Friday, April 22, 2011

Pacing in Writing

Pacing is important to writing. And no, I don’t mean walking back and forth, trying to figure out ways not to sit down at the computer and write!

Pacing is used to control the speed of the plot. Pacing is manipulating time. Most writing gurus these days advise to “arrive late and leave early.” By this, they mean, start in the middle of the action or with an element of suspense that will help prompt the reader to keep reading.

You don’t need to set up the scene with lots of description and backstory. We don’t necessarily need to know what this person’s history is and how he/she got there, just to know that he/she is in some kind of problem or crisis and needs to solve it.

A crisis moment has to be in what I call “real time”—written as if it is happening right now (even if you are using past tense). Summarizing or including it as a flashback does not create the same amount of tension. Summarizing is simply “telling” us what happened, rather than showing our character in trouble. Backstory has already happened, so that makes it less active. The reader knows it has already happened and what the outcome is, to a certain extent, because our hero is still with us. So it’s not as “immediate.”

Summary certainly can be used effectively. It covers a longer period of time in a shorter passage. You don’t need to write paragraphs or pages describing the trip from one point to the other. Using summary in this case, helps with pacing, and speeds up the story by “leaving out the boring parts,” as Elmore Leonard advises.

You can control pacing with sentence structure. Long, flowing sentences can slow down the action. Short sentences build tension by propelling the reader forward.

Dialogue and internal monologues can affect pacing, by changing the rhythm . Short interchanges of dialogue between characters increase the reading speed. Long speeches by a certain character will slow it down. If you feel like the story needs to pick up the pace, look for areas with too much dialogue, internal monologue, or exposition. Or vice versa, not enough.

Does each paragraph serve to move the story forward? Could you cut or condense that paragraph (or line or page) and still preserve the meaning? Can you cut your first and last paragraphs in a scene and keep the meaning.

Does anyone have other pacing tips to add?

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A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

22 comments :

  1. I've always loved the advice - when things get slow, bring in a guy with a gun.

    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

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  2. Sometimes I skip over an important event in a novel, then realize I need to play it up more. Usually, I catch this in the editing phase, especially since I'm one who writes sparsely at the beginning and expand later.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://facebook.com/morgan.mandel

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  3. Don't forget the second part of that advice, "leave early." You want to create a little suspense at the end of the chapter/scene. The reader should want to know what happens next or what what the answer to the unanswered question is. If you wrap everything up, the reader has less motivation to read on.

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  4. I'm one of those readers who likes bombshell chapter endings, with tension high throughout the book. If I have three "resting places" spaced throughout a long book, that's plenty. Maybe something introspective to give depth to a character and to make me think during those down times. But tension throughout keeps the story moving for me... it doesn't have to be plot-driven either. Inner turmoil will do it.

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  5. Great post. I left pacing tips on my last blog post.

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  6. Great tips. Critiquing work from my writing group has helped me to identify pacing issues in my own story. It's incredible how much difference editing down a sentence or breaking one long into two short can do to give punch to a suspenseful scene. Too many flowery, descriptive words slows down action, although those words have their place during more introspective parts.

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  7. Give the reader a reason to move on to the next chapter rather than go to sleep or clean the house. Rather than break after something is wrapped up, break mid-scene or at the edge of the cliff.

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  8. Excellent points, Heidi! And more great tips in the comments left by others. I love reading the Blood-Red Pencil blog posts, and the readers always have great ideas to add!

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  9. When an editor told me to be aware of pacing before I submitted, I asked her if she could elaborate. She said, "Look at your pages. Is there a balance of narrative and dialogue, or does one outweigh the other?"

    While that's simplistic, it does give you the broad picture to see where you might need to go back and do some editing.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. I'm writing about a writer making lots of false starts in her autobiography. The pacing was really slow in the first draft. Now it's kind of stop and startish, but maybe that's what I want--after all, it's what she's doing.

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  11. It's also important not to go too fast. The pace of one of my favorite author's first book was so fast as to be breathless, and not in the hot and steamy way.

    It got considerably better, but those first few pages were tough to read.

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  12. If someone in my novel seems to be sludging the place up, I kill her.

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  13. Great topic, Heidi! When manipulating pacing an author really gets to show her technique, discrimination, and maturity.

    Several have commented that slowing the pace is for introspective passages, but don't skip over what Dani said about internal conflict. "Going deep," and showing the facets of that inner conflict, can be a great way to ramp up tension before what the reader believes to be a huge, possibly inevitable plot event.

    Take that moment before the bomb goes off when the character can't remember which wire he's supposed to cut first, and he's reflecting on his life and the ramifications of his imminent actions. This character isn't just lazing about on a hammock, and no reader will look back on the passage and say it was slow and introspective! You are purposely slowing the pace by stretching a high charge across a greater number of words in order to make the event momentous.

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  14. Give the reader a reason to move on to the next chapter rather than go to sleep or clean the house. Rather than break after something is wrapped up, break mid-scene or at the edge of the cliff.

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  15. Great post. Pacing is so important and something I am always having to work on.

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  16. I second Kathryn's comment about noting Dani's words. Keep the tension going with just occasional lulls in which the reader can catch his breath before jumping back into the heat of the action (albeit physical, mental, or emotional).

    Excellent post, Heidi!

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  17. No pacing tip to add. I just wanted to say you're spot on in your advice. As I revise one of my own novels I'm realizing I need to start it in the action. not five minutes before the action. So your post is absolutely relevant for me. Thanks!

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  18. I'm in the process of losing 100 pages from my manuscript to increase the pace - not easy but I can see the difference already. I had far too many scenes where the main character was visiting her sister or her friend or her family, none of which moved the story forward.

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  19. There in lies the art of story telling ... but then it is all so subjective because one person's brisk pace is another's painful crawl. As the Sheriff said to a sleeping Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, "I always like to keep my audience riveted."

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  20. Thanks for the tips - helped me realise what's wrong with my MS (too much dialogue - far too much).

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  21. Great tips, all. Thanks for stopping by!

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  22. Heidi, good info on pacing. I connect writing to music in many ways and pacing is one of them. I like to read a passage aloud to feel the rhythm, etc.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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