a moment, let's pretend that the words we write on the
page are sounds. If all the sounds are the same, then we
have monotone. Monotone puts us to sleep, bores us to
tears, turns us off--and if it goes on for any length of
time--ticks us off.
We can't get emotionally involved with monotone because
every single word holds equal emphasis to every other
single word. No sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter
bears more weight or is more intense than any other
sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter. The result is
that the work is flat, dull, and boring. When writing it,
we aren't actively engaged or enthused; we're writing on
autopilot. That means when the reader reads, they're not
going to be actively engaged or enthused, and they'll be
reading it on autopilot. The reader can't get out of a
book what the author doesn't put into the book. It's that
simple. Autopilot translates to catching zzzs, snoozing.
Why? Because nothing is different. Nothing grabs us,
insisting that we pay attention and get involved. Nothing
commands us, dares us to look away, or challenges us to
keep reading to see what happens.
Our book is a victim of lousy pacing.
Words on a page don't create audible sounds, but they do
create rhythms, and those rhythms are active in the
reader's mind. This is why the writer must learn to
effectively manipulate the story's pacing--so that we
writers invite and encourage and allow the reader to get
emotionally involved in the story.
Every novel has a natural rhythm. A sweeping saga set in
the South might be slow and easy. But there will be times
during the course of the novel that the pacing must speed
up and move like the wind. Otherwise, the reader is going
to become anesthetized and doze through the book. We
don't want that. So let's begin at the beginning and
learn how to prevent it.
First, let's talk about what pacing is.
Pacing is the rhythm of
the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and
sentences. It's also the rate at which the reader reads,
the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. It's
using specific word choices and sentence structure--scene,
chapter, and novel structure--to tap the emotions of the
reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants the
reader to feel at any given time during the story.
In the movie, The American President, the female
protagonist meets with a senator for dinner. It is her
job to get his vote on a fuel fossil bill her employer
wants passed. The senator comments that, if she's
successful, she'll success herself right out of a job.
She shoots back with a swift, "On election day, the
voters think what I tell them to think. That's why I have
In essence, that's the writer's perspective on pacing.
You work the words, the scenes, the chapters, until the
reader thinks and feels what you want them to think and
feel about events occurring in the novel.
Now, just as a novel's rhythm can't be monotone, neither
can a chapter, nor a scene, nor sentences within a scene.
Take a look at the structure in one short paragraph:
Subject/predicate. Subject/predicate. Subject/predicate.
Reminds us a little of the drone of a jungle drum,
doesn't it? No variance in the rhythm whatsoever. How
long do you think it would take a reader to hear that
drone before going on autopilot? Not long. But make a
Subject/predicate. Predicate/subject. Subject/predicate.
Now, you've got a different rhythm going. The drone
disappears. The reader might not consciously note the
change of rhythm, but it won't subconsciously put him to
In manipulating the pacing, there are times when the
writer wants to slow things down or to speed them up. But
when do you do which?
Let's start with slowing down the pacing.
Slow the pacing when you want to place emphasis on
something. For example, in a book I just finished, the
protagonist makes her Uncle Lou's spaghetti sauce
whenever she's upset. When this is introduced, I slow the
pacing down by showing her actually making the sauce and
by adding details. Spices, the smell of the sweet basil,
that she bakes the meatballs before putting them into the
The reader senses that the protagonist making this sauce
is important due to the treatment (attention) given it.
The hero senses it, too. He realizes that, contrary to
his belief that she's calm and unaffected by events, she
needs comfort. Her Uncle Lou's sauce is her comfort food.
(Knowing this--that she needs comfortrelieves and
comforts the hero, helping to alleviate some of his
doubts about her.)
Later in the book, when the protagonist says she's going
to the kitchen, the hero intuits that she's upset and
asks, "To make Uncle Lou's sauce?"
When she says yes, the hero and the reader knows this is
significant--a bond of trust in the admission.
And later still in the book, in keeping with the Rule of
Three, the heroine and hero make Uncle Lou's sauce for a
child who has been traumatized and needs comfort.
The emphasis given the act of making the sauce initially
cues the reader that this event is significant. The later
scenes don't require that reinforcement, only the
mention, because both the characters and the reader is
aware and attuned to the significance. By layering in
details, you lend emphasis and significance to a novel
incident. You also slow the pacing ...
a dramatic, active scene.
A reader can't sustain intense emotion indefinitely. No
human being can. To feel intensely, we also have to not
feel intensely. It's the old "you don't know you're
on a hill unless you've trudged through the valley"
Likewise, if the writer keeps the suspense taut for too
long at a time, then the reader gets worn out.
Emotionally, her natural defense mechanisms engage and
she shuts down. It's important for the writer to
understand that when those defense mechanisms engage,
they act like a safety shield, giving the reader a safe
haven in which to recover. Hidden behind that shield, the
reader no longer feels immediacy or intensity. She no
longer feels anything.
Give your reader those moments of spiked intensity. But
also give her a chance to catch her breath. We need hills
and valleys, and you control which is which in your
you want to expand the emotional impact.
A good example of a time when a writer wants to expand
the emotional impact is in a romance novel during a love
scene. Here, the writer wants to slow the pacing down, to
be generous with descriptive writing.
Another example is in extremely intense situations.
Have you ever been in a car accident? The moment arrives
when you know you're about to be hit. Time slows down.
Seconds seem hours long. You wait, and wait, and wait,
and finally . . . impact.
Now, the moments before the actual crash are no longer or
shorter than any other moment, and yet they seem to go on
forever. The reason why is because you are so intently
focused on waiting for the impact.
Conversely, during these intense moments, you can't think.
I mention this because I'm still getting contest entries
to judge where the character is in the middle of a crisis
and pauses to think back to some event that occurred
years ago. Human beings, just don't do that. When in
crisis, the crisis consumes our thoughts. That's what we
focus on. Rarely does any human being think deep thoughts
in the middle of a crisis.
But we do note specific, concrete details that seem
larger than life. Lets use the car accident to
illustrate. We know we can't escape being hit. During the
wait, we might slam on the brakes and note the tires
squealing. We might note smoke churning from them. We
might smell the tires burning rubber. But we don't think
about someone else's accident that occurred ten years ago.
I want to remark that I disagree with the next "slow
down the pacing when" concept, and I'll deviate to
explain why. But in researching for this, I did come
across this recommendation by several different experts,
so I'm including it.
you want to shift time, distance, or space.
Authors Robie Macauley and George Lanning say that
writers function under "special laws of relativity"
which allow them to make shifts in time and space.
Writers can "condense, compress, or expand"
time and space to best suit the needs of their stories.
They can also use these special laws to determine what
emphasis they place on specific scenes within the story,
or specific incidents within the scenes.
It's said that if, in the story, a writer intends to:
1. Reveal dominant character traits
2. Heighten the dramatic impact of a scene
3. Introduce events that are pivotal (either in character
then those scenes should be "shown" versus
"told." What isn't essential to "show"
the reader, the writer can incorporate into the novel in
the form of lively narrative.
slows the pacing.
Now actively showing an event doesn't mean the writer
should show every action in every active scene. To do so
would be like using "real" conversation versus
dialogue. Much of real conversation is inane and
unessential to moving the plot forward, so writers edit
it out. Same holds true for "every action"
writing in active scenes. The writer must, through craft
skills and instincts, select which actions and details
are significant to the story--to establish tone, setting;
plant symbolic articles--and to show them. Insignificant
actions, edit out.
For every rule there is an exception, so I state no rules.
But I do state this suggestion, which opposes the concept
of slowing the pacing when shifting time, distance, or
space: When you encounter mundane stretches of time or
distance, use a transition to move past them quickly. If
nothing important to the story happens during these times
or travels, why show it?
Why give novel space to something that misleads the
reader into thinking this information is important?
Result? The reader remembers the character driving from
Point A to Point B. Nothing happened during that drive,
but it must be significant or it wouldn't have been there.
So the reader reads on, waiting for the significance to
become apparent. But it never does. The reader thinks the
writer forgot to tie up that loose thread. Or, s/he might
not specifically pinpoint the reason, but feels a
dissatisfaction with the book. This is why I disagree
with slowing the pacing during shifts. Transition, and
then move on.
There has to be a balance between narrative and active
scenes in the novel.
Too much narrative and the pacing drags. Too little and
the active scenes lose authority because an abundance of
inconsequential details are included and the reader gets
mired in them.
How much of eachnarrative and active scenesshould
go into the novel depends on the individual book. What
balance might be right for a mystery won't be right for a
saga, a romance, a thriller. Even within genre, the
novel's natural rhythm and pacing must be respected. Some
stories demand that they unfold at breakneck speed.
Others require a slower disclosure.
novel itself dictates.
Regardless, within the novel, it is the writer's job to
vary the pacing, placing emphasis on that which is of
consequence to the characters, the story, and the reader.
Flashbacks slow down the
pacing. Actually, flashbacks bring the forward momentum
of the novel to a dead halt. The reason why is, we
transition from the present into the past, and the
present then ceases to exist until we return to it.
Flashbacks carry danger. The writer runs the risks of:
-- The flashback lasting too long
-- The flashback breaking the forward momentum of the
present plot for such a time that the reader can't
reconnect to it
-- The flashbacks past story becoming more
interesting to the reader than the present story.
Often writers include flashbacks that do nothing to
enhance or reinforce the present story. Obviously, those
flashbacks are useless and should be cut during editing.
Any flashback allowed to remain in the novel should fit
the present story like glove to hand, adding some
insight, something significant.
are some techniques for slowing down the pacing?
Use long, flowing sentences, soft-sounding verbs,
descriptions that are steeped in sensory input and rich
in texture and sound. This evokes an appropriate
emotional response in the reader. One of quiet, calm,
serenitygreat for those resting times in sequels!
Layering details, one upon the other, places emphasis on
what is being described and slows down the pacing.
Long blocks of narrative or descriptioneven those
engagingly written with positively sparkling proseslow
down the pacing. Personally, I advise against long blocks
of narrative. They aren't visually appealing to the
reader, and they stop the forward movement of the plot.
Instead, break that long block into small chunks of two
or three sentences each. Then insert those chunks at
points in the story when the reader needs the information
contained in the chunk in order for what is happening in
the novel at that time to make sense. By the time the
reader notes the forward movement has stopped (at the
insert of the two-or-three-sentence chunks), she's read
them and the plot is moving forward again. Not so with
long, uninterrupted blocks of narrative.
UP THE PACING
Dialogue speeds up the pacing. It gives the illusion of
action, and that illusion moves the reader forward more
quickly than does narrative.
Lean writing. The lack of embellishment (adjectives,
adverbs) causes the reading speed to increase, which
moves the story along at a good clip.
When writing dramatic or action-packed scenes. In
dramatic situations, or intently active ones, the pacing
must be brisk to help carry the right emotional impact.
Here, long sentences or paragraphs wont work. Theyll
bog down the action, negate any compelling sensation from
the drama youre trying to build, and destroy
compatibility between the tone conveyed and the one you
intended to convey--all of which weaken the potency of
are some Techniques for speeding up the pacing?
Speed up the pacing by using short paragraphs. Spare
sentences; no wasted words.
Use crisp, sharp verbs that sound hard. Think, short and
Use sentence fragments. The reader reads fragments faster.
That imparts a sense of urgency the reader senses at gut-level,
which evokes an emotional responsea quickening
pulse, a worried gasp, a shiver.
Pacing can be manipulated and it should be--to best serve
the story. If you looked at the storys pacing on a
graph, it would resemble an askew EKG. The rhythms wouldnt
be uniform. But there would be definite rhythms.
As a story progresses, the intensity should grow stronger.
The obstacles become more difficult, the setbacks and
consequences of the characters= failure to fulfill their
novel goals are harder to overcome.
This constantly growing intensity is why so often youll
see books published where the early chapters are longer
and more dense, and later chapters are shorter and more
As the characters/readers move through the novel, they
pitch and roll. Take two steps forward, and one back.
Climb a little higher, and then stumble again. And on
each successive attempt, its harder to climb and
they meet with more resistanceinside and out (internal
and external conflicts). But they keep going and, at the
moment when it seems they (which has become "we"
because the author has succeeded in accomplishing reader
identification by using our emotions and we now feel
"we" are the characters) cant succeedwere
body-slammedand then the unthinkable happens. We
find the key to the forgotten door that was foreshadowed
earlier in the novel. We use the key, and struggle . . .
and struggle . . . and, finally, we taste success.
A writer relies on skill to develop the right pacing for
each individual project. But also relies on instinct. On
the authors inner ear that tests the rhythm to make
sure the flow has the right sound and intuitive feel.
At times, instinct and learned skills will be at odds. Go
with your instincts.
There isnt a writing rule that hasnt been
successfully broken. The trick is in knowing them, and
knowing when to break them. Know when to shift and speed
up or slow down your novels pacing.
Copyright Vicki Hinze 2003. All Rights Reserved
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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