For novelists, pace, or rate of revelation is one of the more advanced writing skills. Knowing how fast or slow to reveal story information, managing time and choosing the right scenes to dramatize can either pace a novel brilliantly or doom it to an excruciating reader experience.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some writing tricks to help you pace your novel?
Rate of Revelation
To master pace in a story takes practice. One easy way to gain skill in this area is to turn, once again, to the silver screen. Movies can help you learn how readers want to experience a story by illustrating how fast or slow the story moves forward. Note that at the beginning most films do not spend a lot of time unwrapping the past. Even in “bookended” movies, where we see a present-day character remembering the past at short intervals, the bulk of the scenes act out the main story. “Titanic” is a great example. At the opening and then in brief scenes throughout, we see a present-day Rose as a crew tries to bring artifacts from the Titanic to the surface. The movie uses her lost blue pendant as a touchstone to link these short “present-day” scenes to the rest of the movie, technically back story. In your novel, if you are writing a straightforward timeline, jumping into the main story quickly (remember that in media res thing?) helps readers understand that this, not stuff that happened before, is the main story. From there, you hold a hand of playing cards, each one a different important development in the story. If you tip your hand too soon, the story is over and readers are disappointed that they didn’t get to uncover the story alongside the protagonist. If you hold your cards too long, readers will get bored and feel as if your story is stagnant or marching in place. Generally, space the important developments (also known as plot points!) just far enough apart that readers are tense, but before that tension dissolves into boredom or irritation. Pace is accomplished through these plot points spaced just right.
Writing Time into Your Story
A novel writer is a time manager. You have the span a scene, chapter or a part covers—anywhere from 24 hours to decades. There is also the time it takes you to write it as well as the time a reader needs to read it. When you choose your scenes wisely, readers become unaware of their (and your) time as they focus only on the novel time. Again, let’s turn to film for clues to managing a novel’s timeline. As in movies, you can manipulate the perception of time by speeding it up or slowing it down. A high-speed car chase ala “Fast and Furious” seems speedy, but look at the shots themselves. Usually, high action scenes use camera cut-aways in a swift fashion, and alternate close-ups with wide-angle shots showing the entire landscape. You can speed up time by using short active sentences, minimizing description and emphasizing action over thoughts or feelings. Alternating close-up with wide shots might mean you alternate the action with brief thoughts/emotions in a character’s POV as he maneuvers the car. If you want time to slow, you are signaling readers that something important is happening. The more the POV character dwells on details or waffles about an important decision, the more the tension rises. But you must be careful not to employ a lot of passive language that chews the scenery and instead stay focused on what story surprise is about to pop up. In general, long sentences slow readers’ time perception and short active sentences (especially when they are about important story info and not just descriptive) speeds up time for readers.
Writing Critical Scenes: High Stakes and Good Baddies
Pace in a novel depends most upon a writer’s ability to maintain tension and suspense through the scenes that act out the story. Think of each scene’s mission as raising the tension bar (or novel stakes) higher than the scene before. With every scene, your character tries different ways to reach the story’s goal, only to be thwarted by a worthy opponent. If the soldiers in the WWI movie “Dunkirk” had marched in and defeated the enemy without losing anything, the story would stall, because the protagonists had nothing worthwhile to fight. World War I soldiers believed they had to fight or lose civilization as they knew it: high stakes, indeed. Their German enemy, while perhaps not as stark as the World War II Nazi regime, was a powerful and worthy enemy to overcome. For novel writers, this means your character must want something worth fighting for, something not too easily obtained. And your character must have an antagonist who is not made of cardboard, a baddie worth the black hat. Your novel’s critical scenes will center on this struggle to gain a not-easily won goal against a not-easily defeated bad guy. If you keep this front and center as you write, your novel’s pace will have readers begging for more.