Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Pacing anxiety, or How to stop padding and plot!

One of the great fears of novice writers is that they don't have enough to say. They worry that their chapters are too short and need padding and that their whole novel is going to end up a measly forty-seven pages long.

This is pacing anxiety. You are afraid that you don't have enough to write about, and you are almost certainly right. Most novice writers don't have enough plot, because they confuse their premise with plot.

For instance, you have an idea for a story: a timid woman called Jenny, feeling her life is smothered by commitments and duties, decides on a whim to go into the bed and breakfast business in Alaska. A good premise. But it's not a plot. So you think of several scenes: Jenny encounters a bear, she learns to cook a moose, faces her first Alaskan winter, meets the local Indian guide and his family, meets a hunky biologist (cue romance!), has hard times, gets a lucky booking, and ends up with a successful business, a new lover, and a sense of achievement. Great material! So you start to write.

No, no, no! You still don't have a plot! That's why you have pacing anxiety! You don't know how you're going to turn these scenes into a novel, yet you start writing and hope that somehow the story will grow like Jack's beanstalk under your fingertips. Do you really expect to get cohesion and structure and density by simply writing what pops into your head every day? A good novel is planned. That means a structure where things happen for a reason. Your premise implies that Jenny, feeling stifled, heads to Alaska to improve her life. Your plot, therefore, is about a woman who creates a better life for herself by accepting challenge, and everything you write has to develop to this resolution.

Challenge implies battling something, overcoming opposition, and this is the heart of novel writing. Fiction is about challenges that the protagonist either triumphs over or is defeated by (Emma or Madame Bovary, for example). A novel must have conflict, not just in its overarching idea, but in every single scene.

Your premise is merely the novel's opening action. In the example used here, Jenny's first challenge is to change a life she has recognised as unfulfilling. You have to show the reader just enough about her life (overbearing father, boring boyfriend, emotionally-dependent mother, selfish friends) to make them as thrilled as Jenny is to see the "For sale: large house, Grizzly Bay, Alaska" listing, and to approve when she faces the storm of protest and spends her life savings on it. Since a chapter should not have more than three separate pieces of action, getting all this into Chapter One means that there's no need – in fact, no room – for padding. See how easy it is to remove anxiety?

Now you have the rest of the novel to write. You already have those few scenes in mind, but have you put them to the 'conflict' test? Where in them will Jenny be in conflict, and how will each conflict get us closer to the resolution?

First, of course, the conflict will be within herself. She arrives with prejudices, fears, and ignorance. If she is a good person (and she is), she will fight to remove her prejudices. If she is brave, she will face her fears. If she opens herself to change, her ignorance will be dispelled. Fine! Now let's make all that concrete.

Plot an arc of encounters: that face-to-face moment with the bear, for instance, can be where she learns that she is tougher than she thought. During a cold winter night she could realise that the song of the wolves and the vastness of the starry sky are not terrifying, but beautiful. As you consider Jenny as a person, you will think of more challenges for her. Learning to butcher a moose? Fixing the snowmobile herself? Your novel's premise has assumed a resolution, so you know Jenny will have to have a revelatory moment when she realises that, because of her initial action (moving to Alaska), she is a better, happier, person. All those scenes of internal conflict will lead inexorably to that revelation. And that provides your structure.

But this novel, because of its premise (Jenny is running a bed and breakfast inn after all, not becoming a hermit), will require Jenny to meet many new people. You've already thought of a few. Now introduce conflict. Jenny will be having paying guests; a positive wellspring of conflict. She's learning the business while doing it and some of her guests won't like that. She might make mistakes that give her business a bad reputation, and she'll have to fight it by a publicity drive, working on her online pitch, seeking referrals, and so on. All this is conflict, and it's all action.

She'll be meeting more people than simply her guests. Think about those other characters. The local guide might resent yet another white person moving in, and the hunky biologist will naturally fear the impact of tourism on the fragile ecosystem. Give Jenny an unwelcome neighbour, say, an unmarried teenage mother who's been living in the shack on the property, and you have more than enough opportunities for conflict.

Draw out a sequence of conflicts for each of these characters. Tanu, the local guide, can meet Jenny and warn her that she isn't tough enough to live in his world. Later she helps his wife skin a moose. Tanu's son gets lost and she helps in the search. Now place these 'Tanu events' alongside your sequence of Jenny's inner struggles. Start weaving them together. Right after Tanu's warning, Jenny can have her encounter with the bear and realise that she is tougher than she thought. Helping Tanu's wife butcher the moose teaches her the need for co-operation, the wisdom of Native American ways, and banishes her squeamishness forever. It will be while searching for Tanu's lost child that Jenny has to fix her snowmobile herself, and does. All this means that her final revelation of can be, in part, because Tanu and his family have accepted her.

In the same way, the teenage mother, Maryn, who initially tries to drive Jenny away because she fears that Jenny plans to make her homeless, is at first a source of conflict for Jenny. This is resolved when Jenny hires her work at the bed and breakfast. Perhaps it is Maryn, watching the Northern Lights with her on that cold winter's night, who opens Jenny's eyes to the haunting beauty of Alaska, thus weaving two conflict lines together. Jenny's kindness to Maryn impresses Tanu, Mike, and the other townspeople, and shows that accepting the challenge of a new life has made her a better person.

Lastly, Mike, the biologist, will at first be hostile, but as Jenny listens to him and begins to promote eco-friendly trips to her guests, he thaws. Having learned much about Native attitudes and needs from Tanu's family, Jenny defends Tanu's hunting in the face of Mike's opposition, earning her both his and the community's respect. During the search for Tanu's son, Mike and Jenny could meet and join forces, and he will see in action the courage she has learned over the past months. The climax could come when Jenny, just ahead of Mike, finds Tanu's son and brings him back to the town on her snowmobile, enduring frostbite because she has wrapped the boy in her own parka. It is then, having made a real difference to other people's lives and having lived up to her highest ideals, that Jenny has her revelation.

As you lay each conflict sequence down beside the others, you will see what to blend where, what to re-position, and what can be combined – and combine them you must, because you'll have so much story to tell that every scene will have to do double work! You will find the action easily dividable into fairly equal chunks, and these will be your chapters. You have lost your anxiety and replaced it with the solid presence of a completed novel.