Monday, April 9, 2012

5 Ways to Pace Your Story

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story. Understanding how to operate that dam is one of the most important tasks an author has to learn. Without this skill, we end up writing stories that variously lack momentum, feel uneven, become anticlimactic, and seem melodramatic. Following are five tips for taking this important plot skill beyond instinct to conscious action:


1. Length controls momentum. Short scenes and chapters, terse sentences, and snappy dialogue all contribute to a feeling of intensity and speed, just as long scenes and chapters, leisurely sentences, and extended dialogue ground the story with a sense of place and time. This is probably the easiest way to control your pacing, simply because it’s so obvious. As your story nears the tense scenes, make it a point to condense everything. Limit the length of your scenes to 500-800 words, cut your scenes short at important moments, and switch back and forth between POVs.


2. Vary pacing. As important as the high-tension race-‘em-chase-‘em scenes are, it’s even more important to vary your pacing with slow, introspective scenes. Without the slow scenes (what Jessica Page Morrell calls “sequels”), you’ll give neither your characters nor your readers a chance to catch their breaths. Even the most exciting of scenes loses its intensity if it’s never balanced with moments of deliberate quiet.


3. Pay attention to details to build momentum. In film, directors often put scenes into slow motion to indicate that something tremendously dramatic is happening or about to happen. One of the best ways writers can mimic this technique is to slow their own writing way down by piling on the details. Let’s say one of your characters is shot. This is an important moment in the story, and you want the readers to feel its impact. You can do this by taking your time and describing every detail: the look on the gunman’s face as he fires, the recoil of the pistol, the flash of the barrel, the horror that chokes the victim, and finally the collision of the bullet.


4. Control your tell vs. show ratio. Although “showing” your audience the details, the blow-by-blow account of your characters’ actions, is key to engaging them and making them feel the tension, sometimes the best way to hurtle them through a scene is to condense certain actions into “telling.” Perhaps you want to use that same scene in which your character is shot, but you don’t want to linger on it. You want to do a quick flyby, shock your readers, and plunge them into the action after the gunshot. Instead of taking the time to show the details, you can thrust the gunshot upon the reader simply by telling him it happened.


5. Manipulate sentence structure. The mark of a professional writer is his ability to control the ebb and flow of his sentence structure. The most subtle way to influence your pacing is through your structuring of sentences. The length of words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs all contribute to how the pacing is conveyed to the reader. Again, long=slow, short=fast. When it’s time to write the intense scenes, cut back on the beautiful, long-winded passages and give it to your reader straight. Short sentences and snappy nouns and verbs convey urgency, whereas long, measured sentences offer moments of introspection and build-up.


Pacing varies from story to story. Some stories demand an almost continual breakneck speed; others rarely emerge past a leisurely walk. But all stories depend upon pacing to accurately convey the writer’s message.
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14 comments:

  1. Much of this happens intuitively for some authors while others need to work at it. The more seamless and intuitive it feels to the reader, the more successful it will be.

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  2. Great post and fantastic tips. Thanks KM I shared this in a couple of places.

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  3. @Tracy: It *has* to happen on an intuitive level to some extent. Although a conscious understanding of pacing is important, it's one of those things that we just have to feel out. If it feels right, it probably is.

    @Tasha: Thanks so much for passing along the post!

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  4. I've started to pay a lot of attention to sentence length. I'm naturally a clause compiler, which leads to long sentences—full of details tucked into places that might better be served as independent sentences. Um, you know, somebody who dislikes periods. I blame it on logical rigor in academic writing :) Can't leave any term undefined.

    Now I'll try to make this more intuitive, especially for climaxes.

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    1. I'm inclined to those ridiculously long, winding sentences myself. In the first draft, I just let them rip. Then, come the logical editing process, I split as many of them as possible into two or three smaller sentences.

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  5. Great post as always with important reminders, and I love the cute picture of the tortoise and the hare. Did you make them?

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    1. Oh, no, they wouldn't have been that cute had I made them. :p I found the pic on Flickr. If you click on it, it will take you to the original page.

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    2. Well...duh...I completely missed the tortoise and hare and had to scroll back up to look at them. I guess I was too engrossed in the wisdom to notice the photo. Yeah, yeah, I'll go with that. ;)

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  6. Love this post, Katie, especially #4. Sometimes the need to keep the pace outweighs the need to "show."

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    1. Writers tend to make "showing" a holy grail, instead of remembering that it, like any other technique, is a tool. It's not a cure-all; it's just a technique that's useful more than not.

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  7. Hi K.M. Weiland,

    I just found your blog, and I like it very much.

    Great blog post.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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  8. This is very helpful information. I think pacing is one of the most difficult things to master when writing. I'll be linking to this article.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Pacing *is* difficult to master, simply because it's so much a matter of feel and timing. The best way to learn it to is to read with attention.

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