Shelley Widhalm

Pacing novels at the structural level

In Pacing, Writing, Writing Processes on August 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

Readers read stories and novels for the story and character, but what pulls them through to the last page is the pacing.

Pacing is the tempo or rate of the story’s unfolding and how quickly the events of the story occur. It varies from a fast and quick speed to slow, careful and unhurried.

It is, in essence, the story’s rate of movement or momentum, and it is carried out on two levels: structurally or the entire framework of the story, and at the line level in individual words, sentences and paragraphs.

Throughout the novel or in a scene, pacing shows the passing of time, or how much time elapses. Pacing is particularly important in particular places of the novel: the opening of a story, in the middle and at the climax that all need a fast pace to pull readers in, get them through the hump and make them want to finish to the end.

To get the story moving, the scenes and chapter beginnings need to introduce change and conflict. The main character encounters setbacks and failures meeting the main need or desire set up in the story’s beginning.

The story gets a push, too, when new characters arrive, characters receive new information, or the characters experience emotional turmoil, engage in an intense conversation or have an emotional reversal and see things in a new way.

Here are a few ways to quicken pace at the structural level:

  • Begin in the middle of the action.
  • Create scenes high in action with little description, few character thoughts and no tangents or back story—what happened before the current action.
  • Make sure the action in the scene unfolds as a series of incidents in quick succession or conflict between characters.
  • Shorten scenes, removing what doesn’t belong down to the essential details. Make sure the scenes fit and are important to the entire storyline.
  • Add cliffhangers at the end of scenes or chapters.
  • Make the dialog quick without any extra information, reactions, descriptions or attributions. Dialog with conflict and tension speed things up as characters banter, argue or fight.

To slow the pace:

  • Have the main character make observations of the environment or deep in thought or become introspective.
  • Engage the character in a flashback, which retells what happened before the story’s action begins and should be triggered by something specific, such as seeing an object and remembering something because of it.
  • Use large amounts of narration and description.
  • Describe the setting in detail.
  • Summarize action and dialog.
  • Employ digressions and small distracting actions not related to the main action.

Overall, as the story unfolds from the point of the opening scene, the pace needs to steadily increase toward the climax. If it slows, there needs to be a reason.

(Next week, I’ll talk about pacing at the line level.)

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