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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

  1. Why will anyone will care about this scene? What is the point, here?

  2. Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?

  3. Is the central conflict is as deep and meaningful as I can make it?

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

  5. 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.

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

  7. Do I have a good number of big scenes that dramatically alter hopes or relationships?

  8. 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.


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