Kick It Up a Notch
by Tim Waggoner
If writing a novel can be compared to running a marathon
and finishing on your feet, you surely don't want your finished
novel to feel that way to readers. You want your novel to read the way a symphony sounds,
sometimes slow and evocative, other times fast and exhilarating. In short, you want your book to have effective pace.
Pace equals movement, but whether a given chapter moves
fast or slow will depend on what effect you want it to have
on readers. The following
techniques can help you manage the pace of your chapters -
provided you choose them carefully, and always with your readers
Use Normal Pace
when the story is progressing, but nothing "special" is happening. This technique is good for setting a scene or creating a transition
between two more dramatic scenes. Normal Pace can also give readers a break from the
action and allow you to tone down the pace of your story so
you can begin to build it back up again.
create Normal Pace, use an even blend of description, dialogue,
narration, and exposition. Since no one story element predominates, readers pay
equal attention to them all, thus experiencing a smooth, steady
flow of prose.
Here's an example of Normal Pace:
drove to the Ash Creek Community Recreation Center, pulled
into the lot, and slowly drove around the small traffic circle
where people could drop off their children. It really wasn't much to look at from the outside:
brown brick, narrow, rectangular windows, large glass doors
like a department store. The lawn was neatly mowed and the
hedges trimmed. Ash Creek wasn't exactly a ritzy community,
but that didn't stop folks from trying.
He drove back into the lot, found a space that afforded
a good view of the front of the rec center, and parked. He sat and watched people in sweats and shorts come
and go - old, young, in singles and pairs. Some talking and laughing, others quiet and expressionless,
as if they were husbanding their energy for the physical exertions
to come. Busy for a Sunday afternoon, he thought.
In this example, while nothing special is happening,
the scene isn't static, either. We're introduced to the setting; we experience action
as the character looks for a place to park and observes people
going in and out of the rec center; and we get a blend of
physical description and the character's impressions of the
center, as well as a touch of exposition about the town itself. While the scene is obviously moving toward something
more important, the point is that the scene is still
moving - and that's the strength of Normal Pace.
Fast Pace when the story needs to shift to a higher gear,
such as during an action scene or when your characters are
engaged in an emotional confrontation. Be careful, though: Fast Pace can only go on
so long before readers begin to get exhausted or numb. Switch to a different pace after one scene
or chapter, perhaps Normal or Atmospheric Pace.
To create fast pace, focus on one fictional
element to the near exclusion of all others - just dialogue,
just narration of action, etc. Since readers have fewer elements to pay attention
to, they can move more rapidly through your prose.
Here's Fast Pace in action:
Mongoose-quick, Raven cross-drew two black metal shuriken
from her leather wrist sheathes and hurled them at Omega. Fffwwt! Fffwwt! As soon as the throwing stars left her hands, she
was up and running toward the terrorist.
Two steps toward Omega. He moved to the left, and the first shuriken
passed through empty air where his face had been only a split
Two more steps. Omega
was in trouble now. From
their last encounter three years ago, Raven remembered that
he had a tendency to duck left-precisely where she had thrown
the second star. He
didn't have time to step in either direction. All he could do was fall backward and hope the second
star missed him.
In this example (which admittedly might be more suited
to a comic book than a novel), the emphasis is entirely on
action and fast-forward story movement. There's no description beyond physical action, and
even that is kept to a minimum. The short sentences increase reading speed, serving as "action bits"
for readers to gulp down. It's almost impossible not
to read this at a gallop - and that's what Fast Pace is all
this technique to create a mood or a specific feeling in a
chapter. Atmospheric Pace can set a scene, establish
a tone, or foreshadow events to come - often all at the same
time. To create atmospheric pace, focus on blending
physical and psychological description to set the mood you
want your readers to experience.
Benjamin Strathearn lay half in, half out of the creek. From the knees down, his legs were immersed in cool
running water, but the sensation was overpowered by the pain
in his right side. It felt as if he were on fire inside, as if
instead of a musket ball, his flesh had been penetrated by
a white-hot coal that grew hotter by the moment.
Benjamin's cheek pressed against the creek bank, grass
tickling his nose, the blades swaying in the breeze caused
by his panting breath. It was early spring in South Carolina. Trees were beginning to bud into life, and birds sang out, calling
to potential mates. Squirrels
rustled through the underbrush, raccoons, deer, who knew what
else. Wolves, maybe, drawn by the smell of blood. He wondered if they'd wait for him to die or if their
hunger would goad them into attacking sooner. He wondered if he cared.
This example, set during the Revolutionary War, contrasts
the peacefulness of the natural setting with the violent injuries
the protagonist has suffered. The physical descriptions of both the setting
and the character's wounds are matched by his mental and emotional
impressions of them, creating an overall effect of suspended
time, a moment when life and death are in precarious balance. As always, the story is still moving forward, but the
blend of the physical and the psychological suffuses the scene
with the desired atmosphere - and who isn't going to read
on to see which way the scales finally tip?
you want to keep readers on the edge of their seats, use Suspenseful
Pace. To create Suspenseful Pace, focus on step-by-step
detail and action that work toward but delay the ultimate
payoff. Don't confuse
Suspense with Fast Pace, though. Suspense is slow, but it seems fast because
readers speed up as they rush to see how events play out.
It wasn't so much a thought as it was an instinct,
a prickle on the back of her neck, a tightening in her gut. Laura paused at a pawn broker's and pretended to look
through the window at the items displayed: guitars, jewelry,
video cameras. . . She was uncomfortably aware of what a good target she made-standing
still, back of the head presented almost as if she had a bull's-eye
tattooed there. She
could almost imagine him sighting on her head, seeing it through
cross-hairs, finger on the trigger, skin not sweaty, flesh
cool as he calmly, professionally, began to squeeze. . .
Stop it, she told herself. Neal would never risk acquiring her on a busy
city street. There
were too many witnesses; Neal preferred to work neat. Besides, it was too windy. As good a shot as he was, he might well miss. And Neal absolutely loathed
taking a second shot. So
much so that he never loaded a weapon with more than one round
of ammunition. One of his more colorful personality quirks. Still, she was grateful for it now-it meant
she was relatively safe. Emphasis on relatively.
In this example, the accumulation of step-by-step detail
as the character becomes aware she's being hunted - and struggles
not to look like she's aware - allows readers to experience the same anxiety
as the character. Will
Neal take a shot? How
will Laura get away? Readers
will increase their reading speed to find out the answers
as quickly as they can. Plus, the indication that Laura knows Neal,
as well as something of how assassins operate, will make readers
curious about their relationship and even more eager for the
eventual confrontation between the two characters.
Different pacing techniques can be used to create individual
scenes within a chapter - one scene employing Atmospheric
Pace, the next Suspense and the third Fast Pace. They can also form the basis for entire chapters. Use different pacing techniques whenever and
however they best seem to serve the needs of your story. Keep in mind, though, that whatever else you
do, you want to maintain an overall varied pace throughout
your novel, so try to avoid having several scenes or chapters
in a row that use the same technique.
these four pacing techniques are only a few of the many ways
to create and manage effective pace in your novel, if you
use them wisely, readers will not only finish reading you
book, when they put it down, they won't let out a long sigh
of relief, thankful that's over: they'll be eager to
head out to the store and pick up your next novel.