Today I’d like to discuss what I call my 10 Rules of Pacing
1. FORGET REAL LIFE: Characters cannot do the things that we do, such as eat, drink, sleep or take a bath, chat with friends, family members, even characters we would like to hear more from. Never mind that that if someone knocked us unconscious and stole great-uncle’s diary we’d spend the next two days in bed with a hot water bottle and a cup of tea. That might be reality, but you’re not writing reality, you’re writing fiction. If it’s not an important part of the story, leave it out!
2. FLOW CAN TURN GOOD INTO GREAT: Jaws, The Mummy, The Usual Suspects, White Oleander by Janet Fitch, PD James. None of these aspired to be the Great American story, but I think they are truly great for one reason: there is not one moment that your attention wanders.
3. SETTING THE PACE BEGINS WITH THE FIRST WORD. Backstory belongs later, as stated by Donald Maas. Beginnings are hard. There is so much you need to explain about your characters, where they live, what they do, how they live their lives. But if you dump it all on the reader in chapter one they’ll never make it to chapter two, because they’re not sure they care about the character yet so they’re certainly not sure if they care about the character’s history. The way to get around this is to tell your reader only what they need to know right now, and then only in half a sentence at a time, as the characters are doing something.
4. ANYTHING THAT APPLIES TO FICTION APPLIES TO NONFICTION. Your book may be a memoir or a history or a scientific treatise, locked into progressing from point A to point B. That doesn’t mean you can simply present a list of facts. You will have to pay even more attention to your pace when you can’t make up a dramatic event when the narrative calls for it. You will have to open each chapter with a surprising statement or line of dialogue, and ending each chapter with a bang, a cliffhanger or some other stunning remark.
5. LESS IS MORE: How much description do you really need? Can be difficult esp for me—forensic junkies are reading the book, but I can only make that so exciting. Use telling details—quality, not quantity. Of course, sometimes less is less. Too little description can be a problem as well. You don’t want your characters to be talking heads in white space.
6. IT’S ABOUT TIME: Use flashbacks sparingly, and no gaps of weeks or months unless absolutely necessary. Every time time lags in the book, it’s going to lag in the reader’s mind. Make your story take place in the shortest amount of time possible.
7. NEVER REPEAT YOURSELF. Just because one character has to recap recent events for another character does not mean you make your readers listen to it again. Do not tell them things they already know.
8. ACTION DOESN’T HAVE TO COME WITH LIGHTS, CAMERAS, CAR CRASHES AND EXPLOSIONS. Keeping the book moving doesn’t mean a constant barrage of noise and chaos. Scenes that are subtle and quiet can be the most suspenseful, as long as the reader is wondering what is going to happen next. Even in Jane Austen, you’re wondering what is going to happen next? Will Lizzie run into Mr. Darcy again? Will she run away with Willoughby?
9. THE DIE HARD RULE: Just keep going. No matter what, just keep going. Otherwise known as pacing is like paint—it can cover a multitude of sins. But not all of them. Paint can’t disguise a lump in the wall, just as keeping the action going can’t get readers past a mistake that makes them stop and think. If they pause to think to themselves, wasn’t her hair brown, or where did the dog go, or why on earth would this rough and tumble guy suddenly spout poetry, then all your breathless pacing has been for naught. This is why every detail has to be correct, every action or thought has to be logical, every fact clear and unequivocal.
10. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL: You have to do what’s right for you. Many people loved The Da Vinci Code. Some people felt it was hours of their life they’d never get back. Don’t force a breathless pace upon yourself if you’re not comfortable with that. There are no guarantees, so you might as well be yourself, and write yourself.
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