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Stories and Pacing

Pacing errors can kill your story. Repetitive, low-tension paragraphs and scenes will get you more rejections than any other writing lapse.

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 the latter: set-up paragraphs at the start of scenes, pointless scenes flailing at character development or background, too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself!

But you are a stylist, you say? They way you say something is as important as what you say? Alrighty, then–but you know, the standard is very high for literary or semi-literary fiction. Are you sure that’s you? I have to ask because writers often succumb to a bit of over-writing. The rule of thumb is, when this happens take a couple of aspirin and try to settle down. When calm, cut those paragraphs. This sounds snotty and cruel, but that is our beloved industry, just jam-packed with readers who would like to get on with the story.

Quick Pacing Tips

  1. Ask yourself why anyone will care about these pages. What is the point of this scene?

  2. Ask, How far have I strayed from strong emotion?

  3. Does the story coil around itself, growing stronger, more resonant? Or is it episodic, with parallel incidents?

  4. Description should be emotionally colored by viewpoint. Descriptions convey how people feel about what they see; it is actually not about the thing itself. Don’t fall into trap of “the cinematic eye.” In this movie-obsessed age, I have to say your novel  is not a movie. In spite of the fact that you may see a movie in your head, you will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions. So stop it, already.

  5. If the pace resists improvement, is your central conflict is as deep and momentous as it can possibly be?

  6. Ask, Do I need this flashback? (Avoid it unless it is Just So Good.)

  7. Start your novel very close to the relevant action. It’s good, though, to show the status quo situation–so you won’t usually spring the story problem on page one. Do show the everyday world. Then disrupt it.

  8. If you start with the everyday world, use bridging tension. That is, something that is a transitional problem that can provide conflict before  the main problem rears its head.

Not-So-Quick Pacing Tips

To avoid wandering into low-tension, ill-conceived scenes, plan ahead. You know what happens next in your plot, let’s say. But can you skip it? What if you just move ahead a few days and quickly say what’s already happened? Instant pace boost!

Can you convey that needed information in the midst of something more dramatic? This is the principal of compression. Every scene serves two or three purposes. Single-purpose scenes are risky; save them for high drama.

Develop five or so big scenes that dramatically alter hopes or relationships. Develop fifteen scenes that provide reversals or other high-tension results.Plan these in advance. If you can’t think of twenty terrific scenes . . . well, perhaps your story needs a bit of re-thinking.

Sometimes you slow the pace on purpose. The reader needs a breather after that last big scene. Even so, the scene should be laced with tension. See my blog on: The Emotional Scene Goal.

All of this is really quite hard, I know. It’s why most people aren’t writing fiction. (But come on, aren’t you kind of eager to try your hand at this now? I challenge you to pay attention to pacing this week. It could inspire you. Let me know if it does!)


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