One of the first things people blab about when they read books is pacing. “It was a quick read,” or, “It drug on forever!” How quickly folks flip through pages is important. You might argue, “Not all readers care about pace.” I’m fine with that argument. I will counter with this question: If pacing doesn’t matter, then why does almost every book on writing address how to increase/maintain pace, and why does almost every review talk about it?
Regardless of what we tell ourselves, (most) readers appear to to care about pacing. Do we need non-stop head explosions and fiery metal raining down from the sky on every page? Probably not. But we do need to find methods to allow pacing to enhance our conflicts, character interactions, and story in general.
The more books you read on writing, the more advice you will see that encourages you to give readers a breather. The whole book can’t be face slapping chaos after all. However, you aren’t going to find much on methods of slowing pace down. Why? Because most writers create low-paced worlds. Those flowery descriptions, prolonged scene settings, and grand narratives cut tempo down to a crawl.
With that in mind, here are a few tricks and tips that will act like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of your story.
Shorter sentences and more paragraph breaks. I’ve talked about sentence length before here, so I won’t go into this deeply. Short sentences are our short swords. We hack and slash and rip with them. Short sentences, paired with paragraph breaks, speed the story along.
Skip a scene entirely. This can create massive confusion, but if executed properly it moves the pace of a book along nicely. Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, talks about a method he used in his own work. “In my novel The Magician, there is one scene in which four rough teenagers meet with an older girl for beer and sex. That chapter ends with the girl saying, ‘Okay, who’s first?’ The next chapter goes to a different location with other characters. The scene that the reader anticipates never happens” (p. 196).
Stein goes on to write about how he never actually showed what happened in that scene. He also said the book reached several million readers and he never once had someone complain about it. Yes, you might be slaying some darlings by cutting scenes to increase pace; but hey, we talked about resurrecting them before here.
Start with action and end with action. Nothing keeps the mob appeased like building little cliffhangers right into the chapters. This is a tool the experts say to use in moderation because you’ll leave the reader gasping for air. Or you can use it for every chapter and see what happens! Heck, there is probably a group of “lowbrow” action junkies (like me) who love that kind of pacing.
The only issue I see with this is when the writer doesn’t take the time to anchor the setting coming into the next chapter. Often times it’s because the writer is riding the action as they write. They find a slick cutoff stop, close the chapter, and jump right into writing the next one. Because the transition is instant for them, they assume the reader will also jump straight into the next chapter as well. We’ve talked about how this is a problem and anchoring the reader is important here.
Jump scenes, cut scenes, and dissolves. You film lovers will know what I’m talking about here. For you non-film folks, these are the transitions used in film to show changes in scene or passages in time. The character boards the train, sits down, opens a book, and the screen fades to black. When the screen comes back into view, they are in the new location. Or instead of being in a new location, they wake up with a gun pressed to their temple! Gadzooks! The fade to black is the dissolve. Cut scenes and jump scenes are essentially the same, minus the slow fade.
If your characters have to transit long distances, we don’t necessarily care to hold their hands and go with them. If the journey is part of the story, go for it. But if the journey is just a tool to transit the characters from one conflict to another, then use the jump scene. You can teleport characters however you want, again, you just need to take a sentence or two and re-anchor the reader in the scene.
Slice and dice away extra adjectives and adverbs. [Insert Rant Here] -> I’ve heard some ham-handed advice about using programs to search and destroy all adverbs in a manuscript. While I like the idea of searching and destroying things; adverbs aren’t the end of the world. It’s impossible to write without using adverbs. They are a part of speech like everything else. Do some writers use them too much, sure they do. But eradicating them from a manuscript (which is largely impossible) is like sawing off a leg because you stubbed your toe <- [End Rant Here].
My point is you should strive to eliminate extra words from your sentences. Adjectives and adverbs are usually ripe for the plucking when it’s time to trim the fat. This is normally because in the heat of writing we use them to push our story along.
The more concise the sentences are, the quicker they deliver the blows to the readers. Yes, long sentences can be used to lull the reader into a devious trap. I’m not talking about using sentences for effect here. I’m talking about getting rid of all those extra words that are doing nothing. Less is more.
Last tip. Don’t halt conflict for prolonged description. This always causes a single tear to roll down my cheek. If you are blowing my mind with some heavy action, don’t stop the pain-train to describe unrelated information.
I think of the slow motion sword drop. Someone is about to hacked into two pieces. In mid-swing, the writer decides to slow the blade down to a crawl and explain every feature of the sword. Come on! Give me those descriptive beats after the battle when the character is cleaning the gore off of the blade and sharpening it or something.
That’s it for today. These are just a tiny assortment of all the tools available to push the tempo of a story. Do you have any suggestions, tips, or methods you use in your writing? I’d love to hear about them. I will likely talk about pacing more in the future and your tips might just help write the post (teamwork!). Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!