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.
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.
- exposition and inner monologue
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. . .
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.
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.
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.
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!