Finer Points of Pacing

Let’s quickly wrap up Pacing so we can move on to Setting. Here are the last few items in the Pacing segment of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

Excessive step-by-step description of actions is avoided.

When you describe each individual movement the character makes, you slow pacing to a crawl. For example:

She walked across the room to the desk and pulled open a drawer. Grasping one of the empty envelopes inside, she drew it out and laid it on the blotter.

Compare with:

She took an envelope from the desk drawer.

You may see that you can use the former effect in moments when you want to draw out the pacing, like a slow-motion camera. Use this sparingly, and only at moments of high tension or suspense. It can easily get tiresome.

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And remember that the more time you spend describing a thing—or an action—the more important it will seem. So don’t confer importance on everyday motions by devoting too much time to them.

Break up stage directions with dialog and internal monologue

By “stage directions,” I mean the kind of things a director might tell an actor in a play. “Move to the right and pick up the coffee pot.”

These kinds of movements are needed—on stage or in a novel—for the same reason. They keep the audience’s attention on the characters by providing a clear visual and concrete activity. Without these kinds of cues, your novel can readily turn into a bunch of people sitting and talking while nothing happens. So you need to keep the actors in motion, but break up the activity with dialog or the viewpoint character’s thought processes.

In action scenes, the pace races through build-up and then lingers at finale.

This is tricky. You don’t want to rush through your action scene—such scenes are usually important to the plot, so they deserve some screen time. But you can’t linger over them, or they’ll read like a walk in the woods instead of a thrilling high-speed chase.

A good template to begin with is to get into the action quickly—usually there’s an element of surprise there for at least one of the characters. Then move through the sequence at a pace that’s—you’re going to get tired of this advice—appropriate to the genre. In other words, a fight scene in a thriller novel can be longer and more convoluted than the madcap chase scene in a romantic comedy. Know your genre’s conventions.

When you reach the end of the scene, consider lingering a moment as the characters catch their breath and take stock of their situation. This will give the reader a breather as well, before you launch into the next stage of the story.

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