Pace Your Novel—
Hup, Two, Three, Four!
© 2009 Anna Furtado
When I was a child, an uncle of mine got his first car. Shortly thereafter, my uncle invited my brother and me to ride in his new vehicle. We were just kids, so we were thrilled—until we discovered that Uncle Fred never mastered the fine art of pacing. Whether on city streets or highway, he'd punch that accelerator and take off, then once he'd gotten the car up to speed, he'd quickly remove his foot, causing the car to jerk and slow down. He'd coast along for a few seconds, and then the whole process would start again. In fits and jerks, we hopped along until we arrived at our destination. Uncle Fred's pacing caused many a joke-behind-the hand, followed by hilarious laughter and lots of eye rolls.
Pacing, done well, involves a smooth rhythm, a relationship between action and deliberation set off by subtle transitions. These manipulations of time—movement toward a critical moment in a story—swell and dip like a roller coaster ride, and therein lies the difference between the pacing analogy and a ride in the car with my uncle. On a roller coaster, the ride has a smoothness, in spite of the uphill pulls and the downhill freefalls.
Correctly executed, pacing can cause the reader's emotions to bubble to the surface. Pulling the the reader uphill with dramatic tension, then dropping her right into the middle of the conclusive action for a scene puts her right into the story and allows her to experience rather than watch from the outside looking in. The rhythm of pacing is powerful, a symphony that engages the reader and carries her along on the music of the tale.
We internalize what we read as visual images. Pacing helps form that visual image in a "moving picture." Sentence length can contribute to the overall impression. Fast-moving scenes with short, punctuated sentences, strong action verbs and short, rolling words keep the reader reacting to the story.
She thrust out her trembling hand and grasped the doorknob. She hesitated, turned the handle, opened the door a crack.
The reader may be holding her breath, heart pounding, feeling as if she were the one turning that knob.
Conversely, when trying to portray a relaxed feeling, a sense of brooding, or boredom, it's a good place to lengthen sentences and add description.
As she put out her hand toward the scuffed brass doorknob, her hand trembled. What would she find on the other side of that door? She didn't know. Would she gaze on another bloodstained face? Another casualty? Or perhaps the murderer himself, splashed with the blood of his victims? Should she force herself to overcome her fear and pull that door open?
The reader engages in the musings of the character…wondering…should she?
The push-pull of pacing helps to move the story along without the monotony of sentences strung together that are all the same length, delivering the same degree of emotion (or lack of it) throughout every scene. As the action speeds up and becomes more intense, we find our muscles tensing, our skin tingling. This is followed by a more reflective scene in which the character (and the reader), take time to notice and consider details.
When not using emotional, tension-filled scenes, slow the pace down and use summary. Summaries portray longer periods of time squeezed down into short passages that simply give information. It allows the reader to digest what has just happened and to coast along into the next scene while she catches her breath. Instead of the tension-filled first example above, we might only know that the character has left her bedroom after hearing a bump in the night. In the next scene, the summary paragraph explains what happened.
When she had stood in front of that closet door, she thought for sure she'd be confronted by a killer. Instead, when she twisted the doorknob and pulled open the door, a broom fell out and she breathed a sigh of relief. Her "killer" was a cleaning implement. She laughed at the silliness of her imagination gone wild.
This contrasts the more important passages where only a few minutes of the story is covered in paragraphs—or whole chapters—emphasizing the importance of the information. Consider the first example in this article: the build up to hearing a noise, perhaps descending a staircase, taking hesitant steps, approaching the closet door with caution and fear. This might take pages to describe, and the protagonist hasn't even opened the door to confront the object of her fear yet.
In Fluent Writing: How to Teach the Art of Pacing by Denise Leograndis, the author tells the story of a fourth grader who wrote about an "important moment" in his life—a reunion with a long lost family member. The boy wrote a detailed account about his plane ride, starting with his departure from home, arriving at the airport, checking in at the ticket counter, watching the in-flight movie, every detail. Yet the part about the actual reunion with the long-separated family member at the end of the plane ride was relegated to a short summary paragraph. Ms. Leograndis said that this story was "disappointing." She felt that the pacing was wrong because more emphasis was given to the journey rather than the meeting.
However, it occurs to me that the plane ride might well be the significant moment in a young boy's life. It might be that, to him, meeting strangers and being overwhelmed by them fawning over him, might not be something that the child would consider the highlight of a trip. So it all comes down to perspective. What is the important moment to convey to the reader? Whatever it is, pacing is an important part of how the "moment" is written. Think about the key point of each scene you write, then make sure it's weighted properly within the scene.
When sitting down to write, remember to place slow and steady pressure on that pacing accelerator. Although varying the pressure is much like varying sentence length, don't take your foot off completely until you really mean to slow down. Varying sentence length to match the pace and emotion of the scene is a lot like the timing of a good joke or the rhythm of a lovely song.
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.
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