Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best of the Archives-Pace Yourself

 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.
On to dialogue now.

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.
Here’s a faster-paced scene from  A Horseman’s Heart, from Heartsong Presents:
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 obeyed.

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.
And now, a slower-paced, more reflective scene from the book:
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.

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?”
What works best for you when you need to speed up the action or slow things down a bit?  

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. 


  1. Hi Myra,
    I'm going to come back and retread this in the morning, when my brain is more awake, because I can see why it's a fav from the archives.

    Merry Christmas back to you.

  2. Wow, this is still a goodie. I'm about to finish a new manuscript and will utilize this as I edit.

    Just got home late this afternoon from Christmas at our daughter's. But I've got the coffee pot set.

  3. Tina, and Sandra...Mom and I fly into Sky Harbor Wednesday night. Staying till April 20. Christmas was good here, but had messy weather today. Thanks, Myra...enjoy your posts, even if they're from the archives. Thanks for the coffee, Helen

  4. There is a treasure trove of good stuff in our back room!!!!

    Myra, you are such an inherent writer, I think your pacing flows beautifully from scene to scene. What a gift!

    I "Up" the snark-meter when I want things to pick up.... and "Up" the lyrical prose when I want to slow things down.

    The lyrical prose (how I sneak poetic phrasing into category romance) is a must in each book, just a little, here and there... and I think it raises the emotional stakes of the story.

    The snark?

    Well that's to make folks feel like those characters are their own bratty kids/neighbors/friends/spouses/parents, etc. :)

    There's a touch of snark in most of us!

    What I also love is that we have individual styles and word usage (although I'm trying to change my "word mold" to sound less predictable) that is reflective in our writing.

    It's fun to see the personalities shine... or SNARK!!!... on the page.

  5. Myra, great post on pacing...which is so important.

    Especially during the Christmas season! :)

    More family arriving today. I'm so excited.

    Ah, back to writing. Pacing during high tension points increases the suspense. As you mentioned, short sentences. Little introspection. Action verbs. Cut the modifiers down to a minimum. That fast pace increases my heart rate and makes me keep reading...faster...faster..faster!

  6. A very good reminder that writers direct the readers minds along the path of the story, not only with words, but with pacing—along with the other writers tools.

    I'm fascinated... it's the same way an artist directs the viewers vision along the invisible road of the painting through color, value and design.

    Fascinating... thanks, Myra!

  7. This is great stuff, Myra! I'm so glad it's been reposed. Just what I needed to read.

  8. Thanks MYRA for this wonderful post. and for TINA who revisited it from the archives. Love those archives. You are right RUTHY, we have a treasure trove in our files. How blessed we are.

    MARIANNE, safe travels for you and your sweet mom. I know you'll enjoy our lovely warm weather.

  9. The best thing about reposting blogs from the archive is . . .


    Oh my! Is anyone else slightly brain dead this week???? We had 12 people under our roof for 5 days, more than half of them adult-sized. Try keeping enough food in the house for 3 teenage grandsons plus all the adults and little kids.

    Hope everyone had a great Christmas!!!!

  10. Definitely worth reposting...pacing is something I can get off track with -- like throwing in some introspection in a tense action scene -- :-) I've been critiqued on that, and...woohooo...though I still write that way I can spot it a mile off and don't even think twice about hitting delete now. It just seems to be something I need to get out of my system first time round.

    Wow, Myra -- 12 people at your house for 5 days? Talk about pacing yourself!!!! :-)

  11. Goodmorning, SEEKERVILLE!!!

    Great and timely post, and a much needed one, Myra!@!

  12. Pacing. I need it in my stories as much as I needed it this week. :-) The Christmas break from work was wonderful, but I feel like Myra, slightly brain dead today.
    Hope everyone had or is having a wonderful Christmas.

  13. Great post and reminders for me to help my story flow the way I envision it. Sometimes is sounds much better in my brain than when the words actually hit the screen (hmmm, why is that?) Very useful post for me to refer to when things don't spew out quite right.

    Heading to Delaware later today to take the little one to see Grammy and Pop-pop for Christmas. Hubby and I had to work rest of the week (except Christmas Day), so Christmas celebrations get to be prolonged. (yay)

  14. Myra, this is fabulous information for keeping the pacing of our stories strong! Your excerpts are fabulous examples of upping and slowing the pace! Definitely a keeper post!

    I like to use wacky secondary characters to ease the tension and add a dash of humor. I also like to use these characters to teach the hero or heroine something about themselves.


  15. This is the day to pick up the pace and get rid of leftovers that are attaching to butt and causing slow pacing.

  16. GREAT BLOG, MYRA ... pacing is something I don't hear talked about much in writing, but it's SO critical to the ebb and flow of a story.

    To me, it's a little bit like my preference for foods and drinks. For instance, I love fun and sweet coffee creamers in my coffee, and have been enjoying peppermint mocha and cinnamon roll this Christmas. BUT ... I can only drink them when I drink coffee by itself. For coffee with dessert, I canNOT have sweet creamers in my coffee too -- it's just too much sweet for me, ruining the taste.

    Same way with narrative and dialogue -- too much of either one and it ruins the taste of the novel for me. I like a nice mix where I can get into a character's head with narrative, then move through the scene with them through dialogue.

    In anotherwords ... PACING!!

    And, YES, I am "brain dead" as well, but it was SO worth it!!


  17. Thanks for the revisit to this post! It was so valuable the first time I read it - it made me really look at my writing and listen to the rhythm and pacing. Reading the post again is a great reminder.

    We had a quiet Christmas. We made the decision a few years ago (when we moved to the great white north and 1200 miles away from extended family) that we wouldn't try to travel during the holidays. So we visit in the spring and fall, and Christmas is at home. So relaxing, and we don't have to worry about driving through ice or snow storms!

    And I'd love to be entered in the drawing. I have your other two "Horseman" books, but not this one!

  18. This really is a keeper post, Myra. Great examples, too. I'm happy to have this review as I start ramping up my 2014 writing goals.

    My brain is tired, too. This time of year I always feel as though I'm on hold, navigating around everyone's plans and schedules. Of course, I would never trade all the family visits, but they do disrupt my concentration and make it harder for me to write full sentences! Peace all.

  19. Tina really must get the credit for digging through the archives and finding posts to reprise. She stays on top of things even when the rest of us are beyond distracted! What would we do without your vision and dedication, Teenster? You are the best!!!

  20. Hopefully next week will bring some semi-normalcy around here. Our Ethiopia kids (staying with us until mid-May) are leaving in the morning for a driving trip to see other family and friends for 2-3 weeks. I need to get LOTS of writing done while they're away!!!

  21. So, you're saying I should take a walk?

  22. Excellent review! Thanks to Myra for offering books too!

  23. Thanks for the info on pacing which can be difficult but really important. I tend to rush some things and drag out other things -- it's so important to know when to speed up and when to slow down.

  24. Oh Myra, I treasure my copy of The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. I try to read it through every month ... and I see something new every time.

    Thanks so much for your examples. It's always nice to read your writing -- As Clouds Roll By is next up on my iPad :-)

    Nancy C

  25. Hi Myra,

    Thanks for sharing. Lots to think about here.

    Merry Christmas and happy new year!

  26. Thank you, NANCY!

    I appreciate all the positive comments about the blog! and I'm so glad this recycled post is still proving helpful. Thanks again to TINA for selecting it for archive day.

    Coming to the end of another laid-back post-Christmas day. Maybe next week I'll be productive again . . . [sigh]

  27. Thanks for re-sharing Myra's post. Great post, Myra!

    I've been going crazy with internet trouble since yesterday. But now it seems to be all fixed!

  28. I always appreciate a blog post that gives examples. Examples always put the information more firmly in my mind. Thanks, Cindy Huff