Mar 10, 2011

Pacing the Page

Let’s talk now about pacing the page.

The biggest culprits that slow down the pacing on a page are unnecessary wordiness and repetition. Avoid repetition of information already provided to the reader unless it’s absolutely necessary for clarity.

For example:
She crossed to the table and sat. She linked her hands together on the table and met his gaze. His hands rested on the table, so close to hers they could have touched easily, but he made no move toward her.
feels slower to the reader than:
She crossed to the table and sat, linking her hands together and meeting his gaze steadily. His hands were so close to hers they could have touched easily, but he made no move toward her.
or
She crossed the room and sat, linking her hands together on the table and meeting his gaze steadily. His hands rested just inches from hers, so close they could have easily touched if only he’d made a move toward her.
Can you feel the difference between the first example and the second? The first and third? The first example is okay, but when you compare it to the third you begin to recognize a kind of “sludgy” feeling that comes from using the word repeatedly. Using it once enhances the picture while keeping the pacing tight.
She tucked her notebook under one arm and slung her purse over the other arm.
Now remove just one word:
She tucked her notebook under one arm and slung her purse over the other.
Can you feel the difference there?

Using too many adverbs and adjectives can leave your work feeling cluttered:
Slowly, she descended the steps. Her hands trembled violently, and her breathing was ragged. She watched, scarcely breathing, as shadows of the two men danced on the wall. Suddenly, a shot rang out. She screamed shrilly and realized that she’d given herself away. She turned back as quickly as she could and raced rapidly up the stairs, praying that neither of the men had seen her.
That’s okay, right? Okay, but not great. In fact, -ly words can often be a signal that you’re telling more than showing. Check out this substitute:
One by one, she crept down the steps. Her hands trembled and her breath caught in her throat. She watched in horror as shadows of the two men danced on the wall in front of her. Just as she reached the landing, a shot rang out. A shrill scream tore from her throat before she could stop it and she knew she’d given herself away. Frantic now, she turned back and raced up the stairs two at a time, praying the whole time that neither of the men had seen her.
It’s rare to find any sentence in a first draft that can’t be restructured and made tighter.

The mood you want to evoke will have a lot to do with which words you choose and the pacing you use on a particular page, or paragraph. 

Action scenes, scenes filled with suspense, will often need shorter words and sentences to create the right mood.

Romantic scenes might need longer words and more fluid sentences to create the right mood.

Movie makers can use various senses for invoking mood and atmosphere. They have script, they have visual action on the screen, and they have a sound track. When we write, we’re creating both the movie and the soundtrack for our stories, but the only tools available to us are words.

Use them wisely. Be lavish when that’s called for to create the right mood and tone. Be sparing when necessary. Remember that it’s the journey you create for your readers that matters.

Listen to the whispers of instinct that warn you when you’ve become repetitive or tell you that you’re moving too fast. Your own fiction instinct will be your most valuable tool when it comes to pacing if you’ll just pay attention to it. It’s the paying attention part that creates problems for most of us. We tend to shrug off those nearly silent whispers and talk ourselves out of our instinctive responses.

Learning not to do that just because you’re reading your own work is a vital step in learning to control the pace of your stories.

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