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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

PACING with Shannon Donnelly


What speeds up a story or slows it down? There are actually gas pedals and brakes in story telling that help you control the story’s pace. Why do you need pace control?

Too slow a start and you never really hook the reader into the story—it’s boring before it’s even begun. Same goes for slowing things down in the middle—the reader may put down the book and never go back to it. And if the ending is slow, that reader may end up thinking the story was weak, even if you had a killer beginning and middle.

Too fast a pace and you can wear out your reader—or, worse, lose them with confusion and a lack of caring. The biggest danger of this is at the beginning of the story. But this can happen any pace where the story takes off like a rocket, leaving readers behind.

Now getting the just right pace is a unique task for each story.

Some stories need a little more leisurely opening because they are relaxed, intimate character studies—the pace needs to tell the reader to slow down and enjoy the world.

Other books need more speed. Thrillers or action stories have to sweep readers away.

To carry off the pace you need, you have to know the tools to control pace.

What slows a story:

  • Backstory
  • Flashbacks
  • Narrative Description
  • Lyrical Prose

Notice that the words “backstory” and “flashback” both have the same word within—BACK.  That tells you these techniques take the story backwards—to do that, they stop the forward pace of the main story. Put a flashback in too early and you risk losing a reader who is not yet fully engaged. Put in too long a flashback and you may also lose the reader—or you could end up with a reader more interested in the flashback than in your main story.

Backstory also stops a story’s forward pace—but you can use a little backstory (at the right place, which means not in the middle of a critical scene) to slow the pace just a touch. Backstory generally fits more comfortably into just before or after a scene—or in places where you need a sentence or two to give the reader vital information to clarify action/events, but not so much that you completely stop the forward momentum. If you think of backstory like brakes, you want to tap lightly instead of slamming the pedal to the floor and holding it there.

Narrative description and lyrical prose are also tools that can help ease a reader into scenes or smooth transitions. But they slow things down. Long sentences do the same thing. So you want to be careful with these. Put a lot of this into a scene and you’re dragging down your pace. But, if you don’t have enough, or leave them out, you can end up with incredible fast pace and utter reader confusion. I see this a lot with fledgling writers who are striving for a fast opening—they get that, but there’s so little description that the reader doesn’t get a chance to meet the characters or settle into the world. There’s not enough for the reader to have reason to care about the characters, and not enough information to start buying into and seeing the world.

Both narrative description and lyrical prose also can be a great way not just to ease readers into a world—particularly into a historical or alternate reality setting—but to also set the mood. If used wisely, they can help you slowly build tension and set the tone of the entire book.

What speeds up the pace:

  • Dialogue
  • Conflict/Tension
  • Showing (Action)
  • Clean, tight sentences
As you can see, all the things that speed up pace also create strong scenes. The trick here is not to weave in things that will drag your scene’s pace down. And this means:

* Action needs to have emotion. If you just show a character doing stuff without any emotions underneath, it tends to fall flat and leave readers not really understanding why the characters are doing what they’re doing.

* Conflict needs to matter. Tension in conflict comes from either the reader having more information than the characters have, from an uncertain outcome, or from the suspicion of a bad outcome pending. This is why misunderstandings offer such weak conflict—the reader knows the misunderstanding will be cleared up so there’s no tension. The best conflict always carries within it dire consequences that really matter to the main characters.

* Dialogue has to be punched. Fictional dialogue has to be better than the way folks really speak—you need those lines that we all wish we’d said but only thought, or only thought about later. Instead of watching your favorite movies, turn up the sound, look away from the picture and listen. Better still, go to some plays where dialogue matters more than anything else. Or listen to some great radio dramas. Listen for how the dialogue is dramatized—how every word is made to count. Snappy dialogue with layers of subtext under the words, with wit and strong characterization, takes a lot of work—but nothing moves a story faster.

The biggest danger to beware is putting backstory into any character’s mouth—you can do it, but remember you’re risking slowing a scene. (You also risk the character sounding stiff and awkward since very few folks go around talking backstory in real life.)

Some backstory in dialogue may not be a problem if it’s crafted to fit the character’s voice, mood, and comes with emotions attached. Also, if you’re at a place in the story where the reader needs a little bit of a breather, or if you’ve made the reader wait so long that the reader is ready to kill to finally get that backstory. But do this too early in your story and you could kill your story’s pacing.

This is obviously a lot to think about, and you can’t really manage all of this in first draft. This is why I do an edit to read the story aloud and look at the pacing (of every scene and of the overall story).

Am I moving too slow, too fast? Am I pushing too much detail in (too much lyrical prose or narrative description)? Are there too many characters around (meaning more description to introduce them to readers, which slows things down)?

It's easy to tell a sagging story—it gets boring and my attention wanders. If I’m bored, it’s going to be worse for a reader. I flag scenes and spots that need work—the pacing read is not the time to fix things or I’ll lose the sense of pace that I have for the overall story.

If the pace is too fast, the reader can't follow events and characters—it becomes a confused mess. That becomes another spot to flag (I also have early readers and if they flag spots as confusing, I know I need to look not just at the words, but at the overall pace in that scene).

When the pace is right, the story clicks.  The reader can follow with enough interest to keep going, and it all has an inevitable feel to it.

Shannon Donnelly's writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written." 

Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and she recently published Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, of which Romantic Historical Lovers notes: “a story where in an actress meets an adventurer wouldn’t normally be at the top of my TBR pile; but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author and so I thought I’d give this one a go. I’m glad I did. I was hooked and pulled right into the world of the story from the very beginning…Highly recommended.” Paths of Desire and her other Regency romances can be found as ebooks with on all ebook formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing.
She has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published and is the author of several computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at:
I hope you will join my class
POV: It’s Not Just a Point of View
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Romance Writers
This 4 WEEK class starts Sept. 3rd
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Nancy Lee Badger also writes as Nancy Lennea said...

Love the examples and I'll use it to polish my next book. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your points. Thanks for the post!

Ally Broadfield said...

I'll be adding these to my master editing list.

Debra Davis said...

Thanks so much for this post. You brought the points of pacing across in a way that made it totally understandable. It definitely sealed the deal as to which class I'll be taking come September - and looking forward to it.