In good prose, there’s a rhythm. A cadence, if you will. Even a percussion.
PACE YOURSELF. PACING SETS THE TONE, THEN CARRIES IT.
Like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun, action should happen fast and in short bursts. Exposition should be sparse and epic, like the report of a cannon, with quieter moments in between to survey the devastation and feel its effects on a deep, emotional level. Important plot points should be strategically planned, loaded and waiting to release at the most crucial possible moment.
Too soon, and you risk giving away your position. Losing the element of surprise. Too late, and you’ve fallen behind. The story rages on without you, but you’re lying in a puddle of mysterious origin, powerless to control what happens next.
PLOTTING IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE.
While it’s critical to plot your story like a master strategist, veteran writers know all too well that stories–much like battles with a host of skeletons, and one very pissed off zombie ex-girlfriend–don’t often go exactly as planned. In those cases, it’s important to know the right weapons to use in every situation, as it arises.
Don’t use a shotgun where a pistol with a silencer will do. And by this, I of course mean stop info-dumping in the first 50 pages, when all your reader really wants/needs at this point is a hint of danger. The suggestion of intrigue. A vague, lurking sense of unease.
This keeps the reader wondering what it is you’re not telling them. It makes them curious, even a little afraid. Most importantly, it makes them feel invested in the outcome.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR ARSENAL.
If you’re in the thick of the action, with zombies running around everywhere and people screaming, sure. Use a shotgun. Chances are, your readers are probably too distracted to pick up on the subtleties when their favorite characters are fighting for their lives.
Hit us over the head with what we need to know. We’re in the middle of a battle, and we need to know what is happening. We need this information to survive, man! (Provided it’s necessary, of course.) Chances are, some obtuse people may miss it, otherwise. There’s always that one guy with his helmet on backwards, bursting out of the tent in mid-battle with his armor half on after a long night of pre-gaming. (Pre-battling?) You don’t want to lose THAT guy, right?
A great example of this is The Red Wedding scene from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. (Or, as you may know it, Game of Thrones: the bloodiest show since Dexter.) The scene starts out subtle enough, with description of all the players on the board and what everyone is doing and then it OH GOD NO, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING. NOT ROB, DON’T TELL ME…NO…NO…AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! Then about five seconds of shocked disbelief, then KABOOM everything goes insane and it’s just mayhem and being pummeled with quick, awful details one after another.
Or, you can go the Gone Girl route and slowly poison your reader with sweet, slightly funny tasting prose that is only vaguely disturbing. At first. Then increasingly so, until you’re rolling around on your bed at 2:00 AM screaming “OH NO SHE DIDN’T, OH NO SHE DID.” With a deadly lullaby of vague, then oddly specific, then (finally) contextual details, Gillian Flynn took us by the hand and marched us through confusion, unease, genuine anxiety, then finally, outright horror and disbelief. Then shock, amazement, and horror again.
Tick-tick-tick-tick. Thud. Tick-tick-tick-tick. Shhhhhhhhh.
It doesn’t always have to be shock and awe, or stranger than fiction. You don’t need zombies to pull out the big guns. Maybe you’re out to break hearts, or just steal them. Well, then pick the right tone. Romance is in the rhythm. Like the rhumba. Excruciatingly slow, then way too fast, then slow again.
Maybe you’re aiming for amusement, trying to mow down your audience with laughter. For this, you want to seek out those very specific–yet oddly relatable–details that hit us right where it counts. Grandmothers who hand you cat hair covered candies from the bottom of their purse. Wanting to slug some bratty kid at the mall, or his mom for letting him out in public, or both. Standing in line at the DMV and hating humanity. Things we’re not proud of, because they aren’t pretty, but on some level we all fall victim to them at one time or another.
Rat-tat-tat. Tee-hee. Bang, bang. Har, har.
KNOW WHAT WINNING THE BATTLE MEANS TO YOU.
Above all, you MUST remember the power of each individual word. Each entire sentence. In the right person’s hands, one sentence can change lives. One page, one paragraph, one story can make a difference in the world.
But without a writer’s skill, strategy, and editorial mindfulness, at best it’s a bunch of noise.
At worst, it’s a medieval zombie massacre.