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.