Peaks and Valleys

What’s more boring during a road trip than straight, flat road? In my experience, nothing. Give me some twists and turns, some hills and valleys, and I’m much more satisfied and considerably more able to stay awake.

The same is true when readers are reading, or writers are writing. We need both the peaks and the valleys, just as if we were on a roller coaster ride!

In general, a good story has a lot of peaks, places where the reader’s heart thumps and spines straighten.  But we have to offer the reader a rest occasionally, and that’s when the valleys come in.

One great suggestion from successful writers is to make a graph of your story. First, write a brief description of every scene on an index card. (You should have about the same number of index cards as you have chapters in the book, i.e., one scene per chapter.)

Each chapter should have a plot point, followed by a valley, where the reader can catch his/her breath.  Every word should continue to move the story forward, but in a more thoughtful manner. These valleys, where action is minimal, can be narration, dialogue, or description.

On your graph, make a note of the events that are your hills, and the scene segments that are your valleys. Do this for the entire book, and you can easily see how the action flows and ebbs throughout your story. You can see if more hills are needed or more valleys.

Remember that the more intense the drama of your scene, the more you need to draw it out. Sentences are short, choppy even, as you reach action peaks. And then, slow the pace down with longer sentences as you slide into a valley.

Sentence length is a key tool to creating peaks and valleys, speeding the action (and the reader) up and then slowing them down. The key is knowing when you’ve slowed the pace enough for the right length of time. Then, ramp it up again, climbing another peak.

I like to think of it as a roller coaster ride. Immediately after each heart thumping dive on a roller coaster is a flat stretch of track, when the coaster car slows and your heart steadies. Then, a curve, and another dip – you’re racing again, thrilled, enjoying the ride.

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