Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Pacing, Line by Line

By Chris Eboch

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Finding the right pace is key to writing a story that keeps readers hooked. Please help me welcome Chris Eboch back to the lecture hall today, to share tips on pacing.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 60 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her writing craft books include Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and TeenagersLearn more at her website (see her For Writers page for critique rates), or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page

Take it away Chris…

Fast-paced. Gripping. A page turner. “I couldn’t put it down.” Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?

Characters, plot, setting, and theme are all part of pace. Create compelling characters, so readers will care about them and want them to succeed. Make sure you have a lot happening, whether action scenes, relationship challenges, or laugh-out-loud comedy.

Include some surprise twists to grab the reader’s attention whenever it might be wandering. Keep the stakes high and vitally important to the main character. Set the story someplace unusual and interesting, and even the setting can help keep things moving. Explore a theme that gets readers thinking.

Pacing with Paragraphs for Stronger Writing

Once you have a fast-paced draft, you can pump up the pace even more by focusing on line-by-line editing.

In fact, relatively minor changes in sentence structure and paragraphing can make a scene much more dramatic. A page that is one solid block of text looks dull, especially in our fast-paced world with so many other forms of media vying for attention.

Short paragraphs cause the reader’s eyes to move more quickly down the page. That can give a sense of breathless speed. The book literally becomes a page turner because the reader finishes each page so quickly.

Short version: Make action scenes more dramatic by using short paragraphs.

Here’s the end of chapter 1 from my romantic adventure, The Mad Monk’s Treasure. After uncovering a clue to a long-lost treasure, Erin hops on her bicycle to meet a friend.
She’d gone a block when she heard the hum of a car engine as it pulled out from a side street behind her. She rode along the very edge of the pavement, even though the car would have plenty of room to pass her without oncoming traffic.
Erin glanced over her shoulder. The black SUV 20 feet behind her hadn’t bothered to pull out into the road at all. Jerk. When would drivers learn to share the road with bicyclists? Erin pulled onto the two-foot wide gravel strip between the pavement and the ditch. She couldn’t stop without risking a skid, but she slowed so the SUV could pass.
The engine roared. Erin glanced back again.
Black metal bore down on her. Her heart lurched and the bike wobbled. This guy was crazy! She whipped her gaze forward, rose up in the seat, and pumped the pedals with all her power, skimming along inches from the ditch. He was just trying to scare her. She’d get his license plate and –

The bumper punched her back tire. The bike seemed to leap into the air.

She went flying. The dried mud and weeds of the ditch seemed to rise up to meet her.
She didn’t even have time to scream.
Note the very short paragraphs, each one or two short sentences. That gives those moments maximum impact. Their intensity is balanced by the longer paragraphs (but still not too long) where Erin has time to observe and react.

Now imagine all that in one paragraph. It wouldn’t have the same pace. Still, I often see chapter endings with tons of action strung together in one big paragraph.

Short Sentences or Leisurely Language?

Sentence length affects pace as well. Short sentences have a different rhythm from long ones. Long sentences can feel leisurely, while short ones have blunt impact – the difference between a hug and a slap.

You want a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths, because if everything is the same the story will feel clunky. But save the longer sentences and paragraphs for description and introspection. Use short sentences and short paragraphs for maximum impact in action scenes.

Here’s another example, this time from my children’s mystery The Eyes of Pharaoh. This is the end of a chapter where Seshta is waiting for a friend who is supposed to bring important news.
Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
But Reya never came.
The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to seem more important and ominous. It becomes a cliffhanger chapter ending.

What if I’d attached that last sentence to the previous sentence as a subordinate clause? It would have been buried under other information. It would have felt like the scene simply ended without anything happening. That wouldn’t have the same impact.

Is Your Writing Well Paced?

Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, simply see how it looks on the page.

Do you have a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?

Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.

Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. (Learn more about cliffhangers.)

Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences?

How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference with small changes in wording and punctuation. For example, compare these:
I heard a noise and looked up with a gasp in time to see a huge rock tumbling toward me.
I heard a noise above my head. I looked up and gasped.

A boulder tumbled toward me.
It’s almost hard to follow the action in the first example, because too much happens in one sentence. Shorter sentences clarify the action and give each piece more impact.

You can do this exercise with published books as well. Note sections that are poorly paced and try rewriting them to see how things change as you vary the structure.

Master pacing, and you’ll keep those pages turning.

Do you consider paragraph length and sentence length in your writing?

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work. This book can help. The Plot Outline Exercise is designed to help a writer work with a completed manuscript to identify and fix plot weaknesses. It can also be used to help flesh out an outline. Additional articles address specific plot challenges, such as getting off to a fast start, propping up a sagging middle, building to a climax, and improving your pacing. Guest authors share advice from their own years of experience. Read the book straight through, study the index to find help with your current problem, or dip in and out randomly — however you use this book, you’ll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

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  1. I'm still wondering how much attention should be put on punctuation when pacing the story. For example, how should commas and exclamation points be used?

    1. Commas can be tricky, but the best rule of thumb I've heard is to use them when you might pause if you were speaking it.

      Exclamation points are easy: outside dialog, *never ever* use them. It looks too over-hyped, too much like "laughing at your own joke."

  2. Great advice.

    One thing I'd add: any time something sudden or important happens, it should be at the start/end of a paragraph. Anywhere else is underplaying something that ought to matter. (Though if the scene's gotten especially hectic, one sign of that can be that moderately flashy things can be shoved into midparagraph between even bigger blasts.)