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Friday, March 11, 2011

NOT TOO SLOW, NOT TOO FAST: HOW TO SET A JUST-RIGHT PACE IN YOUR STORY

  
by Margaret Birth


Remember Goldilocks? Boy, that chick could kvetch! This is too hot; that’s too cold; too big; too small; too hard; too soft. Makes me want to shake her by the shoulders and say, “So, work to make it right!” But…um…in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I’ve had the same problem occasionally with my writing—a problem with a story that sometimes moves too slowly, at other times too quickly—a problem with what’s called pacing. Unlike Goldilocks, though, I know a variety of ways to identify and address my problems.

Pacing issues can take several forms.

Sometimes it’s at the sentence and paragraph level—too wordy. Are your characters talking around their issues, rather than addressing them directly? Writing dialect in which characters quibble over exact meanings of words, or speak with intentional vagueness is a risk: it slows a story’s pace and doesn’t advance its conflict. Are your characters or your descriptions of setting just plain wordy? Pay special attention to phrases, and see if you can find shorter, pithier ways to say them.

Sometimes a pacing issue is at the scene or chapter level—either it’s too short and choppy or it’s too long to maintain reader interest. Does the scene do something, anything, to move the story forward? If it hasn’t accomplished that, the scene is too short. Does it focus on more than one conflict, event, or revelation? Then it’s probably too long. Does each chapter end with a “cliffhanger” that makes the reader want to keep going, to see what happens next? What about each scene?

Pacing can also be a problem at the story arc level. A sluggish beginning can be the result of using a prologue, or a back story, or presenting too much other information up front. A so-called “sagging middle” occurs when a story starts to wander from its focus; this can be a particular danger if you’re not writing straight romance, but are also trying to juggle a suspense or inspirational sub-plot or something like that. You know you’ve written a rushed ending if the plot-line resolutions seem to come illogically out of the blue, or you’ve written what sounds like a laundry list of what happened to whom, in order to neatly tie up the story’s loose ends.

Another pacing issue, in romance, can be related to how much time your hero and heroine spend together. In a romance, typically, the hero and heroine need to be together—or at least in direct communication and interaction with each other—at least 50% of the time. If they’re not in close contact with each other—occupying the same space, speaking together frequently—they can’t have either a fully developed romance or conflict.

Viewpoint changes can make a difference too; if you’re writing a book from multiple viewpoints, a change in the point-of-view character for a scene can jump-start a story and pick up its pace.

The next time you consider your story’s pacing, try looking at it from all these different angles. Yes, you may find problems you want to fix. But then, in the end, like Goldilocks, hopefully you’ll be able to sigh in contentment and say, “Ahhh…just right!”♥



Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad; in addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor. Her most recent publications include a meditation on chronic pain and spirituality, “Finding Joy in the Midst of Pain,” at http://www.gloryandstrength.com , “He Snatched My Purse—and Then He Stole My Heart” in the March 2011 True Romance, and a short story, “The Shoebox,” due out in the March 2011 Christian Fiction Online Magazine at http://christianfictiononlinemagazine.com/home.html .

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