Pacing: What Plot and Poker Have in Common

poker

The players gather around a dimly lit table that illuminates the soft haze that carries the musk of stogies and scotch. One by one they sit, only the green felt of the table reflecting from their eyes. The chips are distributed. The stage has been set. The game begins.

A total beginner can sit down at a poker table, and with some instruction and watching, can learn how to play hold’em with relative ease. As you play it, though, it becomes clear that there is much more to it than a card game. Such is like writing. Technically, you can write a book as soon as you learn how to spell.

Technically.

Okay, that’s nice and all but how does this relate to poker?

Think of everyone at this theoretical poker table as other authors, all competing to have their work published. Since only one winner can be made from a game (there is no pot-splitting here; my article, my rules), the jackpot is your publication. You’re going to have to outplay, and out-write those seated around you for that sweet, sweet prize.

And you’re going to have to work for it.

Having been working on the same project since I was in junior high, I’ve had to move the pieces of my story’s plot time and again. I’ve learned that some pieces must be cut, others warped, and new bridges constructed to connect plot point A with plot point K-2a. Now, the product of my imagination is alien from what it started out to be. It is also much stronger in every aspect.

If I would’ve told twelve year old me that my main character would have no girl to get, there were no elves, and the numerous Tolkein-esque maps I drew in class instead of taking notes would all have been a waste of ink, then well, I think twelve year old me would have been a little defeated.

But it’s all a learning process, as they say.

Much like a game of poker, a newbie can have his hopes utterly crushed by a better hand. You might have those smoking guns under your palm, but if you don’t use them right, you can flush your chips right down the commode. It can take a lifetime to master poker.

It can take a lifetime to master storytelling.

Hence, the Early Game

The blinds are small. Everyone is chatting, catching up on each other’s business, and excited because the game is finally starting.

As the first hands are dealt, the green felt melts into a myriad of earthly tones, and its smooth surface begins to shift and morph. Jagged spines burst through the fabric, and the green fuses into its sides. The edges retract, revealing sapphire blue seas. Hey, would you look at that! It’s a map!

Think of the chips as fragments of the plot, all adding up to the whole story. The chips also represent the level of interest your audience has. The delivery is a product of how the winner plays her hands and manipulates her chips. As long as she has chips, she keeps her audience watching her play hand after hand – reading chapter after chapter. All reaching towards that jackpot – the climax.

And the flop comes down!

At the flop, some fold, uninterested. At this point in time, they have no dealing with the cards that have been dealt. They wait. They can afford to… for now.

Those that do, however, already begin to reveal their playstyle (their character). The young buck throws in his raise early, jumping the gun before his turn. He excuses himself, having not played poker much. The sharks eye up their prey already. Soon his chips will be theirs. The wiser back off, and the young buck scores the meager pot. The crowd (apparently there’s a crowd at this very hypothetical and unofficial game of hold’em) boos him as he cups in his winnings. He’ll have to be more careful next time around if he plans on raking in something a little more substantial.

Who brought this guy, anyway?

Early plot development is where you can afford to experiment with the projection of character arcs. Their fates are still up in the air… as is your reader’s interest. Maybe our young buck here will be the first player out. Or, perhaps he’s about to sandbag the entire table?

Hard to tell really, that was only the first chapter.

The cards are dealt again. And just when everyone seems to settle in…

You hit your first plot block. You must get a character from point A to point B, and you know exactly what the outcome will be once he/she arrives at it. But the journey from point to point, the event that shapes the story, is dead space in your mind. Fleshing out the sinews between the meat and joints of this plot body is where writers can seriously get bogged down (I’m raising my hand here).

But sometimes winning a game of poker isn’t about having the best cards. Sometimes it takes a little imagination to make a bad hand work well. Remember: it’s the early game. If you have great concepts, run with them! See to what ends they can take you, even if it is just to Point B.

You’ve got those smoking guns? Play them up. Make ‘em smoking cannons!

…What I’m saying is I would raise. A lot.

The clock buzzes! Blinds up!

Pace yourself!

You twiddle a white chip between your fingers. There are multiple ways to win a round with the same two cards you have face-down in front of you. There are also multiple ways to lose with the same two cards.

In any game poker-related, you can scare off your opponents with a bold raise at the start. Playing your chips – how you choose to present your plot points – is but one part of plot development to master. You only have so many chips.

You only earn more when your reader makes it through the chapter – winning the round.

I won’t lie, I’ve put books down if I’m close to a hundred pages in and the author has done little more than paint a vivid setting. If you keep checking, and folding early, waiting on a good hand, you’re already losing. The less chips, the less power you have over the game; the less interest your audience has. You set yourself up for disaster if you wait too long to make a move.

Neither poker nor plot is fun to follow if it’s slow. If you’ve got characters hanging on for the ride, they need to go. The game will wheedle the seats down by design, as should your plot. If you keep checking, waiting for your perfect hand, you might be eaten alive by the blinds.

Identify your key players. If your cast is large, it will naturally slow down the progression of the plot. The more players at a poker table, the longer each round takes between raises, checks, and contemplations of folding. The flow of the game – of the plot – is hindered until the space is made for it flow faster.

Now, I’m not saying go around axing characters ASOIAF style, but if you’re 200-some pages in and you’re cycling around ten different characters’ points of view, odds are that you haven’t moved the plot much. Pace your plot in a manner that keeps the reader’s attention, and keeps your writing racing toward the jackpot.

Likewise, if you bet boldly round after round, you’re bound to called on your bluff. And you will run out of chips quickly. If you move the plot too quickly, your readers can get left behind trying to catch up on the situation without a breath to realize the scene fully. They might overlook important details of a character or of your setting, just to keep up with a sprint of scenes.

You’ve got to build up your chips before you can start shouldering the others around. Sometimes, it’s worth playing a good hand slow, calling their raises and matching their checks until the final raise, trapping your opponents in a bait. All the minor details you’ve planted and let pile up come crashing together in an epic conclusion, summoning the fervor of the audience. A lot like some TV dramas that shock you right before the screen rolls the credits, leaving you craving the next episode.

Or season… *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*

Especially for first-time authors, and beginners, it is hard not to load your pages full of wonderful exposition fleshing out every nth of the universe in your brain. I’m guilty, too. But your first finished work, by the time you’re finally done with it, will be much shorter than your first draft. You aren’t Tolkien. I’m not either. You don’t have that fan-base. Your books are going to be more content than context. Moving fluidly through that content is what you need to focus on.

Survivor Mode – the Mid Game

Chatter has dissipated. Everyone is dialing in on winning. Some players won’t survive if they don’t play their cards right. The blinds will keep coming around, slowly eroding their stacks into stumps. With each passing round, borders shrink and swell on our border map. Cities rise as others burn. The sharks have emerged as the powerhouses of the game, and behind their towering stacks of chips they tighten a stranglehold as they start to choke out the other players.

There’s a thing about poker that makes it exciting to people. Well, about as exciting as losing money gets. There’s a wow factor. To see how people throw their weight around. To see bluffs psych out winning hands. To see people slow-play a killer hand, trapping their prey at the last raise. To see what the players will try to make it to the next round, let alone the next table.

At this point in your plot, you’ve got the audience on the ride – and it’s accelerating. If you don’t have an idea of where this thing is going yet, it’s going to crash into a big mess that you’re not going to want to clean up. Plan your bets strategically. Don’t throw all your chips on pocket kings when you might get beaten by a three of a kind.

At each hand you peek at, you’ve got to decide how much it is worth putting into. Each plot point is a battle of depth versus progression. Each chapter is an opportunity to enrich your setting, such is the lure of fantasy and sci-fi. Do so in a way that does not linger, but is visited along the way.

The build up of the rising action towards climax is where everything starts to converge. It is also easy to stray from the path here, and end up really off course from where everything else is headed. This is where your audience begins to grasp the gravity of the whole situation. Don’t lose them now!

Your characters should be mostly defined here, or at the least, your audience should have created concrete identities for them. Just as in the game, you’ve got an idea who the showdown at the end is going to be between when you start staring at their stacks… a.k.a. where your plot lines are going to converge.

As mentioned earlier, if you have a large cast, consider demoting certain characters to that “minor character” status.

Storyboarding can really help you streamline your writing and overall productivity. Storyboarding is a surefire way to not get lost in the mid-game of your own plot, where so many things can be set in motion at once. This way, you don’t pour hours and thousands of words into something before you realize you need to go back to the beginning. Be careful placing all your chips on the turn (the second card reveal in hold’em), for you may be burned on the river.

The All-In

Remember: you’ve got less wiggle room to throw twists and turns here if you want your main plot to keep chugging along. No one wants to see a game of poker with only a few chips being tossed each round. That would make for an endless game. No one wants that. Not even the players.

Unless that twist leads directly towards the climax.

The higher the stakes, the higher the level of tension, and subsequently the higher level of interest. Little bets at the endgame would only prolong the outcome, and for plot, can injure the overall delivery of your story.

Finish strong!

Mountains of chips are shoved around, each player trying to knock the others down. There’s only one way to ensure absolute victory. You’re in position. Everything rides on this moment; a winning hand here could send you to the next table. At the turn, comes the ace of spades. The crowd gasps.

You have it now: your completed draft. But before you send it off, always revisit it. Before you shove all those chips onto the green felt, you’d best make sure there’s no other possible hand to beat yours. And if you have doubt, don’t place that bet.

The player across from you stands up, and shoves his chips into the center. “All in,” he declares. Another stands and calls. The table turns to you.

Do you call?

Further Discussion

How do you start the snowballing of your plot? Do you start it off with a bang or do you let it build up?

How do you entice your audience into following your plot?

Codey is an aspiring fantasy writer and enthusiast who gets lost developing plot points inside of his head instead of paying attention to his factory job. Codey is slowly chipping away on a lifelong project of his, a saga of men and demons, the light and the dark, on a cataclysmic collision course that threatens the existence of both spectrums. In his free time, he enjoys long, romantic walks on Summoner’s Rift and gunning down aliens on Halo rings. Words of encouragement are always welcomed, as he may be contacted via Mythic Scribes or on his Facebook page.

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Katia
Guest

Let me get this off my shoulders…..since you mentioned GoT….Mr. George R.R. Martin better get on the ball and write the next book….he ain’t young, and don’t you dare croak before we get to the end. I don’t want someone else “finishing it up”….no thanks. But to get onto this point, I agree whole-heartedly. It IS somewhat like poker….though I’ve tried to play it several different times, I just can not get it….certainly not enough to enter into those poker tournaments. And I had a friend who wrote a script he had me read over….long, long…good story line, but hundreds of unnecessary characters kept being brought into it. No. Keep it short and sweet. Get to the point. Don’t go wandering here and there to prolong your story. If editors want that, they’ll let you know. Great post here, especially if you find yourself writing on and on. Good luck all. 🙂

Jen
Guest

I’m sad for your 12-year-old self! No, but really it’s awesome that you’ve been working on the same story so long. Never heard the poker analogy before, but it hits a lot of good points. I have difficulty with pacing and plot vs. description, so I enjoyed your thoughts:)

librarylady
Guest

I love the comparison you make between writing and poker – very vivid. This is great advice all the way through. When I first started writing I thought you had to throw everything out on the table right at first to catch the reader’s interest – boom – physical description, back story, motives etc. all in the first chapter. I slowly learned that it’s better to allude to things and slowly deal them out as you play the game (poker terms!) Another thing I’ve discovered is that occasionally you get towards the end of a story, and some plot line will coincidently connect to something that you referred to at the start. It looks like you had an amazing and complicated plotline diagrammed out . . . and it actually just happened. Am I making sense? Anyway writing is a blast. Thanks for your great blog.

Andrea Robinson
Guest

I love your idea of storyboarding the plot before committing too many words. As someone who’s had to start over too many times to mention (upwards of a zillion or more), I finally started to use outlines, but still felt they were bereft of the creative feeling that would help me connect with the characters. Storyboarding adds dimension and feeling to the otherwise barren outline.

Weaving plotlines together the way you’ve done in this article is a compelling way to keep audience interest up. I’m trying this in my next writing venture.

Kendall O
Guest

Twelve-year-old me is still quite sad to hear that my epic cardboard hand-drawn maps are no more. Though I don’t play poker, this is an interesting analogy that works well and shows just how hard and time-consuming (but rewarding) writing can be.

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