Practical Pointers on Plot Pacing

by Randy Ingermanson

Note: this is a follow up from yesterday’s article, and it originally appeared in Randy’s eZine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Last month we talked about the theory of pacing. About how when you have a fast-action scene, you spend a lot more words, showing every detail of the action. And when you have a dull scene, you blip through in just a few words.

This month, we’ll try to make that practical by looking at an example.

Since I have a choice in showing either an exciting example or a dull one, I’m going to show an exciting one from THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett.

We’ll find something that may seem surprising. Even in a very fast scene, there are places where the pace slows way down. Here’s the setting:

It’s 1942 Egypt, and Erwin Rommel is closing in on Cairo. Our hero is William Vandam of British Intelligence, hunting down a spy who is Rommel’s prime source of information. If Vandam fails, then Cairo will fall, and with it all of Egypt.

In this scene, the spy, Wolff, has kidnapped Vandam’s son Billy and girlfriend Elene, but Vandam has pursued them. After Elene purposely wrecks the car, Wolff gets out to fight Vandam. We watch the scene from Elene’s point of view.

Paragraph 1: Vandam jumped forward again. This time Wolff dodged back. Vandam kicked out, but Wolff was out of range. Wolff jabbed with the knife. Elene saw it rip through Vandam’s trousers and draw blood. Wolff stabbed again, but Vandam had stepped away. A dark stain appeared on his trouser leg.

Randy sez: In this single paragraph, the pace is as fast as a knife fight can be. We see six actions and reactions by the two men.

Paragraph 2: Elene looked at Billy. The boy lay limply on the floor of the car, his eyes closed. Elene clambered over into the back and lifted him onto the seat. She could not tell whether he was dead or alive. She touched his face. He did not stir. "Billy," she said. "Oh, Billy."

Randy sez: In this paragraph, the pace slows down sharply. Why? What is Follett is doing here?

The answer is that Follett is giving the reader a chance to rest. You can only show fast action for a short time before the reader begins numbing. In this one-paragraph lull, Follett gives you a chance to recover. A little.

Paragraph 3: She looked outside again. Vandam was down on one knee. His left arm hung limply from a shoulder covered with blood. He held his right arm out in a defensive gesture. Wolff approached him.

Randy sez: The pace is still slow here, but the tension is ramping up hard. Wolff and Vandam are positioning themselves for the next series of moves. Vandam looks ready to collapse. It’s not a fair fight. The odds are heavily against our hero.

Paragraph 4: Elene jumped out of the car. She still had the broken-off gear stick in her hand. She saw Wolff bring back his arm, ready to slash at Vandam once more. She rushed up behind Wolff, stumbling in the sand. Wolff struck at Vandam. Vandam jerked sideways, dodging the blow. Elene raised the gear stick high in the air and brought it down with all her might on the back of Wolff’s head. He seemed to stand still for a moment.

Randy sez: The pace turns electric again, with every detail now shown, frame by frame. There are six actions here in this single paragraph, each one an emotional hit point for the reader. Now watch Follett bring the pace smoothly down to normal speed again in a series of short paragraphs:

Paragraph 5: Elene said: "Oh, God."

Paragraph 6: Then she hit him again.

Paragraph 7: She hit him a third time.

Paragraph 8: He fell down.

Paragraph 9: She hit him again.

Paragraph 10: Then she dropped the gear stick and knelt beside Vandam.

Paragraph 11: "Well done," he said weakly.

Overall, the pace of the scene is very high, but it’s not constant. Follett varies the pace, faster, slower, faster, slower.

Like a violinist using vibrato to constantly vary the pitch, Follett makes the entire passage read better by constantly varying the pace.

This is a very important principle for your fastest action scenes: Vary the pace. The fast parts will feel faster by contrast with the slow parts. And in the slow parts, build tension by showing the preparations for more action in exquisite detail.

Your reader will love you for it.

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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