Pacing fiction stories; capitalization of titles
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: August 11, 2009
|Q: I'm told that sometimes my fiction reads too fast. How can I slow it down and still keep things intense? |
A: As a writer, you have a lot of flexibility in how swiftly or slowly passages read. Some heightened moments are most effective when slowed down. Closer attention to the details of an individual scene can create anticipation and tension. But some moments of urgency benefit from a faster pace. In the short story "Jimmy Underwater," author Julia Whitty starts with a quick pace, recounting Jimmy's near-drowning as a child: Brandi Reissenweber
He heard the ice cracking, the sound traveling up through the soles of his feet. Fissures shot out around him as the surface of the lake sagged. Jimmy saw that he was trapped in the center of a web of broken ice, that he was too heavy, that water lay beneath the thin, transparent surface and was lapping at its underside like a great gray tongue. He was nearly to shore but that was no help. Two thoughts came to him: that he was eleven years old and that he was about to die.
The quick succession of details speeds up the narrative, echoing Jimmy's frantic state of mind in this moment. Directing the reader's attention to the ice and the sensory details associated with it also helps to create intensity. Look what happens to this passage when the pace is slowed:
He heard the ice cracking, the sound traveling up thorough the soles of his feet. At first, it seemed like a thrill—something to leap from on this plane of glassy, flat ice. Fissures shot out around him, veins radiating out from his feet, some racing toward the shore. In the center, he was the source of power and the cause of the break. But he was too heavy and he heard the ice creak, like a great steel structure leaning in the wind, its bolts and joints scraping against one another.
In this version, I added more detail and contemplation. The focus is not so fully on the ice, as it brings in his sense of power and the image of a steel structure. The sentences are also longer and fuller, making for a very different experience. There's anticipation for what will happen to Jimmy, but not the flurried, chaotic feel of his state of mind at the time.
A fast pace can lose its luster—even when depicting the most urgent of situations—when it is so fast that the writing seems abrupt:
He heard the ice cracking. He was trapped, too heavy, and he could see the water under the thin surface. He was about to die.
This takes all the finesse out of the passage. The details are thrown at the reader one after the other and there's very little to actually experience with Jimmy. Instead of being in the moment with him, we just skim over it.
Intensity isn't necessarily tied to the length of a scene. Pay attention to which details you choose, how many you include, and how they impact the forward momentum of the specific action of your story.
|Q: How do I know when to capitalize titles, like those of family members, political offices, or rank? Does "mom" get capitalized? Does "president" always begin with a capital letter? I've seen these words both ways. |
A: Let's start with those family terms, including "mom," "dad," "aunt," and "grandmother." Capitalize the term when using it as a proper name:
You should also capitalize when the term comes before a given name:
"Go help Aunt Betty find her contacts."
However, if you're not using the term as a proper name, don't capitalize:
"You should tell your other aunts about your engagement."
"My dad told me to stop chewing my nails."
"Gregory, Lisa's uncle, had to leave early."
Other kinds of titles follow similar rules. When the title comes before a name, capitalize it:
"Lieutenant Harvey was one of the pallbearers."
"Vice President Joe Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania."
When the title comes after a name, capitalize it when it describes a specific person:
"Vivian Langly, the Provost, led the faculty meeting."
But don't capitalize when the title itself is more general:
"Vivian Langly, a provost at a university, served on the community board."
When titles stand alone without names, they aren't capitalized:
"Many of our graduates go on to become sergeants."
"We had to elect a president for our organization."
However, if the title clearly refers to a specific individual, then capitalize it:
"The Mayor denied the accusations."
Some style manuals stipulate that prestigious titles—such as President of the United States, Secretary of State, or Senator—should always be capitalized even when they stand alone. Other manuals recommend these titles be treated like any other, and should not be capitalized unless followed by a name. You'll have to decide what's right given your audience.
Unfortunately, there are no fancy tricks in remembering these quirky little rules. Look them up as you need to; they'll eventually stick.
--Posted Aug. 11, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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