Pace is the momentum that keeps your book flowing. It’s the tension that jumpstarts your reader’s adrenalin. It’s the drama and danger, and passion that keeps the pages turning. And it’s one of the most difficult problems to identify because pace varies with every book and each writer. Stephen King and Dean Kootz may both write horror but their pace is completely different.
How do you know if your pace is off?
Something is missing, wrong notes are being struck, it’s either dragging, or speeding by. It’s like a song played on an out-of-tune piano. Here’s some examples, and how to fix them.
1. Too fast - Patches of no-tag dialogue are fine. But if you want to slow a scene down, focus on the characters. Give them reactions, gestures, add some action in between the exchange.
“Did Rex forget his bag?” She had a look of concern - a little kid who really worried about other people. Her plump small hand lay fidgeting slowly on the hard object just a hide’s breath away. - Vineland - Thomas Pynchon.
Too Slow - Do the opposite. Take a scene and eliminate everything - gestures, action. Pare it down to an exchange with the occasional speech tag.
“Did Rex forget his bag?”
“Oh, wow. I’ll give it to him, Penny, thanks.” - Vineland ( altered for the example) - Thomas Pynchon.
Variety is the key. Nobody wants to listen to a song where every instrument hits the same notes.
2. Knowing when to Enter and when to Exit - Like George in Seinfeld, who learned to leave on a high note when he got a laugh - know when to exit. It’s probably the most important note to hit correctly in a scene. Though one look at Dean Kootz’s example might give you the opposite feeling.
This is from Intensity - the scene is taken from page 100. Chyna has just sneaked out of the killer’s motor home and has hidden in the gas station at the end of an aisle. This is how the scene ends -
...Chyna heard the door open and the killer enter. A growl of wind came with him, and then the door swung shut.
AND - This is the start of the following scene -
The redheaded cashier and the Asian gentleman with the liquid-night eyes are staring at him strangely, as if they know something they shouldn’t, and he almost pulls the shotgun from under his coat the moment that he walks through the door, almost blows them away without preamble.
What they both have in common ( besides tension ) is clarity. The ending is a clear break. The entry a clear shift not only of pov but of focus. Avoid tacking on extras to a scene. Sometimes, I’ve read, or wrote, characters doing nonsensical things as mundane as sorting mail. Things that seem necessary or charming but really blow your ability to start a fresh scene without the bloody next day transitional line. Make clean breaks and clean starts. Don’t explain too much, trust your reader, he can keep up.
3.. Transitions - These are the bits in between scenes usually explaining a passage of time, or growth of character. But it can also be the reflection or acknowledgment that a change has taken place. Don’t feel guilty with a quick wrap up paragraph, or by telling and not showing. Not everything needs to balloon up into a scene. Spare the reader. Pick and choose what needs to become a scene and what’s better left just mentioned in passing.
4. It’s got none - Finding the rhythm comes when you seek out words for sounds, and syllables not just convenience. When you stop pushing the words to motor the plot and look at how you’re telling the story. Mix up the order. Choose words that will help provoke a rhythm - try alliteration, euphony, anastrophe, assonance, syllepsis, onomatopoeia, portmanteau. Vary sentence length. Re-word to shrink clauses Keep things energized by using active verbs. Try not to put distance between the reader by filtering - I felt sick vs my stomach churned. Above all stay in character. The more you can develop your voice ( which is in itself developing a rhythm ) the easier the storytelling.
It’s got too much - if you’re jumping all over the place slow things down. Flesh things out. Put in a languid sentence. Give your character a moment to reflect or expand something that could become a metaphor for your theme. Add depth by exploring a character’s memory, something that sheds light on the present. Kootz busts up the tension in Intensity by having Chyna flashing back to her troubled childhood. Though it stalls the action, it adds depth to the character and teases the reader with a delay.
5. Too many - Not everything needs a modifier. ‘Nuff said.
Too few - There’s bare and there’s dull. If you’re bare but not dull, then don’t bother. Not every writer needs them. The right verb and the right noun don’t always need a frill. But if you’re writing could use some dazzle or mood, liven things up with a few interesting modifiers.
6. Not enough - Hey, no clicking off - this is good news. I’m not about to ordain lengthy descriptions, just clear ones. Pick spots that seem a little thin and add in some interesting detail.
Inside it was really snug because right in the middle of our downstairs room was a big black iron wood burning stove. We had a plain wood table and two wooden chairs. People were always throwing away wooden chairs. We could’ve had a hundred if we wanted to, but we didn’t like to have more than we needed. There were wooden shelves on the walls for our pots and dishes, and a big wooden box with a lid for our blankets and sheets. We had just want we needed, and no more. - From Mrs. Fish, Ape and Me, The Dump Queen by Norma Fox Mazer
Looks a bit much with the repetition of wood until you learn Joyce and her Old Dad befriend a woman who adores plastic knick-knacks. But the real gems of this passage are those two chairs which help us to understand the conclusive sentence. Two chairs mean no guests and no friends something Joyce insists they’re okay with - it’s - telling without telling. That is how you bring description to life by making it backup the story and characters. The description then, is the story, not just a list or background.
Too much - description usually does two things sets the scene or reveals character. Keep a balance. Cut back by setting limits. If you know you go on and on - allow yourself to do so but then edit the description by fifty percent. After a while you’ll find ways of making every word count and leaving out every unnecessary detail. If things are getting tense, or fast paced cut description down to the barest detail. Leave out modifers. Don’t explain things just keep pressing on.
Also, read up on books you want to emulate examine the area's you need help in be it scene switches, or action scene, take notes and learn.