Now that you have key scenes strung in order on your story clothesline, you’ll add the connecting scenes to fill in the gaps between these points along the story’s timeline. But how many and what sort of scenes will you need? The answer dictates the story’s pace.
Writing Tip for Today: Pace in a story means the rate at which the reader perceives the action unfolding. Let’s look at ways to help the pace of your scenes:
The Moving Story
Each scene you write must do something to “move the story forward.” Exactly what does this mean? For me, it means that something happens which directly or indirectly causes or influences what comes next, like a line of dominoes. In real life this happens all the time. Let’s say you’re looking forward to a coworker’s birthday party after work. The goal is to attend and have a good time. But at work, your boss calls you into his office and chews you out for something you didn’t do. You’re hurt but you say, “At least I’ll go to the party and have a good time.” Then, you find out that the mistake you got blamed for was actually done by the birthday girl. Now you’re hurt and really angry. Instead of a party, you go home and watch “Friends” reruns and sulk.
In this example, each thing which happens in a character’s life influences his next decision, so that the goal is either attained—or not. Your fiction scenes must contain a bit of the story goal that your Main Character wants going in, a dramatization of how he goes about trying to get that goal, and the outcome—does Character win or lose? Each succeeding scene must force the Character to get a little more entangled in this quest to attain the goal, although you don’t want her winning too often at first. When you string the scenes on a clothesline, each scene should reflect this forward movement in a series of reversals, complications and trials.
The Slo-Mo Camera
Pacing is also important within each scene. I recently attended a reading by a self-published author whose scene moved so excruciatingly slow that the audience was squirming. A good rule to remember is that details and description slow down perceived time, actions speed up time. Long sentences slow, short ones (even an occasional fragment) quickens. A character thinking while alone on stage generally slows the scene, while interaction and dialogue enliven. A good way to gauge your scene’s pace is to read it aloud. We writers understand pace better when we actually speak the words—it forces us to imagine the scene in real time. The Rule of Three is another handy tool that can help you pick up the pace.
Pace Equals Tension
If you’re hanging your scenes on a story clothesline, you’ll be able to stand back and see if the line is being held taut or if there are spots where the line sags and slacks. When new writers think of tension, they often add in exterior events such as stuff blowing up, a building burning, a flood or someone getting shot. But the secret to scenic tension really lies in your Character’s desperate needs, emotional turmoil and high stakes. If you can key in on the universal tension of the “human condition,” (loss, love, rejection, abandonment, belonging or not belonging), your character will help you keep your clothesline taut more easily than if she wanders around dodging earthquakes and shoot outs. When you write a scene, try to identify not only your Character’s goal, but also the range of emotion that character experiences. As a very general rule, positive emotions can slow the pace—think of how boring it might be if news outlets only reported good news. On the other hand, negative emotions—if they’re connected to something that matters (high stakes)—can increase readers’ heart rates as well as the story’s pace. Try looking for your character’s emotional range in the next scene you write.