Slow & Steady (Sometimes) Wins The Race
/ pās /
1. do something at a slow and steady rate or speed in order to avoid overexerting oneself
2. move or develop (something) at a particular rate or speed
I don’t remember a lot about elementary school.
I was considered Very Cool by my peers in the fourth grade, significantly Less Cool by those same peers in the fifth grade, and there was a whole entire week every single year, usually in the fall, where we were tasked with dressing up—for, again, let me repeat: the whole entire week—as stereotypes from a specific time period.
“Oh, how cute,” I can already hear you thinking. “Poodle skirts. Flapper headbands. Peace sign necklaces from Claire’s.”
The themes were more like “Revolutionary War” and “The Dark Ages” and, I shit you not, “Aladdin”—I now understand, with a depth of feeling and clarity that is jarring even to me, the person experiencing it, why my mother always pretended to be terribly, urgently busy whenever she was supposed to attend a PTA meeting.
Like, good for her.
Anyway, the end of this harrowing tale segues nicely into my next memory of elementary school, which is, of course, the Paragraph Sandwich.
I have no idea if this is still a thing that they teach small children when they’re learning how to write and organize their thoughts and communicate those thoughts using concise, meaningful language. But the Paragraph Sandwich—the methodology of the Paragraph Sandwich—has informed virtually every aspect of my writing since I understood what writing even was. Essays, short stories, research papers, novels; they are the sum of their parts. It should always be possible to break them down into manageable, clearly-labeled, bite-sized pieces. The individual components are important.
In fiction writing, there’s obviously some nuance to how you can approach the construction of a story—short or long—but the Paragraph Sandwich is an excellent starting point, and, honestly, not even a particularly juvenile one.
The Paragraph Sandwich is foolproof.
Just like when you had to fill out a Paragraph Sandwich worksheet with the bare-bones basics of your book report—beginning, middle, end; beginning, middle, end—you can re-purpose that same Paragraph Sandwich worksheet to build up the foundation of your story.
Which brings me to pacing.
Pacing can be a preference, in some genre writing; suspense and horror, for example, tend to hit more effectively when there’s a real sense of dragging, creeping dread. Action is fast, romance is slow, and the notion that something always has to be happening for a story to read well is a myth. “Fast-paced” does not automatically equate to “could not put down” and that’s a lesson it took me several years, a ton of wine, and many, many novel drafts slam-dunked into the nearest trashcan to fully appreciate.
Pacing should never come at the expense of any other elements of your story, though.
Everyone’s been given the “Roller Coaster” advice before—peaks and valleys, twists and turns, balance is essential for good plotting, et cetera—but much like the Paragraph Sandwich, the Roller Coaster only works if you have a firm grasp on the type of story you’re trying to tell. Write meaningfully. Think of pacing like the engine of the Roller Coaster—it won't fix itself when there's a mechanical failure, but it will certainly become a lot easier for you to fix if you understand where all the parts are supposed to go.
So, if you're editing a story and you can't figure out what's wrong with it, break it down into pieces—Paragraph Sandwich—and then put that shit back together in a way that maximizes character development and plot cohesion and adheres to the basic principles of your genre—Roller Coaster.
Where were you when you realized that writing is basically just one big exercise in “explain it to me like I’m five?”