You’ve finally finished your latest piece of fiction. Congratulations! Once you’ve stuck a feather in your cap and given your back a big, hearty slap, you pass your gem along to a trusted reader… and the notes you get back are, “the story feels uneven/ seems melodramatic/ lacks momentum/ becomes anticlimactic” and you haven’t got the foggiest how that could be possible. You made sure your writing has all the basic components a story of this type should have, so where’s the problem?
The simple and direct answer to that would be pacing, my friend.
Proper pacing is one of the critical elements needed to keep your audience actively engaged and as a writer you must develop structural and word choice skills and use a variety of devices to control the speed and rhythm at which your plot unfolds.
Here are a few tips to start you on your journey:
1. The most obvious momentum control is length.
When writing a tense scene—filled with action, danger or crisis—you want your audience to experience feelings of speed and intensity. There’s no room for distractions here, just the meat of the nutshell, which is accomplished by keeping your descriptions and sentences concise, and if there’s any dialogue, have your characters spit it out at a rapid-fire tempo.
During the times when you need to establish a character, place or event in order to build a foundation for your story, longer scenes with more descriptive sentences, character thoughts, richer dialogue and transitions, come into play.
2. Give your audience a chance to catch their breath.
Let’s say one of your strengths is creating sharp, high-tension scenes. You trim the fat off sentences, annihilate unnecessary prepositional phrases, and swap out passive linking verbs for active ones like a pro. In fact, you’re so good at it that it becomes your default style of writing. That’s great. I’m pleased as punch for ya. Your audience—not to mention your characters—however, will need a breather between high conflict points, which means you must vary your pacing by providing a slower, more introspective scene. Balancing your story with intentional calm moments also ensures your electrifying scenes maintain their power.
3. The devil—and a slower pace—is in the details.
I’ve mentioned in other posts that you should always plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story, and if you can accomplish this, it pays off during scenes when something extremely dramatic is about to happen. This is where you take your time and describe everything in detail so that your audience feels the full impact.
4. Remember the advice, “show, don’t tell?” Well, it doesn’t always apply.
Yup, I know, it’s been drilled into your head countless times and I’ve even written about it (see: Skip The Tell And Bring On The Show) but there are always exceptions to the rules. Tedium is the primary cause for this rule break, as your intention is to keep your audience’s focused on the important and interesting matters. By telling rather than showing, you can skim over unimportant scenes that you don’t want to linger on.
5. Become a master manipulator (of word choice and sentence structure)
You don’t need me to tell you that words are the tools by which you control the worlds you create, and those same words—both singular and in groupings—are your first best means of managing your story’s pace. But the manipulation of the length of words, phrases and clauses to control the ebb and flow of sentence and paragraph structures, isn’t the only way deal with pace. You also have allies in cliffhangers and prolonged outcomes.
Now that I’ve mentioned cliffhanger, you’re no doubt thinking, “oh yeah, naturally…” because as an avid reader, you know first hand that you hate being left in the lurch and will quickly flip the page to discover what happens next. Your job as a writer will be to introduce that uncertainty in the form of an impending threat, an interruption in the action, unfinished business, or a dangling peril.
Prolonged outcomes, on first thought, might appear to require a slower pacing, but the reverse is actually true. When you prolong an event, the story speed increases because you’ve piqued your audience’s interest and they’re eager to discover how the events play out and pay off.
As with all my posts, this is simply rudimentary information, and you will come to notice that each story you write has its own unique pace. Some will speed along fast and furious, while others will make their way unhurriedly to the end. What’s important is that you’re not only aware of the message your story’s pace conveys to the audience, but are also in absolute control of it.
Sally forth–at the proper pace–and be writeful.
— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys