The speed of story

I’ve been thinking about pacing, and what a judgment call this aspect of fiction requires. Repetitive and unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes can suck the life out of a story.

Pacing is the speed at which you tell your story. How quickly are you forwarding and deepening the plot? Is it too fast, appearing rushed? Too slow, losing the reader’s interest?

Usually, the problem is a languid pace: set-up paragraphs at the start of scenes, aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened,  scenes without plot purpose, too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself.

It is easier to forgive background, exposition and character portraits early on in a book, when the author is providing context and set up for the story. But after the middle of the novel slow pacing becomes a good excuse to put a novel down.

Pacing is dictated to some extent by your material and the style of book you’re writing. None of this excuses us from working at pacing, though.

My tendency is to write longish and cut back in the rewrite. But I also try to forestall poor pacing with by asking some key questions as I write and as I plan:

Diagnostic questions

  • Why will anyone will care about this scene? What is the point, here?
  • Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?
  • Is the central conflict is as deep and meaningful as I can make it?
  • Does the story coil around itself, growing stronger, more resonant? Or is it episodic, with parallel incidents?
  • Am I using a “cinematic eye”? In this movie-obsessed age, I try to remember that my novel is not a movie. In spite of the fact that I may see a movie in my head, I will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions.
  • Do I need this flashback? (Avoid it unless it is Just So Good.)
  • Do I have a good number of big scenes that dramatically alter hopes or relationships?
  • Are there opportunities to accelerate the pace after the midpoint, and then further in the book’s last quarter?

If we’ve worked hard at premise, theme, structure, dramatic tension and character, let’s not drop the ball with this part of the execution. The speed of your story, in all its variations, will have a huge impact on its appeal.

8 Responses

  1. One thing I love about your writing craft posts is how much I get out of them, even though I’ve been writing professionally for 30+ years. There’s always more to learn! And your insights challenge me to look deeper at my own craft.

  2. Kay Kenyon says:

    Thanks, Deborah. I find that I’m learning a lot, as well, from having to put my thoughts together.

  3. Terry Persun says:

    Pacing is difficult to work on and difficult to talk about. No two readers are the same. I’ve had times where I’ve been told a passage was slow by one reader and that it went by too quickly by another reader. I like your questions, though. It gets you to focus on the subject, and that’s the first step.

  4. Kay says:

    Right, Terry. That’s the reason this post was rather short. With topic of pacing, I felt like keeping it Really short: “Alas, it’s a matter of feel. Like putting in golf.”

  5. One of the great maxims I once heard with regard to this business of cutting those unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes (and chapters and characters and so on) was (put quite simply) this:

    What doesn’t add subtracts.

  6. Kay says:

    Ah yes. I love pithy maxims like that. They cut to the chase. As we mostly should — except when we shoudn’t!

  7. Stephanie says:

    The diagnoses questions are very helpful and I’m grateful :).
    Pacing is one of the many aspects of the story that I think about often. There are times when I want to take my index cards and line my walls with them to see the arc(s) and find the spots I need to adjust. I still might do that with the questions that you posted in mind :).

  8. Kay says:

    Stephanie – I’m glad you commented on a post from a little while back. It spurred me to reread the post, and I found that on the WIP, I needed to pay attention to my own advice on those “diagnostics.” Thanks.

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