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Pace — an example

July 9, 2010

Lisa, one of the writers for whom I beta read, gave permission for me to use an excerpt from her novel so I can discuss pacing.

The first draft of her story included the following paragraph:

Something woke Jill. Why did I wake up? I hear voices. Are they outside my room or next door? No one should be in Jasmine’s room. Shuddering slightly, her imagination sparked. What if they’re ghosts? No, she scolded herself. Get a grip. There are no ghosts. Maybe it’s just a shift change. She looked at the clock sitting on her nightstand next to her bed. The numbers on it were blinking. Had the electricity gone out? That’d wake me up. All of the noises ground to a halt. No more whirring, creaking, or rattling. Total silence.

We worked on the pacing step by step:

Paragraph length:

In scenes where the characters are relaxed, you slow down the reader too and make her linger. The paragraphs become longer. There aren’t as many “white spaces” on the page. The reader’s eyes move slowly from left to right.

But this scene isn’t supposed to have a relaxing atmosphere. Jill is confused, disoriented, might be in danger. She’s not relaxed at all. So we speed up the scene. We shorten paragraph length and force the reader’s eyes to move more quickly down the page.

So we turned the one paragraph into multiple shorter paragraphs.

Something woke Jill.

Why did I wake up? I hear voices. Are they outside my room or next door? No one should be in Jasmine’s room.

Shuddering slightly, her imagination sparked. What if they’re ghosts?

No, she scolded herself. Get a grip. There are no ghosts. Maybe it’s just a shift change.

She looked at the clock sitting on her nightstand next to her bed. The numbers on it were blinking. Had the electricity gone out? That’d wake me up.

All of the noises ground to a halt. No more whirring, creaking, or rattling. Total silence.

This is just an example. You could structure the paragraphs differently. One good way to decide where to start a new paragraph is to delay a bit at the highest moment of tension. For example, when Jill asks herself “What if they’re ghosts?” it would be good to start a new paragraph before she calms herself with a “no.” Let the scary thought linger for a moment while the reader’s eyes move to the next paragraph. Delay the answer for a second.

Sentence length and unnecessary words:

In action scenes or scenes with high suspense, the sentences become shorter. You can even put in a few sentence fragments. This is especially true for thoughts. No one thinks in complete, long sentences when they are scared.

Most of Lisa’s sentences were already short, so we made just a few adjustments:

Something woke Jill.

Voices!

Where are they? Outside? Next door? No one should be in Jasmine’s room.

She shuddered. Her imagination sparked. What if they’re ghosts?

No, she scolded herself. Get a grip. There are no ghosts. Maybe it’s just a shift change.

She looked at the clock sitting on her nightstand. The numbers on it were blinking. Maybe the electricity went out. That’d wake me up.

The noises ground to a halt. No more whirring, creaking, or rattling. Total silence.

Notice that I deleted the adverb “slightly” and the unnecessary “All of the” in the last paragraph and also the “next to the bed” (since nightstands are usually next to the bed). Use a minimum of words to pick up the pace. Unnecessary words slow down the pace.

And you might have noticed that shortening the sentences took care of the dangling participle problem of the first draft (Shuddering slightly, her imagination sparked).

Word choice:

In a scene like this one, you want to choose words and especially verbs that have a connotation of being abrupt and convey a sense of fast movement. Lisa did really well with some of the verbs in the first draft (shuddered, sparked). Others are slower-moving verbs and could be replaced with stronger verbs. Maybe like this:

Jill jerked awake.

Voices!

Where are they? Outside? Next door? No one should be in Jasmine’s room.

She shuddered. Her imagination sparked. What if they’re ghosts?

No, she scolded herself. Get a grip. There are no ghosts. Maybe it’s just a shift change.

Her gaze flew to the clock sitting on her nightstand. The numbers on it were blinking. Maybe the electricity went out. That’d wake me up.

The noises ground to a halt. No more whirring, creaking, or rattling. Total silence.

Using the five senses and adding physical sensations:

Using the five senses and physical sensations can make scenes more vivid. What does the character hear, see, taste, smell, sense, and feel?

Jill jerked awake.

Her heart racing, she listened into the darkness.

A murmur echoed through the room.

Voices?

The small hairs on the back of her neck tingled.

Where are they? Outside? Next door? No one should be in Jasmine’s room.

She shuddered. Her imagination sparked. What if they’re ghosts?

No, she scolded herself. Get a grip. There are no ghosts. Maybe it’s just a shift change.

Her gaze flew to the clock sitting on her nightstand. The numbers on it were blinking. Maybe the electricity went out. That’d wake me up.

The noises ground to a halt. No more whirring, creaking, or rattling. Total silence.


Thanks to Lisa for letting me use the excerpt.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you very much! Pacing seems to be a major issue with me. I seem to write waaaaaay too fast (maybe that’s why my novels are always short).


    • Glad to be of help, Mac. A lot of the authors whom I mentored had problems with pacing. A fast-paced story is not bad per se, but if you keep the same pace throughout the whole story, it might be a problem.



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