Writing on a Train

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stopped reading a book before you finished it.

Keep your hand up if it was because you either never got into the book or you got bored with the story part of the way through.

Now put your hand down. I can’t see it and you are starting to look like an idiot.

That said, I am assuming that you had your hand up. If you didn’t, then you either don’t follow directions (dishonor on your cow) or you are a terrifyingly strong-willed person and you scare me quite a bit.

Readers can lose interest in a book for all sorts of reasons, but one of the common ways that interest is lost is because the writer has not maintained a strong control over their pace from start to finish. Maybe they go too fast, maybe too slow, or maybe they just don’t seem to be moving anywhere at all. The writer shouldn’t be shamed for it, however, because WRITING GOOD PACE IS REALLY FRIGGIN’ HARD. There are too many temptations for a writer to stray from their pace, like little info dumps or irrelevant but pretty descriptions.

For me, pacing was always one of those things that I understood without actually understanding. I knew how to speed up the pace (short sentences, scene cuts and jumps, dragging out tension) and how to slow the pace (commas everywhere). I didn’t understand how to keep the pace from crashing to a fiery, miserable halt.

Thankfully, school exists. In a MA course last year, we were working on editing fiction when we encountered an info dump. Pace halted. We cried that it was a boring paragraph. We cried that it was great information. We cried that we didn’t know what to do. And then, the professor proposed a really simple metaphor that has helped me dig out of some writing and editing holes.

The answer is trains, y’all.

train

Let’s get into it…

The train is your story. The tracks are your plot.

The train leaves station A with the very first sentence you write. It arrives at station B with the very last sentence you write. Between point A and point B, your train does not stop.

Your train could speed up as it tries to overcome some major obstacle. Your train might slow down as it winds lazily through the peaceful countryside. But your train never stops.

This metaphor has helped me trim back on the excess. As writers, we think a lot. We might be going into a story with so much world building and character backstory that we want to share it with readers because dang we worked hard on developing it. But is this information helping you get from point A to point B? Are you stopping the train so that you can upturn your character’s baggage to examine it from every angle before determining that it is safe to continue the journey?

Look at it this way. You can spend your first fifty pages loading your passengers onto the train, looking through everything they are bringing with them before they board. Or, you can spend those pages already in motion, waiting for your characters to actually need and use what they have to progress the story.

The metaphor has also helped me maintain constant momentum. Let’s say you are halfway through the story and you need to overcome an obstacle, and you decide that the best way for that obstacle to be overcome is for a new character or piece of knowledge to be introduced to the story. You could pull your train to a stop, let your characters get out and stretch their legs, spend a few dozen pages where you aren’t progressing toward the goal, and hope that they organically happenstance on the information. Or, you could keep the train moving and have your new elements thrown aboard amidst the action, maintaining momentum and exciting readers.

So, there you go! That is the basic gist of my train metaphor! I hope that it helps you visualize the movement of your story the way that it helps me.

Do you have any tricks to help control your pace and keep the story moving? Let me know in the comments down below!

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Sarah is the owner and managing editor of the papery, a blog for readers and writers, as well as a freelancer at Morris Freelancing Services. She graduated Emerson College with a MA in Publishing and Writing in 2018.

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