On ‘Keeping Pace: Maintaining momentum in fiction’

Voices of DragonsDark and Stormy KnightsState of EmergencyA Local Habitation: An October Daye NovelThe Painted ManGreenEscapementThe Sum of All Fears

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

Pace, or story momentum, is something that can be tricky to explain or teach effectively as if you use particular techniques and a reader is familiar with those techniques the reader may think of the story as formulaic. In addition to this, if you think about it too much and try to control pacing too tightly you may lose someof the spontaneity and possibilities that arise as you write an interesting story.

One of the panelists mentioned the analogy of “the bumblebee who crashes if you teach it aerodynamics, because that’s not how it flies”. Aerodynamics is only partailly understood and what is known about aerodynamics cannot completely explain how a bumblebee flies. Likewise, the human mind and what will help a reader to develop an impression of pacing is something which is only partially understood. The panelist advised: “Just keep flapping.”

Below I have taken up some of the points for building story momentum which the panelists discussed. You can treat these points as a series partial insights and ideas about how to help encourage an impression of momentum in a reader. I wouldn’t worry about incorporating them all into some complicated system in an attempt to fully explain story momentum. Instead, I suggest that you consider them all then when it comes to writing ‘just keep flapping’ with the benefit of having considered some ideas that might be of use to you.

Characters should have something they’re developing into

Put another way, each character should be one way at the beginning of the story and be different in a major way by the end of it. Most importantly, if the main character (or main characters) is not somehow moving from what they start out as toward what they will finish as in each chapter (or even on each page) the story can lose momentum. However, if it is obvious what the character is growing into (or worse, what the character is growing into and how) that can be just as damaging to a story’s sense of momentum for a reader.

Pacing each scene or chapter

One of the panelists suggested that pacing in each scene is dependent on:

Who the main character is

What they’re developing into

Who they’re in the scene with

Scenes may correspond to chapters or there could be multiple scenes in a chapter. There can be multiple chapters in a scene but this is less common.

Interesting characters help pacing

In good fiction, smaller characters deal with the main characters through their own personality and goals. That’s what makes them interesting. If smaller characters are just constructed from techniques to give a reader information about your plot, theme or main character(s), and don’t have a personality and goals of their own this can effect a reader’s impression of pacing.

What have you ‘promised’ the reader?

Ask yourself what you have set up in the story that a reader is likely to be disappointed if you don’t build upon further. A concise way to explain this is through a concept that has become known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’. Anton Chekhov reportedly said that if a rifle is shown hanging on a wall in the first chapter of a novel it should go off by the second or third chapter or there was no need to put it in the story.

You may agree with ‘Chekhov’s gun’ as decribed above or think that what is set up could also be paid off much later without a reader feeling disappointed, or that it is fine to have something like a gun hanging on a wall and not have it go off. Whatever your thoughts on this, ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is a quick way of pointing out that an author can set up details which a reader can keep in mind and anticipate whether or how they might come into play in the story.

As with character development which a reader guesses in advance, when a reader correctly guesses why a specific detail has been set up in a story and how it will pay off this can damage the impression of pacing in the story. In this situation, a reader can think: ‘I know what’s going to happen. Just hurry up and happen.’ This makes the story seem to go slower than they want it too.

Are you moving the plot forward with every scene? And, importantly, how are you moving the plot forward?

Does every scene have a purpose?

What will make readers turn the page?

–          What is the suspense?

–          What do the characters want?

–          What are they working towards?

Just say it once

Don’t keep adding ‘clever’ ways of saying the same thing.

A story is what happens; not describing characters and thoughts

Don’t get the reader ‘stuck in the character’s head’ rather than telling the reader a story.

Do you want a reader to continue reading or to stop?

In a short novel, you may want cliffhanger endings for your chapters so the reader will continue reading rather than put the novel down. In a long novel, you may want to put in a combination of cliffhanger chapter endings and satisfying stopping points as it will be read in multiple sittings.

Focusing chapters

According to one panelist: Every chapter should be like a short story – a character should have a problem to solve.

Multiple point of view – read them all thoroughly or skim?

Some of the panelists discussed how they rush or skim parts from one character’s point of view to get to another character’s point of view which they are more interested in. This can be blamed on slow pacing for not getting back to the character a reader is most interested in quickly enough. However, it is not always the same characters in a novel which different readers are most interested in.

Another panelist responded that she does not skim, saying: “For me, I’m either reading a book or I’m not.”

Different skill sets for short stories and novels

Pacing can be significantly different between novels and short stories. An author who is skilled at pacing one in a particular way may not necessarily be as skilled at pacing for the other length.

Introduce characters by having them do things

One panelist brought up the screenwriting maxim of “in late, out early”, that is you start a scene (or chapter) as late as possible in the action and end the scene as early as possible in the action while still telling the events necessary to convey the story. The opening scene of the movie Serenity was used an example of this done effectively.

Don’t start your story with a big block of character exposition

There was one statement that sums up the gist of this point: “Nobody cares what your character looks like.” If a detail is not necessary for a reader to understand the story then it can be cut without losing any of the story, and probably should be.

How many points of view?

More points of view tends to equal a longer story, as authors typically find things they want to expand on in each point of view and want each point of view to have a complete and satifying story in it.

Distinctive dialogue allows faster pacing

One panelist pointed out that distinctive dialogue can allow faster paced writing as you don’t need to use up words and time describing who said what and how they said it if that is already obvious to a reader. The panelist compared distinctive dialogue to what is known as a ‘silhouette test’ in comic books. The idea behind the silhouette test is that each character’s appearance should be distinctive enough to tell which character is which by only an outline of the character filled in with black.

How much description should you use?

The amount of description that is appropriate will depend on your writing style. This could be the style you tend to use without giving it much thought, or the style you have chosen for a story or for part of a story.

Describe more to delay and create suspense

Actions in the story can be delayed by using more description. This can work to help create suspense but too much description can also annoy a reader who just wants to read what happens, especially if the reader thinks the description has just been put in an artificial attempt to create suspense.

One of the panelists gave the example of a chapter from The Sum of All Fears, called Three Shakes, in which Tom Clancy described in detail just three fractions of a second during an explosion. This could be compared to using slow motion in a movie.

What description should be included and what should be left out?

Does it help the scene?

Does it ‘build the world’?

Imply that the characters and their world continue before and after what is told

Take the following snippet:

Sarah returned from the post office and swung into the driveway, an unstamped letter sliding from the dash.

Why do people have to drive so slowly around here? she thought. Some people have places to go.

Before she had the front door closed behind her, Jane’s head popped up over the top of the couch.

“Did you post my letter?”

In this short example, it is implied that Sarah had gone to the post office to send a letter for Jane (or at least had intended to post it to the extent of having the letter on the dashboard in the car) but did not make it in time before the post office closed. It is also implied that Sarah is now in a situation in which she will have to break the news to Jane that she couldn’t get to the post office in time, or cover it up by saying that she did post the letter, or something of that sort as the story continues.

This snippet could be used in a story without describing Sarah’s drive through traffic, or it could just as easily be used in a story without describing the conversation to come between Sarah and Jane. Although things occurring during the drive or during the conversation to follow this snippet may not be shown directly, they may be clearly implied while moving on to focus on details more directly relevant to the unfolding of the story’s main events.

NEXT: On ‘Write What You Know’

Voices of DragonsDark and Stormy KnightsState of EmergencyA Local Habitation: An October Daye NovelThe Painted ManGreenEscapementThe Sum of All Fears

The Australian Literature Review

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7 Responses to On ‘Keeping Pace: Maintaining momentum in fiction’

  1. Pingback: On ‘Nuts and Bolts: Editing YA Spec Fic’ | The Australian Literature Review

  2. Michael says:

    Best of the three panel outlines of Aussie con so far.

    I especially liked the approach of the Silhouette Test. I started reading comics after I started taking writing seriously and found that keeping in mind how comics approach character development and dialogue help with pure prose. The silhouette test is something I’ll definitely give a try, thank you.

  3. auslit says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this article. 🙂
    Hopefully it will be useful for a range of fiction writers in considering how various aspects of their craft can help in creating and maintaining story momentum, and as a starting point for brainstorming when they go back to a draft to make their story work more effectively.

  4. Sam Stephens says:

    Excellent article!

    When I’m writing, one way that I know pacing is suffering is if I’m not looking forward to writing the next part. If I’m sitting there thinking, “Aw man, do I have to write it?”, then chances are the reader will be thinking “Aw man, do I have to read it?”

    I’m at that point in my manuscript now, and so it’s obvious that I need to rework the next scene, because what I had planned is going to kill the pace.

    That’s a tip that works for me!


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  7. Loads of helpful advice in this article. I particularly liked the bit about not getting stuck in a character’s head, but there were lots of other points I’ll take to heart. Thanks!

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