Tag Archives: book pace

Pacing the Novel, Part IV: Building Intensity

Thanks for joining the final installment of my series on pacing the novel.  This column focuses on Intensity:  the weight given to any specific moment in the book.  If all moments have a similar intensity, the pacing feels off.  It might feel too slow if the character getting out of bed, falling in love, driving to school, and slaying a demon are all given a high degree of intensity.  Getting out of bed and commuting are not interesting–they deserve less of our attention (unless she slays a demon with her commuter vehicle) compared to the more significant moments.  On the other hand, it can feel too fast if the demon-slaying is summarized just as swiftly as that car ride.

As you consider where to focus your Intensity in the story, ask, what are the key moments in the story?  For each character?  For the external plot?  Give these the most weight.  They will be moments of personal conflict or drama.  It might be a big fight–it might also be the emotional impact of a significant decision or action.  Think of intensity as the pause at the top of the roller coaster hill. Everything seems more acute–action may be suspended because the reader wants to really experience this key moment, in all of its detail. These are the moments so powerful, so rich, that we want them to last.

In order to showcase those significant moments, cut or summarize smaller moments to decrease their intensity.  Often, authors spend their descriptive and symbolic power on minor actions, irrelevant details or character interactions that don’t turn out to be important.  Readers are aware of this stuff, and, the more time you spend on something in the text, the more important they assume it to be.

So how do we create that intensity?  Use vivid details to focus the attention of the characters and the reader into the scene.  Bring on the sensory input.  Let us taste the blood in the air, sense the fear that rushes the character’s body, or feel the pure delight of the moment their eyes meet.   Even in a battle scene where you want the action to move quickly, you’ll want to bring out a few details that ground the reader in the scene, like those martial arts films where the characters are briefly frozen in time and you can see their potential energy just before it explodes into action.

This is also a great time to pull out your literary training:  symbols, images, themes.  Choose which details, senses and feelings to focus on based on what will resonate for the character and for the plot.

Focus on character.  Give us something more, something deeper about the character and their relationships and reactions.  Significant moments need to have an impact within the book in order to affect the reader–but be careful about going overboard with character emotions.  A character who seems emotionally overwrought can easily distance your readers. Instead, aim for a restraint in the language of emotion, while instead revealing the character’s state of mind through their actions, reactions and dialog.  In particular, don’t try to create intensity simply by adding lots of direct thoughts and inner monologue.  This can make a character seem self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

Think about the Emma Thompson character in “Sense and Sensibility.”  She seems very reserved, almost cold throughout, but we get hints of the depth of her true feelings, and when she finally cries at the end, the moment has a huge impact.

To increase intensity, dramatize the stakes:  show us why we should care, give us characters worth rooting for, and a relationship to invest in. Why is he right for her?  Why is she right for him?  Use moments where you reveal character depth to draw the reader in even further.

The taste for the balance between movement and intensity changes over time—also varies by genre and by subgenre.  Thrillers tend to be highly scene-focused, with a minimum of sequels where the character process what happens–they will build intensity around moments of discovery or action rather than those of recovery or re-action.  Romance is often the opposite.  Romances are highly sequel-focused, showing character by allowing the protagonists more time to process what just happened and worry about what might happen next.  They build intensity around moments of emotional significance, even if the external action is relatively minor–the touch of a hand could be a key moment in the relationship.

Finally, there are mechanical issues of managing the pace.   Short sentences are often used to convey action and a high level of movement in the work, but long, flowing passages can also carry the reader swiftly through.  Whether you are building intensity or movement, avoid be-verbs or helping verbs that can suck the life out of a scene. Instead, focus on active verbs and specific, concrete nouns that will take the reader on exactly the ride you have in mind–and reveal the richness of your narrative at the same time.

Happy plotting!

Pacing the Novel, part II: The Five Building Blocks of Pace

Last month, I introduced the ideas of Movement and Intensity as the two key aspects of pacing.  Now, we get to break down how these aspects are created on the page.

avignon 151

There are five basic types of prose you’ll use to build your scenes, and each one has different properties in creating the pace of your book.  I have listed them here in order of slowest to fastest movement.

  1. exposition and inner monologue

2. description

3. dialog

4. action

5. summary

1. Exposition and Inner Monologue

First of all, why lump these two things together?  Exposition basically means explaining something to the reader.  Inner monologue *explains* what your character is thinking or feeling.  Exposition usually includes backstory, history of the world, explaining how things work, why they work or what they mean (along with many other things).  Exposition and Inner Monologue are a step outside the story completely.  They stop movement in its tracks.  Nothing happens during these types of prose.  This is why you will be told to avoid info-dumps and other large chunks of exposition.  But in small doses, you’ll probably need them.  How can you express character thoughts and feelings without inner monologue?  Lots of ways–most of which are much more engaging than just reading about someone thinking.

the first way is. . .

2.  Description

Like exposition, Description stops the movement dead.  But in this case, it does so by engaging more deeply with the world–the setting, characters and situation–of the narrative.  Description is critical for  number of narrative purposes (revealing your world, engaging the reader’s senses, developing theme, planting clues–jeez–maybe I should just write a blog about that all by itself).  One of the most critical things your description can do is to reveal your character’s mood and attitude, ie, to show how they are feeling and what they are thinking about without you needing to explain it.

“A knife lay on the counter, long, clean, sharp:  the most beautiful thing in the room.  Just the thing for slicing open a ripe fig, or a bare arm. . .”

Description is one of your most powerful tools for building Intensity.

3.  Dialog

Dialog reads in real-time.  It is as if the reader is sitting in the back of the room, eavesdropping on a conversation.  This is why bad dialog is so very deadly to prose.  Imagine being stuck in the most boring committee meeting ever, without being able to leave, speakers droning on about things you don’t care about, sharing information in dull and direct ways, asking or answering questions that are purely factual with no sense of personality, power dynamics or conflict.  Dialog can be a fantastic tool for creating tension, revealing character, and propelling the plot. Use it wisely.  It can be a tool of either Movement or Intensity, and ideally, is used to support both.

4.  Action

Action is when things are happening on the page.  It is rarely a simple matter of lots of specific verbs and short sentences, although those are important for building Movement.  BUT!!  the right kind of action–clear, specific, character-driven, will propel your book at a nice clip with a high movement ration.  And the wrong kind of action–fuzzy, minor, external to your characters–will tend to slow things down abruptly.

“He walked across the room toward the door. He reached out for the doorknob, and grasped it.  He turned the doorknob and opened the door, then walked through it, closing the door when he got outside.”

Booo-ring.  If all you need is for this guy to leave the room, then just do it.  “He walked across the room and out the door.”  Done.

In fact, including minor actions can be a way to create Intensity.  You can use minor action in dialog tags to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings and to show their relationship to each other.  You can use minor actions in a critical scene to create suspense about the major action or revelation about to happen.  If the act of getting to and opening the door is, itself, important, then breaking down the action into smaller bites can bring the reader deeper into the moment.

“She crept toward the door, extended her hand slowly for the knob, but held back.  She caught her breath, her lip pinched between her teeth, and extended her hand a little further. . .”

You’ll notice I also used much stronger verbs for this, and worked to invest the character’s attitude about what she’s doing.  You can also incorporate description into passage of action in order to increase their impact on the reader.

5.  Summary

For key moments in the book, you’ll want to use dialog, description, and action to create strong scenes.  But for transitions or less important passages, you don’t need to linger.  While description can pause a moment indefinitely, and dialog can move it in real time, summary can make hours, months or years pass in a heartbeat.

“Two weeks later, tired and hungry, they arrived at the castle.”

If the journey is important, give it a scene.  If the only important thing is where they went and how long it took to get there, summary can do the job.  The caveat here is  that, if the passage of time is important, you’ll need to make sure the reader grasps how long has passed, otherwise summary can make time pass so quickly that the reader thinks only a moment has passed between the last scene and this one.  Look for other markers to indicate the length of time.  (think of sensory details like the length of someone’s hair or beard, visual or auditory cues to the change of seasons, etc.)

Next up:  Plotting to manage pace!



Pacing the Novel, part 1: Getting up to Speed

The most important thing about your first novel is finishing it.  The only way to learn to write a book, and that *you* are capable of writing a book, is to actually do the job, from beginning through the middle, to the end.  Short story writing can teach you all kinds of useful skills for crafting the elements of fiction:  character, plot, setting, theme. However, novels have their own special set of considerations.

A book that really takes off!

A book that really takes off!

One of the keys to a great novel is pace.  In a short story, pace is often less critical because the focus of the work is clear and direct.  The story pursues a single goal, and does so whole-heartedly, without digressions, diversions or dithering.  In a novel, you have much more latitude for these things.  Especially with a first novel (and even more so with a book of speculative fiction), there is a tendency to be drawn toward two poles:  exploring everything possible about the world, the characters, the situation,  OR making the plot snap along like the proverbial roller-coaster.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to manage the pace of your novel so that it moves at an appropriate speed for your readership and your material.

Wait a minute–an “appropriate speed”?  Isn’t pace all about speed?  Not necessarily.  Pace is about revealing your plot and characters in the most engaging way for your readers. Sometimes, that will mean moving quickly–bounding from one plot turn to the next to keep them on the edge of their seats.  But sometimes it will also mean drawing them so tightly into a moment of character revelation that they are on the verge of tears, fully experiencing a single instant in the fictional realm.

I describe these two poles as movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader), and intensity (the impact of that plot on the reader).  A book which is entirely focused on movement may be described as fast-paced, but is likely to leave the reader unmoved–yes, lots of things happened, but the reader didn’t get involved in the characters and their problems enough to care.  A book which is entirely focused on intensity may devolve into chapters of navel-gazing and inner monologue, but leave the reader with the sense that nothing is happening and that they are wasting their time.

The balance between movement and intensity is partially determined by the genre in which you write.  Thrillers are known for their fast movement.  Romances and literary fiction often lean toward greater intensity–how the character feels or reacts to what happens is as important (or more so) than the actual events.  This is why the art of pacing is individual to each book.  Even within these genres, individual authors or plots may emphasize a different ratio.  The key for your work is to be able to consider how your book will benefit from careful pace-management.

Over the next segments of this series, I will turn first to general principles of creating movement, then of intensity, then two lists of ways to boost either one to craft the best book you can.  Next up:  the basic building blocks of pace!