Writing Excuses 10.31: How Do I Control the Reader’s Sense of Progress?

This month’s Master Class episodes focus on pacing, and we’re dividing the concept of pacing into two parts: the first is the sense of progress within the story, and the second is the sense of the passage of time. In this episode we tackle that first bit, and discuss how we communicate progress to the readers.

We talk a bit about the concept of “promises made to the reader,” which we covered in more detail during episode 10.14. You may want to refer back to that at some point.

Play

The Magnified Moment: write two pages in which someone gets out of bed, walks across the room, and opens the door.

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu, narrated by Kevin T. Collins

19 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.31: How Do I Control the Reader’s Sense of Progress?”

  1. Speaking of “promises made to the reader” and “sense of progress”, what is the writer’s responsibility, progress-wise, when they write a series? Pat Rothfuss promised us a trilogy. “The Name of the Wind” came out in 2007. “The Wise Man’s Fear” came out in 2011. So I guess volume three is due out about now. But I see no title and no publication date. A worse case is George R. R. Martin. We have 5 volumes so far in the “Fire and Ice” series. They came out in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2005, and 2011. The title of volume 6 has been known for years but there is still no publication date. I was trained to expect roughly a book a year. With longer books I can understand a slower rate. I can also understand a slower rate if the author is someone like Brandon who puts out books in several series. But in my opinion, both of these authors, but especially Martin have abused the reader’s trust and broken their promise to make an effort to stick to a schedule. Am I off base here? Do you expect to cover this in a podcast somewhere along the line?

    1. The best way to make sure that a writer doesn’t write is to pressure them to write. If you feel that your trust is abused in a single book, then put the book down and stop reading. The same is true of series. If you feel like your trust has been abused, then don’t buy the books when the new ones come out.

      Even in a single book, when we talk about promises to the reader, the rest of that should be “…if you want them to keep reading.” For a lot of authors, a giant gap between books is a career killer. For other authors, trying to crank out a book a year is a career killer because that’s not the way they write and the books suffer. But at the end of the day… the author doesn’t actually owe you anything. If you like the books. Read them. If you don’t. Then don’t.

      But the publication schedule? A book takes as long to write as it needs. Any less time and you get a crappy book. And if there’s one thing the author definitely doesn’t owe you, it’s a crappy book.

      As for a podcast about this? Neil Gaiman has covered the topic thoroughly.

  2. I know you guys don’t want to trash anyone’s work, but I think it would be very illustrative to hear about some real world examples of what *not* to do in terms of pacing and promises. Feel free to cite Lost for the latter…

  3. @Mary Kowals – excellent reply and exceptional link.

    Twenty-three’ish plus years ago I was sitting around waiting for book six of a series. Ignoring the cliffhanger of book five’s ending, the series was just that good. The only time I have hounded a bookstore about “is it in yet?” And then the reported release date came and went. Days passed. Weeks past. Then months. I finally gave up waiting.

    A few years later, I’m online now, and remember that book. I go look it up. Not sure if it was executive meddling, author angst, none of that was revealed at the time, but book six had become a new trilogy all its own. I found this out by reading the blurb for book one. New character for MC and POV. The old plot points and questions now washed aside for a new story picking up right where the old one left off.

    I was deeply offended. As Mr Gaiman said, I felt entitled to the book I wanted. I got over it in the years since. Perhaps the author had been forced to write that first story and finally had the sales to go where he wanted? Perhaps life took a right turn at Albuquerque? Or perhaps that new series was ghost written and they had no notes of where it was going and that ghostwriter went his/hers own path? None of my business really.

    A long time ago, a friend told me not to read a particular series, because the author had died at book 14 and book 15 was to be the climatic ending. These things happen. But I never did read that series either.

  4. I have a super neat technique for writing, creating and sustaining suspension and tension in your story. I got this technique off from Agatha Christie and Emily Rodda (fantasy and children’s books pseudonym of Jennifer Rowe, her style happens to resemble Agatha Christie in some ways, mostly pacing). Basically, when you write long paragraphs your readers will tend to read faster and when your paragraphs are shorter they actually spend a longer time reading. I supect it has something to do with wanting to get through a long text quickly so they can finally catch their breath, but I’m not sure. Have any of you ever heard of this technique before?

  5. @Lukas, my experience as a reader and writer says the opposite is more true regarding the perception of the flow of time in readers. You use short, rapid paragraphs and sentences to give the perception of fast flow of time (like for hand-to-hand combat), and longer paragraphs and sentences to slow the perception of time down for the reader.

    But I’m also not sure what to call the effects of skimming long chunks vs closely reading shorter paragraphs, though I know rapid skimming larger paragraphs exists because I’ve done it far too many times (like reading text walls of jargon so far over my head my eyes glaze over and I skim to get past it).

  6. This was a well-timed podcast for me–my husband is reading “Prince Caspisn” to our son, and this perfectly describes why I dislike that book even though the plot and allegorical elements sound fine on paper. They’re only lost in the woods for two chapters, but it feels like two years because there’s no sense of progress. I seriously remember “and Trumpkin and the Pevensies get lost in the woods” as a good third of that book. (There’s also the fact that Caspian doesn’t protag for most of the flashbacks–Cornelius is the protagonist there–but the pacing-destroying “lost in the woods” sequence is the worst.)

  7. As remusmdh says, the opposite is true.

    That’s why writers often use short, clipped sentences and paragraphs during action scenes–to give a sense of immediacy to the pace. Readers can plow through pages of dialogue or short descriptive passages much more quickly than a clunky wall of text.

    When I see long passages, it tells me that the author is intentionally spending more time on something because it’s important. Ergo, I read that passage much more deliberately, thoroughly, and slowly.

    And as far as formatting goes, I find large paragraphs daunting, especially if I’m trying to read on a small handheld device.

    As an aside note, I think it’s a terrible idea as an author to deliberately *cause* your readers to skim over your passages. If every word in your story isn’t important enough to be read individually, then they should have been edited out of the book to begin with. If a reader begins to skim, they’re losing interest (and faith) in the book (and author). It’s not something you should risk. Your goal as a writer is to keep the reader interested so that they continue reading, not to bore them so that they’re skimming over most of your book.

  8. And as for Pat’s comment: I think he makes a legitimate point.

    The author is selling a product to us and is expected to meet the demand with their supply. Writing is no different than any other retail or sales business arrangement. It’s like any other purchase/sales agreement.

    George Martin, for instance, packaged and *sold* his product as a 7-book series (originally 6 books?). So if he does not deliver on that promise he did not deliver the whole product as agreed upon, and he risks losing customer loyalty and potential sales. Some might even have legal grounds for misrepresentation, et al. And it’s not as if Martin is issuing refunds or rain checks. This is bad business. Imagine if your health insurance company decided *not* to pay the coverage in your premium? Or if the car salesman delivered the wrong car and told you “too bad.”

    So I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dry as Mary states. Yes, ultimately it’s the reader’s choice to support an author. But that author made his bones on the backs of his readers who paid for his product and publicized his work for him. The least he can do is supply the products he promised. If it weren’t for the readers (and now television audience) he wouldn’t be where he is.

  9. I find the discussion of reader entitlement very interesting. I read what Neil wrote and I agree on the face of it. Certainly no author is the reader’s… servant, shall we say. Indeed, there is no contract between you and me when I buy your book, read it, enjoy it, and want more. There is also no excuse for human beings to be total jerks to each other and post things online like, “Why are you, Author I Worship, doing [insert enjoyable activity] when you should be writing [insert book name] as fast as possible instead???”. Whenever I see that, I cringe. I happen to follow Brandon on facebook, and I want to scream every time I see those comments. On every post. On every topic he posts on. To an author who cranks out eleventy-zillion, truly excellent words per year.

    BUT, given all that, and let’s take Brandon again, I have always found his public responses to this issue very gracious. He has said many times that he does actually FEEL that he has a responsibility to his readers. The word contract, no. But responsibility, yes. I’ve read that comment and heard him say it on WX. And not just within a book, as in “responsibility to fulfill one’s promises” within a given novel. Rather, he’s said he feels he has a responsibility to his readers to put out books in a timely fashion. I’ve also heard him say he feels he has a responsibility to aspiring writers who really want to be doing exactly what he’s doing and to have “made it”, and that responsibility is not to blow it by letting down his readers. Didn’t he say that just a few podcasts ago? And someone kind of jumped down his throat a bit about it, like, “Wow, that sounds really….like all the rest of you guys just suck.” And he replied, “No that’s not what I meant….” but then decided to let it go. I totally got what he meant by that. And I deeply, deeply appreciated it.

  10. Reader feelings of entitlement come up whenever a single Story is being told in segments released periodically, whether it’s via a magazine serial, a series of 300-page paperbacks, or a webcomic. In the webcomic world, especially, all too often readers see the beginnings of a very promising story, their sympathies are engaged, they are eager to know what happens next… but then… Life Happens to the artist/writer. The story dribbles to a stop, forever unfinished.

    I’m sure Howard knows that his ultra-reliable update schedule makes him a rare treasure in the world of webcomics. It has undoubtedly earned him many loyal readers, who now believe they can trust him to give them the whole story, page by page, until it is done. Never-finished stories are a hard fact of life for webcomic readers. They have to get used to being disappointed. It’s a risk they take every time they find a new comic, invest in the long or short archive dive, and then, if it’s good, settle in for getting the Rest of the Story on whatever update schedule the artist can manage.

    Novels, though… when someone buys a novel, they have some reason to believe they’re buying a story that will have an ending. Life is still going to Happen, and with novels there’s now a publisher in the mix, who can also screw things up.

    What book-ending cliffhangers risk is the loss of reader trust. That doesn’t mean never write long multi-volume story arcs. But be aware that it IS a risk. A cliff-hanger does make readers want to buy your next book, but if that next book doesn’t arrive, even if it’s through no fault of your own, they will still hate you. They will feel that you tried to manipulate them with a promise, and then broke it. If you CAN give a sense of closure at the end of each book, your readers will buy your next book only if they enjoyed the last one and want more of your kind of storytelling. That, in my opinion, is a much better reason!

  11. Thanks for all the responses. And I had already adopted the response Mary suggested. I lost interest in Martin’s series after book 4. I ended up reading book 5 but only because a friend lent me his copy. I figured I’d give him one more chance. Book 5 did not, however, change my mind.

    I understand writing is not a mechanical process. It is a creative process. I also understand that life sometimes intervenes. I do not expect to be able to put a reminder on my calendar for 12 or 18 months from now and expect the next book to be available with absolute certainty when the reminder pings. But I do think it is reasonable to expect an author to make an effort.

    In Martin’s case I note that no books have emerged since the TV series started. I think he found out that being involved with the TV series was more fun than writing. I also note that volume 4 was late. Martin said at the time that he ran into trouble and took extra time to reorganize the rest of the series. When volume 4 came out he said he was now positioned to fly through the rest of the series due to the work he had done during the delay. That turned out to be not quite true.

    And I pointed out the Brandon experience. Some of his books have been seriously late. I have no problem with this because he has had legitimate reasons for the delay. I can also understand an author doing say 3 books of a planned 6 book series and then putting out the word that “you know this is no longer working for me — sorry” and abandoning the series completely. If I was invested in the series I would be disappointed but I would understand.

    In checking up for my original post I found that Rothfuss was not yet seriously late. To a certain extent his books are so damn good that I am impatient for the next one to come out. (One hopes as an author to turn out material that is good enough that fans are impatient for more.) So at this point I am antsy but I don’t think he has yet done anything wrong.

    As an author you get to decide if you are doing stand alone books or a series. Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It was structured as a stand alone book. Fans of the book have long been disappointed that she hasn’t written anything else because they wanted to read more. But no one felt that she had broken a promise. So people were pleasantly surprised when “Go Set a Watchman” materialized.

    I guess I just have to say it. If you decide to write a series you are making an implicit promise that you will produce subsequent installments at reasonable intervals. Promises can be broken. And there is no one that is going to throw an author in jail for breaking this one. But if you don’t intend to make the promise good don’t make it in the first place. And “I’m now having more fun doing something else” is a pretty poor excuse for breaking this promise.

  12. Just a side note on skimming: I’m the absolute worst, and it’s not on purpose. (I just read fast and miss things; if I say I actually skimmed, I didn’t read the book.) My eyes will jump large chunks of text, and then something won’t make sense a few pages later, and I’ll have to go back and re-read that chunk of text slower.

    All that to say, The Way of Kings forced me to break that habit and slow down. I missed whole sections the first time, and it wasn’t because the writing was dull.

    Anyway, not everyone is the same, but hey. Intentionally skipping is like reading a comic with all the context pulled out; it’ll make no sense.

    As for authors being late…well…honestly, I’ve known a few. Every time one disappeared and I sent a message (one, I was kinda worried he’d died, it’s been so long), something absolutely horrible had happened.

    And really, sometimes you sit down to write a book and realize it’s too much for one book, and are forced to split it in two.

  13. Skimming is a good tool for every reader to have.

    Once the book is in my hands it’s up to me to make it enjoyable so I’ll read it in what ever order I like.

    If the author has made a promise and is taking to long to deliver I’ll skip to the goods and read all the bits of the story that take my interest. Skipping to the climatic fight scene or all the bits where the romantic couple are happy and get along.
    In my experience reading the last chapters fills me with questions about the past and provides me with enough hooks to go back to the start and read from their.

    I’ll even go step further and augment the writer’s writing if it’s not to my liking adding description removing verbs.
    Bringing charters back from the dead, changing what charters look like and fixing things that don’t make sense.

    The Author writes the book but it’s up to the reader to make it enjoyable for them.

  14. I’m confused. I can’t see that I mentioned skimming anywhere. I’m a hundred percent against skimming… Reading fast or slow doesn’t have to mean you’re skimming. I read in a very unique trance-like way where I have to absorb not just every word but every letter of every word in order to understand a story and remember it a hundred percent. What I’m describing, in my experience, is like a continous flow, where you’re not stopping to breathe for a while. Long paragraphs of action, in my experience, makes readers read faster, while shorter ones gives them time to stop and catch their breath.

  15. Forgot to add that what I’m describing is also like an action scene in a movie, like a high speed car chase. That’s what I’m trying to describe. Maybe I’m failing at that…

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