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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode Six: James Dashner's Lessons on Pacing

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode Six: James Dashner's Lessons on Pacing


Key points: Use genuinely intriguing mysteries and real information to make readers keep reading, not false reveals. Show readers interesting things, don't conceal boring stuff, and they'll keep reading. Mysteries, revelations, disasters, action scenes -- these keep the reader going, so spread them out and mix them up. Consider chapter length, sentence length, even dialogue tags as your pacing tools, and think about how to use them to make it interesting for the reader from beginning to end.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Four, Episode Five. James Dashner's lessons on pacing.
[Howard] 15 minutes...
[James] Yeah!
[Dan] Way to...
[Howard] What's your problem? That's my line. You stomped on it!
[James] I'm not that smart.
[Brandon] Anyway, we're just going to move right on ahead. Today we have special guest star James Dashner, author of The Maze Runner. James...
[James] Thank you. Thank you.
[Howard] We are live at Life, the Universe, and Everything here at Brigham Young University.
[Brandon] Yes, we are. James has consented to join us. He is a fantastic writer whose book I have read and loved. He has also been selling a ton of copies lately and deservedly so. The Maze Runner has been selling through the roof. It is a great YA dystopian science fiction.
[James] Thank you. I appreciate that.
[Brandon] Yeah. The check's in the mail, right?
[Howard] Consented means that we get paid and he doesn't?
[James] Yes.
[Brandon] James, we're going to pitch a lot of these things at you because you're the one who said I want to do a podcast on pacing. What did you mean? Why do you say that?
[James] Well, Brandon, this is the reason why. Because I get asked about this a lot, about how you pace in a book, how you structure a book to really make the reader fly through it. It's something that I consciously work on. I... story is always most important, but I also think about how it's structured in terms of chapters, in terms of when I reveal things...
[Brandon] So you're using your structure as part of your pacing?
[James] Yes. Absolutely.
[Brandon] What tips can you give to our listeners to do that well? How do you use it? What tricks do you use?
[James] Okay. Well...
[Dan] Let's call them techniques instead of tricks.
[James] Techniques. Okay.
[Brandon] We'll call them techniques [stage whisper] but the're really tricks.
[James] Okay. Trick word. I don't know. I love to end chapters with things that make you want to read the next one. This is something..."
[Brandon] Okay. A $20 bill?
[James] That works. I haven't tried that one, but I'm sure that...
[Brandon] It gets a little expensive. The publishers balked when I suggested that one to them.
[James] Yeah. You could afford it, but I couldn't. This is something that I...
[Howard] A Wheel of 20s?
[Dan] The Wheel of Fortune!
[James] So do your special guests ever...
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because we've got a punchline.
[James] And I don't. So do your special guests usually actually talk?
[Brandon] Yes. Yes.
[Dan] They're usually a little more aggressive than you. Come on...
[Brandon] Fast-paced, fast-paced. Keep it moving, keep it moving.
[James] All right. So I was born in 1972 and then I... no, this is something...
[Brandon] You're old!
[Dan] A poorly paced lesson on pacing...
[James] I'm only three years older than Brandon Sanderson, just for the record.
[Brandon] You're almost as old as Howard.
[James] But I have way more hair, but that's the obvious joke. Okay...
[Brandon] I don't know, it's about even. He's got it on the chin.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, I have a big frowny pout on my face right now.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's actually let James talk. Go ahead.
[James] And I have a beautiful palate of hair. Not palate, what's the word?
[Brandon] On your mouth?
[Howard] The roof of his mouth is furry.
[Dan] Okay, okay. Seriously. Now we're doing exactly what we complained about in our intro.
[Brandon] Yes, we are. James! Keep it snappy.

[James] Okay. I am about to blow your mind. This is something I have matured in in my writing from when I started to now. I used to like to end chapters with things that would trick you into reading the next chapter, like, "He opened the door and he gasped..." But that is really a cheap trick, and it's not good writing. Now I try to do it more like I want to create something intriguing enough to force them to keep reading. So instead of that scene, I'll have him open the door and there is a wet cardboard box sitting on his doorstep and juice is oozing out of it, or something like that. And he leaned over to pick it up. Something like that.
[Brandon] You just blew my mind.
[James] I just blew your mind.
[Brandon] No, really, that's awesome. Because I've actually tried to articulate that very same concept before... we've talked about how the thriller that uses these kind of... these dirty tricks rather than good tricks or rather than techniques as they have been called... really annoy me. I've had trouble sometimes putting my finger on it. The Da Vinci Code does this a lot. It dangles something in front of you, a little carrot of "I'm going to tell you this eventually" but I don't.
[Howard] It's the false reveal.
[Brandon] Yeah. As much as I like some episodes, Lost does this a lot. Things that have to keep you going forever do this a lot. It's really... what they do is... I opened the door and saw... ! In the next one, it's like .. my mother and she said hello to me and blah, blah-blah-blah, blah. Then you get to the end of the chapter, and then she revealed to me... ! Something that I'm going to tell you later on.
[Howard] Oh, it's just the cat.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah. Oh, it's just the cat.
[James] To use a movie example, if Star Wars... well, it is a book, but if the movie was a book, or... you know what I mean? When Luke... or when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke's father, okay? You could say and then Darth Vader said something... and then make you read the next chapter. But it's so powerful when he says, "Luke, I am your father." That should be strong enough to make you want to read the whole chapter.
[Brandon] Right. Rather than saying, "Luke, I am your dot dot dot" and you're like "What? Rutabaga?" I mean...
[James] Exactly.
[Brandon] That's actually very clever. It's a good way to articulate it. So you should put something interesting behind the door and show them the interesting thing to make them want to keep reading. Rather than keeping from them what it is. In other words, don't do what I did at my reading yesterday when I stopped at a dramatic point. That was because it was going to spoil...
[voice] [inaudible comment]
[Dan] Let's point out that the two examples that James used, one of them was a mystery and one of them was a revelation. You can do either one as long as you're interesting.

[Brandon] How else can we use structure to help with pacing?
[James] I think one just very small to obvious thing is chapter length. I've had this argument with our good friend Shannon Hale. She thinks that chapters should be somewhat long because she thinks at the end of the chapter, the kid has an excuse to close the book. So you shouldn't have too many chapter endings. I completely disagree, as much as I love Shannon. I think if that kid ends a chapter and knows that the next one is really short, they'll think, "Oo, I can just read one more." So I'm a huge fan of relatively short chapters. I don't like them as short as Dan Brown.
[Howard] So it's a can of potato chips versus a can of potatoes?
[James] Yes...
[Brandon] I don't even know what that meant, Howard.
[James] You just blew my mind.
[Dan] The length of your chapters, I think, also depends a lot on the genre that you're writing. An epic fantasy is going to have a much longer chapter than a YA fantasy which is probably going to have a slightly longer chapter then a really taut thriller.
[Brandon] Let's look at what these different things are doing and what... when you're writing your chapters, actually confidently deciding I'm going to write to gain this aspect. I write long chapters in my epic fantasy. One of the reasons why I do this is because I want to give an epic sense of scope. Also, I'm writing books that are 300,000 words long. People are not going to read my books in one sitting. In fact, they... if they want to pick up one of my books... some of you, I know, have read them in one sitting and you're crazy. But if people are going to pick up one of my books, there is just so much going on... what I'm doing is going to require a lot of... people... I want to make them think, I want to make them digest and this sort of thing. I can't afford to tear them through the entire book because 300 words of tearing people through will exhaust them and annoy them. It's what Dan Brown tried to do with Da Vinci Code. My argument has always been that he tried number one, too hard using dirty tricks, number two, it was too long. So I got frustrated because I wasn't getting the answers. If you have a shorter book that you can just rip someone through, that's awesome. That's not what I try to do with epic fantasy. So I give them large chunks. Each chapter is like almost a novella or at least a novelette. You read the whole thing, you get a complete arc and story to it. When you sit it down, you have taken a huge bite of something substantial. In that case, I'm okay if you put it down. I don't necessarily... but I can't afford to do what you do, and you do it extremely well, which is just pull people along until they're gasping at the end and have to have the ending.

[Howard] I've got a question now. We've talked a little bit about these chapter endings. So you've got... I don't know, 20 chapters in a book. So there's 20 pages you've made me turn. How are you going to make me turn the other 400?
[James] Great question, Howard Tayler. You have to...
[Howard] They know my name. This is Writing Excuses. Not be James Dashner show.
[James] Okay. Actually, I had more like 60 chapters, but that's a small point. So the other pages... you have to be really smart about spacing the things throughout your story. I kind of have some rules of thumb. You don't want scenes of dialogue to be too long, you don't want scenes of... paragraphs of description to be too long. I always try to... within each chapter, on kind of a smaller scale than what you're doing... you said they're like novellas? I try to have little mini-stories within them that are intriguing enough to keep them pulled along. I think through it. Now, I don't do heavy outlining, but I do kind of have a one or two page list of bullet points. That kind of tells what my basic story is. But when I start a new chapter, I do just kind of pause and sit back and think through it for about five minutes on how I'm going to structure that to make it interesting from beginning to end.

[Brandon] This week's episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by The book of the week we've chosen this week is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Which I can't believe we've never actually promo'ed and he was the Guest of Honor at Life, the Universe, and Everything two years ago. It is one of the greatest books ever written. One of the best science fiction books ever written. Audible has the audio book of the special 20th anniversary edition. So go to and download a free book. You can download this one for free.

[Brandon] We will go back to James Dashner now.
[Dan] We are back. Howard, talking about pacing and chapter length. You don't write chapters, you have the daily strips. Some of them are longer than others, have more panels than others. How do you decide that? How do you decide when you are going to do a supersize?
[Howard] The driving force for me really is the punch line. There are some times when I know a chunk of story... I have to get out this chunk of story next, and it's too long to get a punch line... it's too long... I'm not going to get to the punchline within one row of panels. So I need two rows or three rows of panels. I try to schedule those for Sunday because I want my Sunday installments to be big, I want my daily installments to be small. I hate drawing extra rows in the middle of the week because that means more work and I'm a lazy cartoonist. In that sense, structure, the structure of the comic strip is really driving the way I build the story. But in terms of pacing, the punchline is the daily reward. That's your treat for having read today's strip. If there's going to be a big reveal, unless the big reveal is inherently funny and I try and stay away from those because they feel cheap... unless the big reveal is inherently funny, I put the reveals... panel two, panel one... I move the story forward, and then tell the joke at the end.

[James] Let me jump in here, because revelations... big reveals is an excellent way to pace a story. Suspense, action scenes, fun stuff like that... that always works, of course. But also, I think, a big reveal has the same effect on a reader. A specific example is, I'm writing the third book of the Maze Runner trilogy. I had two major revelations for the beginning of the book. I didn't want to waste them all in one punch. So I thought it out. In the first chapter, I give a major hint of one. In the second chapter, I reveal the first one. In the third chapter, I reveal the third one. I think it's really going to get people to start tearing through the beginning.

[Brandon] That's a good idea. When you start thinking about this topic, when you start thinking about structure as a means of helping your pacing, there are all sorts of things that will occur to you. Some of them will end up working, some of them won't. Some of the things I've tried... you'll notice that... this is a structure item on a much smaller scale, the one sentence paragraph. How often do you use the one sentence paragraph? If you overuse it, it loses its impact. But if you use it just right, it can be like a zing of "Wow, that means something."

That one sentence.

Your eyes will focus on it. Structure will do that. Short sentences, which you kind of mentioned, in a paragraph, will make people actually give a staccato feel to what's going on, a chaotic almost feel to it. If you have short paragraphs, that will actually speed things up. The short paragraphs don't have to have as short a sentences as people think, but the short paragraphs will tear them through.
[James] Yeah. Whitespace. People love whitespace.

[Dan] Now, when you're talking about the pacing of an entire novel of the long form, the way I do this is I like to look at all the different elements that are going to be big, that are going to have an impact. Those are things like the introduction of a mystery, what's the seeping box on the porch, the revelation of something, and also horrible things that happen, when the character gets punched in the face, when bad things happen. Find those and space them out. Don't have all of the introductions of mysteries right next to each other. Don't have all of the bad things right next to each other. Spread them out nice and evenly so you get something interesting at a pretty good clip, but something interesting in a different way.

[Brandon] Also, spread out the climaxes. This is one of the things I had to learn. Sometimes, you want to overlap climaxes. This is again, is a formatting thing. If everything is coming at you, it increases the sense of urgency and chaos. Yet at the same time, I've learned as I've been writing, one of the complaints that people have made about my writing is, "Wow, your endings gets so confusing because so much stuff is going on that I have trouble sometimes keeping focus." This was particularly a problem in Elantris if you've read that. Particularly in the first draft. The one that came to press, I'm pleased with, I think I did alright. But... Dan read the original.
[Dan] Yeah. Elantris is where we coined the term, the Brandon avalanche. Which is the last two or three chapters of every Brandon novel at the time was brrrp -- 27 climaxes of all these different plot threads. And... he doesn't do that anymore.
[Brandon] I've learned to try and stagger them. Sometimes it's appropriate to bring a lot of things to a head at the same time. But I've found that if you can take different viewpoints and can stagger their climactic events... particularly in epic fantasy like myself... the structure then will actually help the whole book feel better paced.
[James] You could look at it like a television show you like a lot. Say, if you love Lost, there is a certain power to having to stop after an episode and sit there and think about it for a while. If you could literally just watch it continuously for hours and hours, it would lose some of its effect.
[Brandon] I did that with the first season of 24. I was supersaturated. By the end, I was not able to be appreciating it as much. Because 24 does this sort of pull you through thing. 24 episodes, an hour long each, I was like brain-dead. I watched it in two sittings, but...
[James] Oh, wow.

[Dan] Let me say from the horror writer's point of view, the thriller point of view, you don't want to have too many of these moments to release tension. You need to have places where you can deflate it a little bit, you need to have breathing space. But if you let all the air out of it, then you lose all of the tension you have built up in that story.

[Howard] A simple pacing trick that I've observed in other people's writing... it doesn't really apply to me... is tagless dialogue. Because by dropping off the said or exclaimed or whatever those little isms are at the end...
[James] Dean Koontz is really good at that.
[Howard] Just the straight dialogue. In order to pull this off, your characters' voices have to be well enough established that we can tell who's talking. But by doing that, you are putting less words on the page, but putting just as much content down, and dragging the reader through the conversation I think much more quickly. It just flies.

[Brandon] We want to end with a writing prompt. I think we'll go ahead and use James Dashner's wet box writing prompt. Someone opens a door and finds a wet cardboard box on their doorstep. They reach down and pick it up. It's seeping something...
[James] Disgusting.
[Brandon] Disgusting, of course.
[Dan] It could be seeping something happy.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: mysteries, pacing, reveals, revelations, writing excuses
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