Note: This article is reprinted with permission.
by Randy Ingermanson
When I sold my first novel, one of the comments I got back from the editorial team was this: "The pace for this novel was perfect — never too fast nor too slow."
I was surprised, because I’d never thought much about pace. Certain things come easy to every author, and other things come hard. Pace comes easy to me.
What is pace?
It’s the amount of time you spend on each part of the story.
The Goldilocks Principle applies to pace — it should be neither too fast nor too slow, but just right.
There isn’t any tidy little rule you can memorize to define what the perfect pace is for a story. A general rule is to vary the pace to suit the tension in the scene.
So most often, you’ll want to zip through the boring parts of the story and take more time on the exciting parts.
That seems very strange, doesn’t it? If you’re showing a high-speed car chase, surely you’d want to make it read fast, wouldn’t you? Which means using fewer words, doesn’t it?
Yes and no.
Yes, you want it to read fast. But no, you don’t want to spend fewer words on it, you want more.
There’s really no paradox here. Ever seen a football game in which one of the players makes a huge play, dodging first one defender, then another, all the way down the field, finally dancing into the end zone for a touchdown? What happens next?
You can bet your shirt that the networks are going to show the whole thing AGAIN, this time in slow motion, dragging out every twist, turn, head-fake, missed tackle, fancy step, jump, roll, block, clip, and lost helmet, all the way down the field.
Showing it in slow-motion takes a lot longer, but it doesn’t cut the pace. It INCREASES the pace.
Because when the play ran at normal speed, you missed most of the action. You saw a guy running and you saw guys missing him. It all went by in a blur so fast that you couldn’t take it all in.
When they ran it in super slo-mo, you saw every little move. You saw your man do an inside-outside-inside fake. You saw the defender respond to each fake in turn, finally overcommitting in the wrong direction.
Then your man cut to his right and sped on to the next defender, faking left, then right. You saw the defender freeze, then set himself low for a tackle. Then your man leaped right over the defender.
And on down the field. When your man reached the sidelines, you saw him threading a needle between his blocker and that thin chalk line. You saw every block, every weave. You saw the last desperate flying tackler miss your man’s heels by an inch.
As he entered the end-zone, you saw his gait change to a high-stepping strut, saw him raise the ball in triumph. And then the normal pace resumed.
It took ten times as long to see it that way, but this time, YOU SAW IT ALL. You saw every action, every reaction, in beautiful, sharply cut detail. That’s what you came to see. With that one play, you got your nickel’s worth for the game.
In your novel, the moral equivalent of super-slo-mo involves spending far more words than you normally would, but using much shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs.
You alternate rapidly between what your point-of-view character is doing and what his opposition is doing.
If your paragraphs are normally three sentences apiece, they might drop down to two sentences or one.
If your sentences are normally ten words apiece, they might fall to five words. Or three.
You can’t keep that up very long, of course. That would be crazy. In the same way, it would be crazy to watch an entire football game in slow motion. You want to ramp up the pace only for the high-tension scenes, where the stakes are high.
Slowing down the pace works the opposite way. Longer sentences. Longer paragraphs. Fewer actions and reactions. More interior monologue, longer dialogue.
Why does this work? It’s really very simple. The reader reads fiction hoping to have a Powerful Emotional Experience.
Inside a scene, you provide this by showing actions and reactions between your point-of-view character and the other characters. Every time you show your POV character reacting to the other characters, you have a chance to provide an emotional hit point to your reader.
If you have short actions and short reactions (using short sentences and paragraphs), then you score emotional points with your reader faster. If you lengthen out the actions and reactions, then you score fewer emotional points.
Naturally, it only makes sense to speed up the pace when the tension is high. If you try this when the tension is low, the story is going to drag. (Imagine showing the team’s huddle in slow-motion.)
There are an infinite variety of paces you can use as you work through each scene. You speed it up and slow it down, possibly several times in the scene.
How do you know when you’ve got it right?
That’s easy. You’ve got it right when it feels right. Fiction is about creating a Powerful Emotional Experience in your reader. Tweak the pace until you’re doing that, and your reader will feel like Goldilocks.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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