Category Archives: Pacing

Secrets of Pacing

When I think of pacing, I think about the story a reader can’t put down. It starts with simultaneously drawing the reader in and keeping the story moving forward. Being human, or too close to the work makes determining pacing difficult, but with honest feedback most problems can be solved with tweaking. Using pacing as a tool, we can completely control how quickly or slowly the story unfolds–builds tension, conflict, and suspense. If used without mercy, it can be a driving force a reader cannot resist.

You probably know some scenes are meant to be savored; others are consumed in one big gulp. When the reader is savoring, they are also being drawn into the scene. Think of a highly emotional piece, each detailed reaction from the point of view character brings about a reaction in the reader, deepening the connection and their experience. Where action is more external, more of a sensory concept, and needs concrete verbs to enhance the events unfolding. Any combination determines the pace of a specific work.

To confirm the correct decision was made we should seek out feedback and tweak the pacing accordingly. If there are comments about the work lagging, or focus difficulties; look at sentence structure for a passive voice, long flowery sentences, or paragraphs of description. If the complaint is can’t connect; slow things down by adding more modifiers, or capture all the visceral reactions in a slow moment by moment scene with your main characters. Others comments could be: getting lost and having to go back demands strengthening transitions between scenes; lack of motivation calls for a clearer backstory; and lack of suspense means drop in some foreshadowing or a secret only one character and the reader share. The cruelest of feedback can save your story from rejection, so pay attention.

Taking control of the pace can be as simple as balance. Add intense reactions or strong modifiers to make emotions flow. Cut back and add stage direction with well-chosen verbs and passive prose become action filled. Floating somewhere between racing for the finish line and a Sunday drive is the perfect pace. You are the driving force behind the emotion and action. Even with feedback, and a strong sense of direction, it’s you that determines how fast or slow you reveal the story.

When you can’t put a book down, it is no accident. It was meticulously crafted with pace in mind. Most searching the bookshelves or on the internet are actively a book they can’t put down. Remember what it feels like to read well-paced books, and when you think you’re finished revising your work look one last time at your pacing and show no mercy.

More: Pacing with Rhythm and Pacing in Time

Pacing in Time

Pacing comes in several forms. This time I’d like to discuss how pacing passes or captures time.

When we have a lifetime to condense into a short story, or a weekend that we stretch out into a book, we need the tricks of the craft. There are many ways to show time passing, seasons changing, children growing, or light fading; but what about passing moments, or years? Somehow we need to decide which moments to keep and what to toss. To save time, and words, most of us try to start in the middle of the action, medias res, and use foreshadowing and backstory as filler. Once all the parts are collected, the goal is to string them together in a fun and logical way.

The passing of time is relative–some moments pass unnoticed, some seem to stretch on for days, and others pass so fast we almost miss them. We express quick moments in summaries, stretch out milliseconds indefinitely using descriptive and sometimes flowery prose. There are occasions we travel through time and space incorporating backstory, or tempting our readers with foreshadowing. We can jump around using words like before lunch, winter 1902, when I was a kid; and how we stay organized and clearly convey what we mean is not easy. Usually, all of the events are linked by an idea, a person or place. We use common element to thread the moments together on a long beaded necklace of scenes, and summaries.

I’m going to cheat a little and suggest using the Three-Act Structure. We have plot points, and increased tension, and most importantly a place to begin. Select the profound moments–the moment of no return, when everything twists into the unexpected, last attempt out of desperation–fill in the supporting points in order of dramatic effect and link together with summaries. This hopefully has built a reasonable chronological timeline.

You may have a play-by-play, but you don’t have to start from the very beginning. art stack of old booksOne approach is to start closest to the end (in a short story) or middle (in a book)–adjusting the plot points as needed. The old inciting incident will become the new backstory and the original hope/dread foreshadowing, adding motivation and suspense to the writing.

It is times like this that many are tempted to share everything–hold back. In some cases it is prudent to keep the reader guessing. There is also the choice of informing the reader but not the players, and letting the information trickle in when necessary. Either way can work, unanswered questions encourage the curious to read on, and making the reader secret keeper can escalate the tension,

The timeline is the story behind the story, now take your artist license and rebuilt it. Think of it like clay, slicing  it, rearranging it, reforming it and make anything you want. Sure you need to follow some logical order, but that comes from what you want to say and how you want to say it. What’s your message? Don’t tell me, get writing.

More: Pacing with Rhythm and Secrets of Pacing

Pacing with Rhythm

What rhythm am I talking about?

If you had to run all the way to your office, school, or community center, would you run full tilt until you got there or would you run some and walk some? If you are like me and NOT a marathon runner, you would do the walking–running thing, and maybe a few stints of in-between based on how badly you wanted to get to your destination.

It’s the same for your reader. They expect to read to the end of the book, but if they face action after action it is like running the whole way. They’ll tire. Some will sit down to rest too exhausted to continue–they’ve hit their limit and will put the book down.

Writers need rhythm. The strategy is to break up the action segments, or scenes, with reflective emotion, or logical reasoning that leads to another action scene.  Without resting or attempting to figure out what to do next the main character would burn out and the reader with them.art pages pencil

I love books full of action & excitement and murder & mayhem, but I’m never exhausted after reading one. The books I read swing back and forth, interrupting the action with a change of pace. It’s the old saying, “A change is as good as a rest.” So one moment the main characters run for their lives, the next their hiding somewhere arguing about who is to blame. Before they are finished pointing fingers, they are running again.

Between the action scenes, the characters have to face problems (for example: aliens, zombies, or the end of the Earth) and usually have to decide between two unappealing choices. As the characters work out the pros and cons, the reader gets to know the character really well, and when s/he faces the inevitable and accepts it as fact, so does the reader. Anything from thinking things over, making love, to arguing about what happened brings about a plan of action, and with it comes an introduction to the next action sequence which could be in five minutes or ten years. That is one of the powers of quiet segment. It seals the action scenes together.

What deep dark trait have you wanted to examine, or exploit? Here is the time to create a truly memorable character–facial tic, OCD sufferer, extremely shy, or too friggin loud. The quiet moments are a test of our imagination. We can watch action around us all day, or take in a movie. Action is everywhere. Using the down time, we can let the MC decide to dislike someone, become suspicious of someone, or show how much they trust someone. It doesn’t matter, the reader becomes their true confidant.

I haven’t explained much about the action scene and have only two pieces of advice that you’ve heard since the beginning of time–use an active voice and the exact verb that catches the action (said and inferred). To be honest I think they are the easiest of the two segments to write. When it comes to this method, you don’t have to take my word for it, many writers use this method and I’m sure if you open a book or two you’ll find excellent examples. You might have a favorite, if you do, tell me about it.

More: Pacing in Time and Secrets of Pacing