This post first appeared in Seekerville on May 10, 2011.
Myra here. We all know that walking is great exercise and offers many health benefits. The latest fitness research now suggests that if you want even bigger gains, you should vary the intensity of your workout. By frequently alternating between a moderate and brisk pace during your walk, you’ll increase your calorie burn and build stamina.
What does walking pace have to do with writing? Whether you’re walking for fitness or hoping to “shape up” your manuscript, pacing is everything.
As Jack Bickham writes in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Writers Digest Books, 1992), “Fiction is movement.” Narrative and dialogue are the tools we use to move the story along. It’s how we use them that makes the difference.
Let’s look first at narrative, which includes the following:
- Description. Setting, weather conditions, physical appearance, clothing, body language, etc.
- Exposition. “Just the facts,” e.g., character background, forensic data, socioeconomic details about setting, etc.
- Interior thought. What’s going on inside your viewpoint character’s head and heart.
- Dramatic summary. When you just need to move your characters through time, summarizing events can quickly get them into the next scene.
Dialogue comprises the exact words your characters speak aloud—to themselves or to another character. Well-written dialogue is a great tool for moving the story forward--as long as you make sure every word spoken has a purpose beyond mere chit-chat. Anytime you put two or more characters together in conversation, you have an opportunity to spice up the conflict and take the plot in an unexpected direction.
Now we get to the tricky part--incorporating narrative and dialogue in an ebb and flow that keeps your reader turning the pages.
In other words, PACING.
Start by analyzing the scene you’re working on and determine where it falls in the overall story arc. Now, what do you need to accomplish here? Does it need to be an action scene? A reflective scene?
Narrative description or exposition will slow the pace; dramatic summary or short, snappy dialogue speeds things along. Whatever your purpose for the scene, there should always be some degree of forward momentum that propels the characters toward the climax and conclusion you’re aiming for.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when you want to ...
Pick up the pace:
- Keep sentences shorter.
- Use strong, punchy verbs.
- Dramatize key scenes. Flesh out the conflict with crisp action and dialogue.
- Avoid lengthy passages of description or backstory.
- Eliminate pleasantries, greetings, introductions, and other forms of chit-chat in dialogue. Keep it snappy and relevant.
- Are your characters prone to “speech making”? Break up a lengthy passage of dialogue with the speaker’s body language, an interior reaction, a bit of relevant scene description, a question or response from another character.
The storm faded at last, and Kip closed the door on Jet’s stall. Dog tired, he trudged to the cottage, barely taking time to change into a dry T-shirt and boxers before sinking onto his pillow. The drip-drip-drip of rain from the eaves soon lulled him into a deep sleep.
Sometime in the early morning he stirred awake. Groggy, confused, he squinted at the digital clock—4:42. He lay there for a moment just listening. Long years of sleeping in barns and horse trailers had tuned his ears to any little sound that might indicate a horse in distress.
Nothing. Then. . .
Get up, Kip.
The words flashed through his brain like a neon sign. Something more than instinct, less than a spoken command.
He shoved his legs into a fresh pair of jeans, stuffed his feet into socks and boots, and strode out to the barn. All quiet. He snapped the emergency flashlight off the wall charger and started down the left side, looking in on each sleepy horse. Coming up the other side, he stopped short at Sundown’s stall.
The stall gate was latched, which meant the horse didn’t simply nudge it open and wander off. Kip immediately glanced where Sundown’s halter should be hanging. Not there.
His stomach turned inside out. He raced outside, only then noticing the empty spot where his pickup should be. His rusty old horse trailer was missing as well.
Aw, Grace, what have you done?
Slow the pace:
- Use longer, more complex sentences.
- Explore your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.
- Let your character slow down to notice his/her surroundings. Use the setting and/or situation to create an emotional connection.
- Introduce relevant backstory--but only when it will best serve the plot.
- In a high-stakes or deeply emotional story, a little humor (appropriately handled) can ease tension and give the reader a respite.
The night air pulsed with the sounds of crickets, frogs, and the occasional hoot of an owl. Sheridan relished the serenity, noisy as it could be on a summer evening like this. Stars shimmered overhead, a thick blanket of sparkling lights. People living in the city would never believe the sky contained so many stars.What works best for you when you need to speed up the action or slow things down a bit?
She sat on the front porch steps, Kip beside her, their hands intertwined. Moments ago Mom had poked her head out the door to say she’d be turning off the porch light. “So you can see the stars better,” she said.
Right. And Mom performed a masterful job of their suppertime seating arrangements, making sure Kip had no choice but to take the chair next to Sheridan’s.
Did Kip have any clue he’d become the object of such scheming? If so, he hadn’t let on. When he spoke at all, he talked about his work with Jet or one of the therapy horses. And goose bumps rose on Sheridan’s arms when he told how he and Gem had begun to break through that belligerent boy Ryan’s tough shell.
“Nice evening,” Kip murmured beside her. “I could really learn to like it here.”
“I’m glad.” She heard the hopeful smile in her voice and quickly looked away. A petal from Mom’s Perfect Moment rose bush lay on the step. Only one thing could make this moment more perfect. She stroked the petal between her thumb and forefinger, its fruity fragrance like a whisper in the air. “You think you might stay awhile?”
About the book: North Carolina’s a long, long way from Texas, but horse trainer Kip Lorimer needs to get out of town fast, because the woman who long ago destroyed his last remnants of trust has just caught up with him—again.
Special-ed teacher Sheridan Cross has trust issues of her own, so when Kip shows up with a horse to donate to the family’s equine therapy program, she can’t help but be suspicious. A cowboy a thousand miles from home and living out of a horse trailer? What’s wrong with this picture?
When Sheridan’s mother offers Kip a job as barn manager, Sheridan decides she’d better stick close enough to keep an eye on things, never expecting she’ll soon have eyes only for the handsome cowboy. Can they trust their hearts and find true love, or will their troubled pasts come crashing down on their dreams?
Today Seekerville is giving away an ecopy of Myra Johnson's A Horseman's Heart to two commenters.