Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What I learned about pacing from Dora the Explorer

I've been watching a lot of Nick Jr lately. My kid is still young enough to adore the shows that address the audience and ask questions. We'll sit there together, and he'll yell out answers to every shape and color that kids are asked to identify (at least, I'm pretty sure he's correctly identifying them -- I can still only understand about half of what comes out of his mouth :).

But there's a pacing problem with these shows. A big pacing problem, that sort of drives me nuts -- even though I fully understand it's designed for toddlers -- and is similar to a pacing problem I had pointed out to me in my WIP.

Here's a classic example (I was going to try to find a video, but I thought I would spare you all):

Dora and Boots (the cute little monkey) are in a car, traveling down the road at a steady speed, and in front of them they see a big rock in the road.

Dora: "Oh no! We have to turn the wheel to go around the rock!"

They're getting steadily closer to the rock, still traveling at the same speed.

Then Dora turns to the audience and says, "Come on, we have to turn the wheel. Put your hands out and turn the wheel."

Dora pauses to let all the kids watching get in position to turn the wheel -- but they're still moving at the same speed.
This is where the problem comes in -- Dora and Boots are still moving at the same speed. They should have hit the rock about 10 seconds ago. And yet, they're still driving, and still talking about turning the wheel. Finally, Dora turns back to the road to turn the wheel, and they avoid it.

The pacing is all wrong. The tension rises as they're approaching the rock. And with the rising tension, we get a good sense of how long they have until the crash. We can see the sequence of events laid out in front of us, and the tension goes up as we wait to see if they can avoid it.

But when it takes longer to get to the crisis (in this example, the big rock they're about to crash into) then the reader/watcher is expecting, the tension falls apart.

Something similar had happened in my WIP. I had a section where the tension was climbing and climbing . . . and then nothing. I got the same response from readers. The "What the hell? I was all prepared to crash into the rock, and then the rock never came!" reaction that I have to Dora the Explorer.

What about you? Do you take writing lessons what your kids are involved in or loving? Do you notice pacing problems in shows or books that can inform your own writing? Do you struggle with pacing and tension?


Marnee Bailey said...

LOL!! I love love love love that you used Dora for a blog topic. hahahahaha!!

Slow down, Tico the Squirrel!!

I do struggle with pacing and tension. I'm having an issue with it in my MS right now. I'm gearing up to the midpoint crisis but I think I have the other issue. Not enough tension on the way up. So then the mipoint issue feels all melodramatic.


Terri Osburn said...

The only show kiddo liked that I could actually tolerate was Bear in the Big Blue House. He was like a surfer bear who liked to look at the stars and talked like a stoner. LOL! We both loved that bear.

What you describe is why I can't watch kid shows, but I totally understand why they have to be that way. I don't think much about pacing. It just happens. I do know if I have nothing happening for too long, that's a problem.

I'm working on this proposal with very little planning and not feeling comfortable with the story yet. Chapter one went pretty well, but chapter two is pretty much all info-dumping and backstory. I think it's back to the drawing board time.

MsHellion said...

Not really, but only because I don't have kids...and don't have cable TV (and thus Nick Jr.) BUT I do get lots of value out of watching TV shows and applying it to my writing.

NBC's SMASH isn't doing as well as ABC's NASHVILLE has done, even though in a sense the set ups are similar. I was thinking, why is it I can't miss an episode of NASHVILLE but can't be bothered to remember SMASH exists. For me, I think it's characters and setting. On Broadway, to get to Broadway, you have to be so good, you've known you had talent for years, you probably starred in every school play, etc, etc. I get the sense of more middle-class or upper-class advantages, since the usual talents of a Broadway actor requires lots of lessons. Granted, I'm sure there are characters on SMASH who come from very humble beginnings, but they're there on doesn't work the same.

Now in NASHVILLE, instead of NYC, you have a small "town" feel with small town characters. Already I think there's a big difference where you can empathize more with the character--whereas with SMASH, you *wish* you could be that great but can't really empathize. But the characters of NASHVILLE, they have daddy issues, problems with their mother, drinking problems, self-confidence issues, and in love with people who are in love with someone else... So much more relate-able right off the bat.

SMASH makes me think of exclusivity...fighting to get to the top of God knows what--but NASHVILLE, you feel almost anyone can make it--lots of talented people who are waiting tables but haven't had the right luck to be seen. If the right luck can happen for them. I think people tend to like that more. It's more hopeful. *shrugs*

Janga said...

I love the Dora the Explorer lesson too! The youngest grand is our only pre-K now, and she loves Dora the Explorer. I didn't need the video to "see" the scene, Hal. LOL

Ter, I remember the Bear in the Big Blue House. We went through Bear years with two of the grands--the now 12-year-old and the now 9-year-old (with the Wiggles years between them, the favorite of the now 11-year-old). The extended family even saw Bear live in Atlanta. :)

I don't think I've ever before thought about children's TV and pacing. Perhaps I should since pacing is one of my concerns. The two things I've found helpful are checking sentence length and reading out loud. I tend to write long sentences, and so if the pace seems too slow for the scene, often I just need to use shorter sentences. That's a simple change that increases the pace immediately.

I find that the ear is a better judge of pacing than the eye. Reading aloud makes me aware of places where I need to speed or slow the pace. The latter is rarely a problem for me.

Di R said...

My kids were not fans of Dora, however we watched a lot of Bear in the Big Blue House. I still have a cd of his songs. What is fun (well to me, if not my 15 &13 y/o) is playing it in the car now. LOL!

I am judging our chapter's contest and finding that the pacing is off on most of the entries I've read. Either they throw you into the action with characters you have no reason to root for. Or you have to wade through pages of backstory.

I agree with Janga, often the ear is a better judge of pacing than the eye.


Maureen said...

I always wondered a bit why the coyote hung in the air so long...


Pacing, well, I know when I'm bored, I did something wrong. Dora's problems sound a bit like someone is smoking the good stuff, which always takes away from the immediacy of a crisis.

I hear.

I do know it's certainly possible to strip the tension from a scene with too much description, or too much dialogue or too much explanation... For tension to work and not turn into lots of eye blinking, that coyote has to fall...pretty quickly.

So, my advice is don't leave Wile hanging too long...

haleigh said...

Marn - I love Tico :)

I had that problem in my WIP too. The bad guy was hovering 'off-stage' for a goo hundred pages, and when they decided to confront him, they went all out -- to the point that it was melodramatic because the reader had likely forgotten about him. It was a pretty easy fix, but it took adding some scenes from his perspective, adding little hints throughout that they were still worried about him, etc.

haleigh said...

Ter, I hadn't heard of that show, but 10 seconds into a clip on YouTube, it's obvious Carter is going to LOVE it!

Good luck with the storyboarding! That's one of my favorite parts (well, at this point, anything that's not endless revisions is on my list of favorite parts!)

haleigh said...

Hellie, how interesting! I haven't seen either show, but just from your post, it seems that Nashville would be so much more compelling. I think you're onto something - the never knowing if or when it'll happen for you, but knowing it could, is much more interesting than being trained your whole life for Broadway.

And there's something about lucky breaks that just makes for good stories. And talk about built-in tension! The reader/watcher never knows who its going to happen for, and if it will really make their life better if it does (doesn't it always seem that lucky breaks somehow turn into disastrous career moves?)

haleigh said...

Janga, I'm with you, the ear is much better at pacing. I've noticed that when I listen to books on tape, I'll spot pacing problems that I likely wouldn't have spotted on paper. It's just so easy, on paper, to skim to the next sentence or paragraph. Out loud, you're forced to stay at the story's pace, which may or may not be a good thing. Sentence length is a great way to speed up the pacing. I like playing with scene length too - I was in the car for a few hours this morning, listening to a Jack Reacher novel, and they were going back and forth between two different POV character's scenes. After about an hour, I noticed the scenes were getting shorter and shorter. And even though nothing overly exciting was happening, the scenes were getting short enough and flipping back and forth enough that it was clear some collision between the two was coming. Very interesting.

haleigh said...

And, I just now realized that the book was in 3rd person and not 1st person like all the other Jack Reacher books I've read.


MsHellion said...

One of the most fascinating characters on the show is a little jumped up singer whose mother is addicted to drugs...and is constantly embarrassing her in the newspapers. It's like the character has "arrived" and "landed in this fame" and doesn't know how to handle it, acts badly (but understandably), and is competition with someone with old roots and glamour she could never measure up to, but she goes around acting like she's better than them. It's tragic and dramatic and funny...and I don't know. The premise and set up just works better for me than the Broadway show (which I always think is a sort of conceit TV shows like to do--"everyone" wants to live in Manhattan, everyone wants to make it in New York--no, not everyone does. I wish they'd vary it a bit more.)

haleigh said...

Di, I would love to see the reaction of a 15 year old to that. Hilarious! (for the adults, of course)

I think setting the right pace at the beginning is a hard skill for beginning writers. I've re-written the beginning of my WIP a bunch of times, and it seems that I vacillate between the two problems -- if I get rid of the info dumping then readers are left with too much action and not enough reason to care, and if I include the info, it's boring. *sigh*. Very fine line. Good for you for judging!

haleigh said...

Hellie, I just had that same thought yesterday. I watched a few shows in a row all set in Manhattan and was annoyed. You're right - not everyone wants to be a NYC star.

I found a series of Nora Roberts books set in Crisfield, MD, which is a little tiny town on the Cheaseapke a few miles from here. It was so amazingly refreshing to read something with a heavy emphasis on setting, and it be in a place I'd never read something set in before. And even though I know the area well, it still made me want to go wandering through the marsh grass and sailing on the bay.

haleigh said...

Mo - Yes, Wilie Coyote! Such a great example of when the pace doesn't keep up with the tension. That coyote definitely as to fall.

And I would have no idea what good stuff you might be referring to.

*blinks innocently*