The Speed of Story

Lately I’ve been giving zoom workshops on a few critical novel-writing subjects. Topics that I think are under-taught and under-optimized by writers. One of these topics is pacing. Here are some tips from my pacing workshop, Move Along, Folks.

Pacing is the speed at which you tell your story. How quickly you’re forwarding and deepening the plot. Is it too fast, appearing rushed? Too slow, losing the reader’s interest? Usually, the problem is the latter: set-up paragraphs at the start of scenes, aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened, scenes flailing at character development or background, too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself. And then there are the really tough pacing issues.

Pacing can be hard to judge. It’s part of your style. It’s 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.

I tend to write longish and cut back in the rewrite. But also when planning and writing, I try to forestall slow pacing using a few diagnostic questions like these:

  • How proactive is my major character? Will she be able to power the story’s pacing with her action-orientation?

  • What specific qualities and motivations does my protagonist have that make her likely to strive even in the face of strong opposition?
  • Is the central conflict as deep as it can possibly be? We want to give ourselves the fuel for a well-paced story, so that when we step on the gas, the power is there.
  • What steps can the forces of opposition take that sharpen the stakes, thereby forcing the major character to respond?
  • What events accelerate pacing in the middle of the story? Does the story coil around itself, growing stronger, more resonant?
  • Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion? (Including dialogue scenes.)
  • Do flashbacks divert from the core story line? Could backstory be quickly summarized rather than put on stage?
  • Am I using a “cinematic eye,” falling into long visual descriptions? Can the visuals be cut back, tightened, or do double-duty by establishing tension?

How strong is the pacing in your story? If you’re not sure, give each scene a score from 1 to 5. Shore up the weak sequences. Your readers will thank you!

Watch this space for announcements of my webinars: Six Slippery Sins: Writing advice that leads us astray; the Magic of Plotting (alias: Mapping the Labyrinth); and Move Along, Folks (pacing).

2 Responses

  1. Brilliant advice, Kay. One of the things I look for is whether narration–thoughts, description of all kind, flashbacks–are a match for pace, are written “organically”–not showing the hand of the writer, and directly relevant to the “story moment” right now.

    I fully agree that sometimes a narrative summary does much better than a flashback to convey necessary back-story but keep the forward story moving forward (did I repeat myself!).

    Thanks for instruction. I always find it enlightening.

  2. Kay says:

    That’s a great point: Respect the “story moment” by not wandering outside of it. Make the material directly relevant to what’s going on in the scene. There can be small diversions, and only once in a while, in my opinion. But it still leads to an excellent diagnostic question: “What does this have to do with right now?”

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

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