. Seventeen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re pretending this was an object lesson. Also, we love picking on our friend James.

Pacing! What do we do so that people keep turning pages? Which useful tricks do we hate? Which subtle methods do we prefer? And most importantly, what does James Dashner do? We talk about reveals, punchlines, cliffhangers, chapter length, and the “Brandon Avalanche.” Also, we talk briefly about the look on my face, and the roof of James’ mouth.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Ender’s Game: Special 20th Anniversary Edition by Orson Scott Card

Writing Prompt: Someone opens a door, and finds a wet, seeping cardboard box on the doorstep.

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31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.6: Pacing with James Dashner”

  1. When Brandon mentioned watching all of “24” in one sitting it made me think of the time I listened to all of season 1 and 2 of Writing Excuses over the course of a few days. To quote our ‘casters, “It blew my mind.”

    And great ‘cast guys. I’m sad I had to work and couldn’t make it to LTUE to see this in person.

  2. I’m the guy who yells, “Pate! Pate!” Because I know everyone is dying to find out who that was. (g)

    Seriously, this was indeed the biggest crowd I’ve seen Writing Excuses get, between LTUE and CONduit both. A testament to how much penetration the podcast has achieved with aspirants. Well done, you three.

  3. This sounded to me more like what was being discussed was not pacing, but how to write a page-turner. A novel can be a page-turner, and yet not necessarily employ breakneck pacing. Pacing has more to do with the structure of the story. Scenes, by their very nature, are fast paced, even if they aren’t intense or action-packed. The bits following the scenes, — what Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain call ‘sequels’ — where a character is recovering from the disaster of the previous scene and is planning their next angle of attack, are, by nature, slow paced. How these are handled is what makes up a novel’s pacing.

    That, at least, is my understanding.

  4. I had a great time watching and listening to you guys record this. You are all so great. I’d never heard of your podcast and I enjoyed it immensely. It was a blast being in the audience.

  5. Pacing is one of the most important parts of storytelling, and it often gets overlooked as we focus on plot and characters.

    Something they didn’t really touch on is perspective changes and how that effects pacing. When we’re rolling along with a character and we’re immersed in that character’s story, it’s terribly jaring when we switch to another character whose story is stagnant at the moment. It’s a huge opportunity to “put the book down,” especially when we leave the invested character in a tense situation.

    For example: I felt the view point changes in The Gathering Storm actually detracted from the pacing at times, especially when it came to Egwene. Egwene was a primary character in TGS, and demanded a great deal of screen time. But, there were several points in her story where we skip away, ending with a cliffhanger so-to-speak, and not returning until some 50-100 pages later. By that point the story is cold and all the tension that was built up is lost. Also, in one spot, the danger we leave her in gets resolved off-screen. So we come back to her and she’s already working within the confines of her new situation.

    In a book like TGS there may not be an easy way of making view point transitions because of the number of view point characters. When you’re nursing as many storylines as involved epic fanatasies allow, you’re bound to have some moments where the shift creates a large break.

    Still, managing those view point changes well can go along way in helping to maintain continuity and tension, and thus pacing.

  6. Thanks guys that was a great podcast, and LtUE was worth the drive from California. Again, thank you for being there every Monday for us aspiring authors.

  7. The podcast file is missing from the main feed. Previous episodes are there and work correctly, just this week’s is missing.

  8. Wow! You guys were a dynamic set of characters. I loved your smooth, funny and smart interactions. That was the very first time I’ve ever heard of a Podcast or even experienced one!

    I thought it was so funny how Brandon picked on ole James throughout the LTU&E conference!! LOL I think James is a good sport.

    I loved the valuable insight provided there and hoped you guys enjoyed your bagels!!

    ~Elizabeth

  9. I think another “trick” would be to have good/clever chapter titles. This would especially work if the reader has already been pulled in by the first chapters or if it’s a sequel novel. The reader takes a look at the table of contents and sees some interesting titles, and then can’t wait to get there.
    I think this works very well in the Wheel of Time.

  10. Sort of off topic but sort of not.

    I opened up my copy of Ender’s Game today and read the acknowledgements. Guess who Orson Scott Card acknowledged for editing Ender’s Game?

    Harriet McDougal.

    I knew she was an editor at Tor but I didn’t know she was responsible for refining both Ender’s Game and the Wheel of Time. Talk about someone who deserves a lifetime achievement award…

  11. @ Andy I first came across interesting chapter heading while reading “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a very long Chinese novel. From what I’ve read in Asian literature, they use chapter headings like a mini-preview to prevent you from putting down the book.

    I really feel just numbering the chapters are missed opportunity.

  12. It’s funny, I was just thinking about chapter size, and questioning the effects of the small v large chapters when I decided to listen to this podcast. Thanks for talking it out, and showing the reasons why a writer would choose one over the other.

    By the way, I added a link to this podcast on my blog on Friday, since I thought plenty of other YA writers (my blog’s target audience) would enjoy listening to a podcast with James Dashner. I’ll definitely be checking out your future podcasts.

  13. I’ve heard this argument for short chapters from Mike Stackpole, how it helps the reader think, “I’ll just read one more chapter,” because they know it will be short. I think it’s a great way to go, it’s funny I just wrote a blog post about this same thing, delivering our fiction in bite size portions. It’s great to hear more about this idea, I’ll post a link to this episode in my blog post. Thanks for another great one guys! Full of great advice, fun and hilarious to boot.

  14. I loved the comment at 7 minutes where they talk about how chapters are an excuse to stop reading, but if the next chapter is short, the reader will keep going… that’s me, at least eight or nine times a night (if I’m reading).

    However, I don’t appreciate Brandon calling me crazy. I like to finish my books in one go. (And if that means spending eighteen hours straight reading the Mistborn Trilogy, that’s just how it’s gonna be.)

  15. I can totally attest to the notion of shorter chapters pulling you all the way through. I finished The Maze Runner last night. Picked up at about Chapter 30-35 and my reaction at the end of every chapter was “Just one more. Just one more.”

    An hour and a half later, I saw how many pages I’d gone through, how few were left, and just ripped right through it. As a result, the experience was thrilling and I just look back on it a happy happy reader. 🙂

    This also worked well for “Under the Dome”. That book is one big beast, about 1100 pages long. Regardless, the chapters were on average no longer than 4-5 pages long with each section being no longer than 80-100 pages long, and the entire book felt like it was half its length.

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