The Pace Of The Story

The beginning can be fun to write and the end is most certainly exciting, but the bulk of the novel lies between. Wherever you decide you want to start, you must get to the end in a manner that doesn't lose or confuse the reader. What you want to avoid is what I call the 'remote control effect'. This effect is when you write as if you have pause, slow motion, fast-forward, stop, etc. etc. buttons. A novel should play out with a smooth pace but many writers jerk the pace around and in the process jerk the reader around.

There are two ways to look at the pacing of your story: overall, and by chapter.

Overall, the reader will quickly grow to expect a certain time sequence and pacing in the book. This includes not only in the time that goes by in the story (even if you are going backwards in time) but also in locale. Remember the number one rule of writing is to not jar the reader.

You can find pretty much every possible time sequence published. You can find books that go forward in time every fifty years, those that bounce back and forth between the present and the past, those that go past, present, future. Those that use parallel time sequences. You name it, it's been done and you can do it. But remember the poor reader. Make sure they can follow what you're doing.

There is no law about chapter length. I usually envision a chapter to be a set length of time in the story. I have chapter breaks when there is a change, usually in time, point of view or setting. If I'm reading a chapter and it comes to an end, then turn the page to the new chapter and it the same point of view, the same time, the same setting, the same characters, I wonder why the writer just didn't continue and not have a chapter break.

Pace within the chapter, within the writing itself, is also very important. I just looked at a sample chapter from a writer who in the opening paragraph had the main character packing up to leave her home; in the second paragraph the character was in the new town; in the third she was in a job interview for a new job, a part which went into much more detail and extended for several paragraphs; then another paragraph jumped weeks ahead; etc., etc. There were two major problems. One was that is was disconcerting to not know where I was both time and location-wise every time I started a new paragraph, never mind a chapter, but also, in one paragraph the writer would cover a major event such as a move, then several paragraphs later spend a whole paragraph describing an office. In my mind, it made the two equal in significance because of the amount of writing given to both, even though they obviously aren't. This is a classic example of remote control effect.

The reader will tend to think if you spend two paragraphs on A and two paragraphs on B, then A equals B. It might not be to you, but as I will get into later, you always have to consider what the reader thinks.

The best analogy I can use is it is like watching a video and you can either watch it in normal time or you can use the fast-forward. But every time you use the fast-forward—or the slow forward—you lose something. Keep it steady.

Of course, you say, might not use of a time sequence change catch the reader's attention and be used in a positive manner? Of course. Just make sure you understand that there is a pace to a story and do it consciously. The major problem I have seen is writers unaware of how they are jerking the pace around.

Of course, you often have to move the reader forward or backward in time. We've already discussed some such as flashbacks. There are many techniques to do that and if you think of a new one, more power to you as long as—you guessed it—it works and does not jar the reader (unless of course, you want to jar the reader.).

One method used to get the reader oriented quickly is to use headers. I have used headers extensively. I open every chapter, and even inside the chapter when I switch locales, with a header like:

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