Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Keep Your Story Moving

Pacing can be a difficult challenge for any author. How do you keep a story moving and yet, at the same time, find those blocks where the characters need to either have time to themselves, or simply have a conversation. Great writers know when it is the right time to get things moving and when it is fine to take the leisurely stroll giving everyone a break.

There are a lot of ways you can control the pacing without adding in action scenes or huge blocks of narration. Certainly a chase scene or that suspenseful moment will keep your readers turning those pages, but consider several other writing techniques:

  • Shorten your sentences
  • Smaller paragraphs
These first two ideas are hidden gems that few authors think about. By making your sentences a bit more abrupt, you are focing the reader to keep moving. The longer the sentence or the longer the paragraph simply means the reader has to slow down to understand and hold that information you are being given. Consider these two passages.


She won't die [in childbirth]. She's just having a bad time. The initial labor is usually protracted. She's only having a bad time. Afterward we'd say what a bad time and Catherine would say it wasn't really so bad. But what if she should die? She can't die. Yes, but what if she should die? She can't, I tell you. Don't be a fool. It's just a bad time. It's just nature giving her hell. It's only the first labor, which is almost always protracted. Yes, but what if she should die? She can't die. Why would she die? What reason is there for her to die? There's a just a child that has to be born, the by-product of good nights in Milan. It makes trouble and is born and then you look after it and get fond of it maybe. But what if she should die? She won't. She's all right. But what if she should die? Hey, what about that? What if she should die?
[. . .] A doctor came in followed by a nurse. He held something in his two hands that looked like a freshly skinned rabbit and hurried across the corridor with it and in through another door. I went down to the door he had gone into and found them in the room doing things to a new-born child. The doctor held him up for me to see. He held him by the heels and slapped him.
"Is he all right?"
"He's magnificent. He'll weigh five kilos."
I had no feeling for him. He did not seem to have anything to do with me. I felt no feeling of fatherhood.
"Aren't you proud of your son?" the nurse asked. They were washing him and wrapping him in something. I saw the little dark face and dark hand, but I did not see him move or hear him cry. The doctor was doing something to him again. He looked upset.
"No," I said. "He nearly killed his mother."

--Ernest Hemingway from A Farewell to Arms, pages 320-21; 324-25 (NY: Charles' Scribner's Sons, 1957).

No consider

 William Faulkner

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in the furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, strained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying "Pap! Pap!," running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, "Father! Father!"

--William Faulkner from "Barn Burning" as reprinted in Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacob's Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 6th edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001): pages 190-201.

Hemingway was able to keep the pace of the story moving simply by providing shorter sentences. He limited the depth of each of the sentences and gave the reader little to have to consider. On the other hand, Faulkner really forces the reader to have to slow down and digest all of the information.

Another technique readers can use is balancing out dialogue and narration. We can get that needed information to readers either through the characters telling the readers, or you as the author through narration. Both techniques are fine, but you need to understand that dialogue is a great way to make the story move a bit faster.

Finally, you can consider simple time shifts in your story. Let's say that you have a scene with the husband and wife at home. They are struggling with being forced to go to a family dinner where neither really wants to be. So, we get the whole scene at home, and then the author puts the two into a car and we follow them across town. Because they are both angry, we get a huge narration of the silence in the car, or the radio, or the noise from the outside street. This slows us down.

But, if the author really wants to pick things up, then eliminate the scene at home, and the car scene and simply jump to the family gathering. You can highlight the earlier conversation, and mention the car ride and get people right into the real tension of the evening.

The key is to know when it is needed to keep things moving and when to slow things down. One area where I am always seeing the readers rush through are those bedroom scenes. Quit the talking. Quit the thinking and enjoy the moment. These are moments for the characters to really slow down and enjoy, giving the readers a chance to feel the emotion.

Going grocery shopping? We can rush through that.

So, when you look at your story. Don't panic if things are slow or moving too fast. Just consider if that is the right time to change the pace. That will be the key.

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