Ten Ways to help Create (and maintain) Pace in a Story…
Ten Ways to Help Create (and maintain) Pace
Pace isn’t only about action. Pace is something that all books need to have so that the story doesn’t get too slow or stall altogether. Pace is tough to get balanced. Too fast can be as bad as too slow. And it can be hard to keep things moving all the way to the end.
I struggled with how to get it right, and I still don’t fully understand it. But I learned a few things from other authors, and ten of those things are below…
This is probably my favourite way of boosting the pace of a story. I used to write long sentences, until I read Lee Child’s Reacher books and realised that playing around with sentence structure could speed things up. It doesn’t work for all sentences, but many can be broken up into two, or three, maybe even more if you look closely enough. Shorter, sharper sentences pack more impact and generate a sense of movement.
Dialogue (and avoiding adverbs)
Dialogue/conversations can move the pace along if it starts to flag. Rather than explaining what characters have planned or presenting exposition in info dumps, characters can be used to explain things through dialogue. And if it’s an argument or a witty conversation, pace can be built through dialogue too. Removing ‘he said’ ‘she said’ and ‘he said loudly, quietly, angrily’ also help to speed things up. As long as you identify the two or more speakers and their order of speaking, the he/she said’s aren’t necessary.
This doesn’t always work, and it can get annoying. But it can also work well. Ending a chapter in a way that makes the reader want to read on to find out what happens next is a solid way of generating pace and momentum in the story—it also helps the chapters feel less disjointed, and more like they’re following into each other.
Thin out description
I used to describe everything—weather, clouds, cars, eyes until I realised it was (most of the time) pretty pointless. Stephen King has some good advice on description. (Paraphrasing) He says that description starts in the writer’s imagination but finishes in the readers’. Just give hints of things here and there and let the reader do the rest. Sparser description frees up sentences, makes them less awkward and smoother to read—thus generating more pace.
Have a clear structure
In some of the earlier stories I wrote, I had character moving back and forth all over the place. It doesn’t work for everyone, but having a clear structure/plot for the reader to follow will keep pace maintained. If characters are going forward, only to go back, the story can sometimes feel like it’s going nowhere.
Like an action movie, books need set-pieces to add bursts of interest and sometimes to set off another strand in the plot. Fight sequences, car chases, or just an intense argument between two characters can be classed as a set-piece and most of the time they keep things moving. Set-pieces, particularly action and battles ones are one of my favourite things to write, and read. They offer interest and excitement and both of those things keep a reader turning the pages.
Active voice not passive
I used to use ‘was’ a lot, mostly without realising I was, and how much it took away from the momentum of a sentence. Bond was pulling out his gun doesn’t have the same impact or movement as Bond pulled out his gun. Was slows a sentence down, makes it passive, rather than active. Removing was isn’t always possible, but where you can it helps speed things up a lot.
James Patterson is famous (or infamous, depending on how much you like Patterson) for short chapters. But whatever anyone says about him, nobody can deny that his books have pace, and maintain it all the way to the climax of the story. Short chapters keep things moving, make sure a reader doesn’t get too stuck in the story, or bored with it. This isn’t always the case. A lot of high fantasy novels have long chapters—the Potter books have some of the longest chapters I’ve read, but Rowling still maintains pace. But shorter chapters can help speed things up if that’s what you want.
The Percy Jackson books are probably the best example of this. Rick Riordan uses the ‘quest’ plotline. He takes his characters from one event to the next, hunting down objects or characters or places. It might get a bit formulaic at times, but using events to move characters from one place to the next helps to create pace—reading the Percy Jackson books is proof enough that it works.
In some cases, paragraphs can be broken down. I used to write long-winded paragraphs because I didn’t know where to split them apart. But going with what feels right, gut-instinct, usually works. Avoid paragraphs (if it’s possible) that take up entire pages. Breaking them down can create momentum while squashing them together can make them read as heavy and slow.