Monday, May 4, 2009

Keep Up The Pace!

Perhaps you’ve had comments from an editor or agent such as “your novel moves too slowly.” Or you read a review about a book that raves about its “breakneck speed”. What exactly are they talking about?

They’re talking about pace and it can be the difference between a humdrum book and an engaging read. Or in a writer’s case, the difference between a sale and a rejection letter.

So what is pace? Pace is the speed at which the events in a book move and the speed at which a reader reads. It is also the rhythm of the book. In her article on pacing, Vicki Hinz says that pacing is “using specific word choices and sentence structure--scene, chapter, and novel structure--to tap the emotions of the reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants the reader to feel at any given time during the story.” At some points in the book, the pace will be slow and languid, while at other points the pace will be quick, moving us along breathlessly with the action. In most books, the pace is quicker in the latter chapters than in the first chapters as we race to the finish.

If you think your novel is moving too quickly or too slowly, how can you control the pace in your story? When should you slow down or pick up the pace? (FYI: Jack Bickham, in his book “Scene and Structure” says that after years of teaching writing he found that at least 90% of pacing problems are novels that move too slow.)

If you think your novel is moving too fast. Jack Bickham says that novels are made up of scenes and sequels. A scene is a segment of story action, written moment by moment, without summary, presented on-stage in the story “now”. It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on a theatre stage and acted out. Scenes are fast paced.

Sequels, on the other hand, are parts of the story in which the writer explores the viewpoint character’s emotions, thoughts and decisions. The sequel gives our character the opportunity to mull over what just happened to him in the scene, or to think about events in the past. This introspection is generally much slower paced than scenes.

Long stories are created by linking together scenes and sequels in a scene-sequel-scene configuration, although many variations exist. Bickham says that one way to slow down the pace is to eliminate a minor or weak scene and tell about it in a sequel. Another method is to enter a scene somewhere in the middle. For instance, if your scene is a meeting that begins at 7 pm, rather than dramatizing the whole meeting, start it later, beginning the scene with something like, “By 8:30 everyone was exhausted.” Conversely, consider expanding previously unexplored emotional reactions of your characters in a new sequel.

Vicki Hinz says that if you want to emphasize something slow down the pace by fully describing it. That will let the reader know that this event is important. For instance, a love scene is a good place to slow down the action and get creative with description and emotion. Long, flowing sentences and stretches of narrative will slow down the pace.

When you want to quicken the pace. Consider removing a sequel of introspection and thought that slows the pace. If a sequel can’t be completely eliminated consider shortening it. Conversely, examine your story to see if you’ve overlooked an opportunity for an exciting piece of action that you can develop in a scene. In existing scenes, find ways to raise the stakes, increase the conflict, add to the viewpoint character’s desperation or make disasters more disastrous.

In dramatic situations, the pacing must be brisk to help carry the right emotional impact. Here, long sentences or paragraphs won’t work. They’ll bog down the action, and negate any compelling sensation from the drama you’re trying to build. Use dialogue to quicken the pace by giving the illusion of action. Lean writing with strong verbs and short punchy sentences also increase pace. Sentence fragments are read quickly by the reader and convey a sense of urgency.

One last word about pace. Pace should naturally vary throughout the novel. After moments of intense drama and quick pace, the reader needs a little breathing space with a sequel of introspection. Then after a break pick up the pace again. The closer to the conclusion of the story the faster the pace becomes.

Do you have issues with pacing? What’s your favorite way of picking up the pace?


Karen said...

What great timing for this post. I'm rewriting the middle of my wip and pacing is very much on my mind right now. I have been experimenting with short punchy sentences but I'm going to have to remember to use stronger verbs and lots of them. Also I find my scenes or getting shorter but more intense so I guess that's okay. Will make sure and come back and check out your post as I go along.

Erika said...

Interesting post. I'd never thought about it that way. I'll definitely be keeping this in mind while I work through my wip.

Silver James said...

I guess I'm lucky! I've never been told, per se, that my pacing needed work. The one comment I've had from an editor stated that the book (after the first three chapters which were rewritten per the editor's requests) was choppy. She turned down the MS for other reasons (not enough focus on the romance) and mentioned I would need to smooth out the MS. I laughed and explained that I'd cut the original MS from 84,000 words to 60,000 to meet their submission requirements. I'm now in the process of putting a lot of those 24K words back. I think that will help. A lot. LOL!

Jana, great post. It's something I don't always think about but will be more cognizant of as I work now! Thanks. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes, pacing is a problem to me, and your explanation is the most complete understandable one I've heard. I thought I understood it after the ACFW conference last fall. I even revised my ms to pick up the pace in my action scene prior to subbing it. Then, when the editor commented it was 'choppy' on certain pages and actually put the page nbrs in, she was talking about the scene I thought I'd improved. Obviously not well enough.

Excellent post, Jana. Thanks.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I think one of the main things to remember about pacing is that if you are in the middle of an action 'scene', don't stop and go into your character's head to get his perspective on things. This is not the time for your character to be mulling things over because it slows the pace down to a crawl. If your story seems to be getting faster as faster as you head towards the conclusion, it sounds like you're on the right track. You want to build up the breathless sense of anticipation, especially in romantic suspense. Good luck.


Captain Hook said...

Great post, Jana!

My hardest problem are the sequels. I hate narrative that lasts more than 1-2 paragraphs, and I hate description.

I don't remember who said it (I know I've heard it somewhere), but I agree with the philosophy that if more than one adjective is used to describe something, it's too much.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Erika,
Pace is definitely something important to keep in mind. Think about movies. Have you ever watched one that just seemed to drag on and on? Probably the pacing's off. Same with books. I'm sure you've read books that just keep you turning the pages, and others that you've put down with a yawn. Much of the time it's a problem with pacing. Probably too much thinking when there should have been more action.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
I think I've been really lucky with editors. Honorary Chick Jude Glad was my editor for three of my ebooks and she was really great in helping me to polish the book and make the writing really tight. She was especially helpfull with my book "Seeing Things" which is a romantic suspense. One particular scene is a car chase. You can imagine that you want a car chase to be fast and breathless. Jude helped me to really tighten up the scene (pick up the pace!)so that I think the reader gets a real sense of urgency here now. I shortened sentences, took out any unnecessary introspection on the hero's part, tried to use as many strong verbs as possible. I think it quickened the pace.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I recommend Jack Bickham's book "Scene and Structure". It explained pacing to me in a way I could finally understand as well. All I'd heard before was that the book moved too slowly, but I didn't understand why. If you think of your book as series of scene (action) and sequels (reaction, mulling things over, feelings) it becomes more clear. Bickham says to increase the pace you must make those scenes more action packed. You only use enough introspection (thoughts in the POV character's head) to make his actions understandable. Deep thinking comes later in the sequel.
This was something I didn't always separate (and have to watch out for all the time).

Glad this was helpful to you.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Captain,
Would it help you to think of the sequels not so much as times of description, but a time to explore your POV character's thoughts and feelings? Perhaps your character has a really hard decision to make. The sequel is where she weighs the pros and cons. It's where she thinks about her feelings for the person she loves, or the sister who makes her crazy, or the father who deserted the family. Stuff like that.

I have a tendency to do just the opposite and go on and on about what my character is thinking. Not the thing to do in an action scene!


Karen said...

Okay, I'm going to reread the scene and check to make sure I'm focusing on the action and not Lily's thoughts.

Helena said...

I think one of the reasons that I am having difficulty getting through the first draft of my wip is that I already know I have a problem with pace. Yet I keep telling myself that I will deal with it in the major revision that will happen --- after the first draft is done. And so the dog keeps chasing her tail! Round and round I go.

Your post today does present a basic structure to keep in mind, and I think I have a tendency to veer off into introspection in the middle of the action. So, note to self: follow the rule of scene, then sequel, in this first draft. Don't break the rules until the revision, if at all.

Thanks for your excellent clarification on this topic, Jana.

Yunaleska said...

Quick reply because haven't got much time right now, but this is an awesome post, its makes sense and I'm taking notes :) Thank you!

Danielle Thorne said...

I've actually come across some of his instruction before--after my first manuscript, and it was great advice. I actually color code each of my scenes (one per index card) as to whether they are "scenes" (action) or a sequel. This helps me to literally see the speed of the story in color--and I even used the method to graph a whole story, rating action scenes from 1 to 3 so I could get a good look at the momentum. Too anal? I am, myself, a work in progress. haha.

GREAT blog topic!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

This is very timely for me as well, as I just finished writing a fairly action-packed scene last night. I try to really keep that sort of rapid punch in mind when I write, and often go back to chop sentences in half if I suddenly feel like the tension is gone. I've also found that borrowing a page from oral tradition adds some extra punch to fast-paced scenes.

What I mean is, crisp, rhythmic lines and alliteration. No one does battle like Beowulf, and those hammered half-lines can really quicken the pace... or likewise slow it down if you choose smoother sounds like s's.

I'm also glad to see your comment about not going into the character's head in fast-paced sequences. I was noticing last night how little emotional side I was getting, and thought of going back to put some in, but it would have ruined the pacing.

I think the sequels are where I'm a little iffy sometimes... not that I have a problem writing them. I always feel that I shouldn't be lingering to long in the intellectual processes without some action going on, and yet I want to and could probably go on for pages if no one told me to stop. Balance is the key, I suppose, but I do admit I hate the impression some seem to have of action being greater than emotion/intellect. Sounds like the literary equivalent of 'more explosions' ;)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I find it really tempting to tell what the character is deeply thinking even in a scene of action. Sort of like I'm often tempted to stick in a whole bunch of backstory at the beginning of my story. But if there's one thing I've learned, it is to try really hard to resist temptation.

Pacing is a fine balance. Not too fast and not too slow. Fortunately it is something that can be fixed in revisions. But it's a good thing to keep in mind for your first draft as well.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
I'm glad you were able to drop by. I could only do a brief outline in this post on pacing; Jack Bickham wrote a whole book. I seriously recommend "Scene and Structure" for anyone interested in pacing, and the structure of a novel in general.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Danielle,
Nice to see you here! Thanks for joining us.

Are you a little anal? Hmmm...let me think about that. Maybe just a little. But from I know about you, you strike me as a person who gets things done, and gets them done well, so I'd say anal is working for you!

I'm looking forward to your guest blog on May 16.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I think sequels are equally as important as the scenes. Like you say, you have to have balance. You probably shouldn't go on and and on for pages with introspection or it will seriously damage your pacing. But it is important to know your characters, and what they are thinking and feeling. Sequels are the place to slip in backstory, and the only place where flashbacks should appear. In "Scene and Structure" Bickham includes several examples. He gives one particularly spectacular example of sequel from one of his one works of fiction called "Tiebreaker" which is a spy story. This example stuck with me because Bickham basically gives his character's whole backstory in a fairly short sequel. He does a lot of it with flashbacks, two or three or them, but it is so well done it doesn't feel like he is simply feeding us information. I also remember this sequel so well because the character Partek is on the run, and the sequel opens in front of his motel in Swift Current, Saskatchewan! Partek says the landscape reminds him of his native Yugoslavia and this is what triggers his memories.

Happy writing,

Janet C. said...

Great post, Jana. This in one of those gems you come across in blogland that you copy/paste the address into a word document specifically for _______.

And, wow, to Danielle. That's organized - might have to try that just to see what the manuscript looks like.

Thanks, Jana.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad if this post is helpful to you and others.

Danielle is one of those people who gets things done. She is a fellow Awe Struck author and recently started up a Twitter account for us. She also organized a virtual book tour for herself to promote her latest release "The Privateer". From the little I know about virtual tours they take good organizational skills and plenty of energy.