Shelley Widhalm

Pacing novels at the line level

In Pacing, Writing, Writing Processes on September 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

I’m reading a book right now that has beautiful descriptions and amazing characters but is a little boring.

It takes me forever to get through a page. My mind wanders. I get up to get a snack. I put the book down and do laundry.

The reason is the pacing.

A book that isn’t paced well goes too slow, and readers lose interest. At the opposite end, if the pace is too quick with all action and little description, the readers can’t catch their breath and get headaches. They need a break, but it’s more out of frustration than wanting to do something boring like chores as in the case of too slow of a story being dragged out in very long, long paragraphs.

Pacing is the story’s tempo, or how quickly the story moves from event to event. It needs to vary from fast to slow, balancing external action with internal reflection, description and narration.

Quickening the pace moves the action of the story, while slowing it shows the impact of what is happening or has just happened.

To get the variation in pacing, the pacing can be handled structurally (which I blogged about last week) and at the line level.

Pacing in the lines of the page result from how words are used and sentences and paragraphs are structured.

To quicken the pace:

  • Make sure there’s lots of white space on the page.
  • Use lots of verbs, concrete language and the active voice.
  • Use sentence fragments and short paragraphs and sentences.
  • Remove extra information, reactions, descriptions or attributions in dialog.

To slow the pace:

  • Make sentences and paragraphs long.
  • Use description to describe the setting and details of the action.
  • Provide exposition with data and facts, information about the story world and references to the time element.
  • Use flashbacks, retelling what happened before the action of the story began.
  • Have the character reflect on what happened just then or in the past and sort through associated feelings, assess the situation and try to decide what to do next.
  • Use distractions with small actions away from the main action, such as cooking dinner or putting on makeup.

Pacing is a literal concept, but it can be a reader’s trick, too.

For me, once I start reading a book, I can’t not finish it. So, to quicken my pace to get to the end, I force myself to read so many pages a day and say, when I’m finished I get to read my faster, happier book lying in wait on the nightstand.

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