What is pacing and why is it important when writing a novel? Simply defined, pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which the story is told. It refers to how fast or slow events in a scene unfold.
- how the writer pulls the reader through the events of a story without a pause.
- what keeps the reader anxiously turning the pages to see what happens next.
How is Pacing Achieved:
Action: Action scenes are where you “show” what happens in a story, and, when written in short- and medium-length sentences, they move the story along. Action scenes contain few distractions, little description, and limited transitions. Omit or limit character thoughts, especially in the midst of danger or crisis, since during a crisis people focus solely on survival. To realism, avoid long descriptive passages and choose a few details that serve as emotionally charged props instead.
Cliff Hangers: When the outcome of a scene or chapter is left hanging, the pace naturally picks up because the reader will turn the page to find out what happens next. Readers both love and hate uncertainty, and your job, as a writer, is to deliver plenty of unfinished actions, unfilled needs, and interruptions. Remember, cliff hangers don’t necessarily mean that you’re literally dangling your character from a rooftop as the scene ends. If your characters are in the midst of a conversation, end the scene with a revelation, threat, or challenge.
Flashback: A sudden, and sometimes, vividly disturbing memory of a past event in one’s life.
Dialogue: Rapid-fire dialogue with little or no extraneous information is swift and captivating, and will invigorate any scene. The best dialogue for velocity is pared down, an abbreviated copy of real-life conversation that snaps and crackles with tension. It is more like the volleying of Ping-Pong or tennis than a long-winded discussion. Reactions, descriptions, and attributions are minimal. Don’t create dialogue exchanges where your characters discuss or ponder. Instead, allow them to argue, confront, or engage in a power struggle.
Prolonged Outcomes: Suspense and, by extension, forward movement are created when you prolong outcomes. While it may seem that prolonging an event would slow down a story, this technique actually increases the speed, because the reader wants to know if your character is rescued from the mountainside, if the vaccine will arrive before the outbreak decimates the village, or if the detective will solve the case before the killer strikes again.
Scene Cuts: Also called a jump cut, a scene cut moves the story to a new location and assumes the reader can follow without an explanation of the location change. The purpose is to accelerate the story, and the characters in the new scene don’t necessarily need to be the characters in the previous scene.
A Series of Incidents in Rapid Succession: Another means of speeding up your story is to create events that happen immediately one after another. Such events are presented with minimal or no transitions, leaping via scene cuts from scene to scene and place to place.
Short Chapters and Scenes: Short segments are easily digested and end quickly. Since they portray a complete action, the reader passes through them quickly, as opposed to being bogged down by complex actions and descriptions.
Word Choice and Sentence Structure: The language itself is the subtlest means of pacing. Think concrete words (like prodigy and iceberg), active voice (with powerful verbs like zigzag and plunder), and sensory information that’s artfully embedded. If you write long, involved paragraphs, try breaking them up.
A fast pace means trimming every sentence of unnecessary words. Eliminate prepositional phrases where you don’t need them: For example, “the walls of the cathedral” can be written as “the cathedral’s walls.” Finally, search your story for passive linking verbs and trade them in for active ones. (Ex of linking verbs: The girl was going to town. He should have known better.)
|___1. Does every chapter relate to the theme or conflict of the story?
___2. Is the story’s climax also the climax of the character’s growth arc?
___3. Does the subplots tie back into the main plot?
___4. Within each chapter, are there a number of rising and descending actions in the flow of the Story?
___5. Does the foreshadowing create suspense or interest?
___6. Is exposition secondary to the story? Are flashbacks at the most dramatic moment?
___7. Is the emotional pacing varied? (Have you relied on only one emotion?)
___8. Does the opening paragraph, and each opening chapter grab the reader’s attention?
___9. Do chapter breaks end with something to hook the reader?
___10. Do scene cuts enhance drama and/or suspense?
___11. Is the language varied? Are sentences varied? When you read through, can you differentiate between the characters, or do they all sound alike?
___12. Overall, is the story told in the most dramatic, emotional, and suspenseful way possible?
Founding President at SSRA
Loretta C. Rogers, is a national/international best-selling author of fifteen novels. She conducts writing workshops nationally, and is a co-founder and past president of Sunshine State Romance Authors, Inc. and a member of Romance Writers of America®. A fourth generation Floridian, Loretta resides in Citrus County. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites them to visit her at LorettaCRogersBooks.com
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