Whoa Now! Varying the Pace

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say, “Get on with the story.” He was talking about the tendency of the unsure writer to stall or slow down the story’s progression. Again and again, he stressed the necessity of keeping the pace fast. I’ve found his advice to be sound. Keep the pages turning. Keep readers from finding a stopping place. Keep things happening.

However, it’s just as possible to stumble with a story that’s too fast as with a story that’s too slow.

Any plot can become monotonous or dull if the pacing never varies. There are many terms for this: the story’s rhythm, the rise and fall of drama, the peaks and valleys of plot, etc.

Try this:

Bob darted around the corner with his Uzi held at waist level. He saw the target ahead–a shadow waiting for him in the alley. A flower of flame burst to life in the darkness. A split-second later, Bob heard the rat-tat staccato of gunfire. The bullets chipped pellets of brick, stinging when they struck him. He ducked, rolled, came up, returned fire. His opponent twisted, flung back by a hit, and fell. Bob raced forward. That was one down, but he knew seven more assailants waited between him and his goal.

This moves quickly, but if I gave Bob a moment to catch his breath and weigh a couple of options before he takes on Enemy #2, it would be more effective. Hit the reader with too much action, happening too quickly, with no chance to process, and within a few pages the reader’s circuits will be shorting out from overload. Burn out your reader, and the book is put down.

Let’s try again:

Bob eased his way across the corner, holding his Uzi at waist level. He concentrated on moving silently, taking his time, placing the soles of his shoes precisely in contact with the alley’s pavement. He was wearing a dark pair of New Balance cross-trainers, secure and reliable. Still, he couldn’t afford to let them squeak or scuff the cement. He knew that alert ears were ahead of him, ears listening for any sound that might signal an attack. Ahead, a shadow moved, and a burst of flame from a muzzle was all the warning he received before the echoing crash of gunfire bounced off the walls around him. Bob ducked, breathing hard and fast. His hands were suddenly sweaty on his weapon. He was shaking with adrenaline, unable to force his fingers to do what they’d been trained to do. Shoot back, he snarled at himself. Just shoot back! But everything had slowed down. He could taste sweat and blood in his mouth. His ears thundered from the staccato hailstorm of bullets. He wanted to throw himself flat on his belly and scream, but instead he brought up his weapon, and squeezed the trigger. The Uzi bucked in his hands, sending death in reply. Bob saw his opponent twist and fall with a choked cry. Then all was quiet, except for the ringing in his ears. His nostrils were full of cordite stench. He let his knees wobble beneath him as he sank down, breathing hard. He hadn’t killed anyone since that mission three years ago, the one he’d blanked from his mind as much as possible. Now, the smells and sounds came flooding back, the stuff of nightmares.

He forced himself to stay focused, and not dwell on the past. That was one, he thought. Only seven to go. This way in had been compromised now. They would be expecting him. Maybe he should retreat, but if he failed his mission how could he face the …

Gak! Enough of that! Here, I’ve deliberately written this action sequence to be slow. There’s too much concentration on descriptive details at points where Bob needs to be less self-absorbed and more focused on staying alive.

Pace, like so many aspects of writing technique, is a question of balance.

Keep Pages Turning

You keep readers engaged by utilizing hooks, plot twists, conflict, rising stakes, motivation, sympathetic characters, and unpredictability.

There’s an old Ronald Reagan movie called KING’S ROW. In the film, Ronnie suffers an accident and is badly injured. The town doctor amputates his legs–not because Ronnie needs an amputation, but because the doctor doesn’t want Ronnie and his daughter to become a couple. No actual gore is shown, but during the doctor’s grim assessment of this injured young man and his quiet orders to the other men to clear the room so he can take out his bone saw, the pace is slow but INTENSE. If you were reading this in prose, you would be turning pages.

Lesson to learn: Don’t rely on narrative summary alone to turn pages. Readers care more about what’s happening than how fast the events are unfolding.

No Stopping Places

Typically, readers want to put the book down at the end of chapters. Many like to read before they go to sleep at night and don’t intend to get through more than a few pages at a time.

A writer’s intention should be to prevent readers from laying down the book.

To achieve this, you need hooks at the end of every chapter. These can be cliffhangers, questions, plot twists, etc.

You should put hooks at the beginnings of chapters, too. Maybe you shift viewpoint or use catchy dialogue. These tactics can keep the reader intrigued and engaged.

Watch out for boring sections of your story. Have you allowed the conflict to become circular? (Straighten out the scene and make it work. Throw in a twist or an unexpected tactic from the antagonist.)

Are you stalling because you don’t know what you want to write next? (Figure it out and then cut out the padding.)

Are you relying too much on description and imagery to make pretty settings? (Readers like a sense of place, but too much description slows the pace.)

Keep Things Happening

Are the characters standing around talking instead of doing?

Has the conflict gone flat?

Can you add more conflict?

Is character dialogue chatty small talk or is it advancing the plot?

When was the last time you utilized a plot twist?

The point is that you shouldn’t stick to one speed from start to finish. You shouldn’t rely on one or two techniques all the time. When you become predictable, your story becomes boring–whether it’s overloaded with events of equal weight happening so fast that no one can make sense of them or whether it’s burdened with dragging, slow introspection from your navel-gazer of a protagonist.

1 Comment

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One response to “Whoa Now! Varying the Pace

  1. CD

    Fencing has been described as physical chess: there’s a place (potentially) for analysis in action. Not letting it interfere with the excitement is a nontrivial problem worth keeping in mind.

    When I first realized that excruciating detail made even dramatic fight scenes ponderously slow, it was quite a revelation. Being inspired by Frank Herbert or a spy thriller to have characters notice tiny details and to have them draw crucial conclusions from them while engaged in some completely different task need not make our writing ponderous and slow-paced. It’s important to see _how_ to give that detail, though, without slowing the story. Of course, maintaining tension and moving the action aren’t exactly the same thing.

    Stephen Brust recently wrote a book in the Taltos series in which he had scenes with virtually no description, and in which nearly all the important facts – the drawing of weapons, the emotions that would drive such action – is inferred by the reader from the dialogue. It’s interesting to see what’s possible with the pen.

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