Setting the Pace to Keep your Story Moving

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by Myra Johnson

The latest fitness research suggests that if you want to increase your calorie burn and build stamina, vary the intensity of your workout by alternating between moderate and brisk exercise.

Same with writing. If you want your plot to have momentum and keep the reader engaged, pacing is everything. According to Jack Bickham, “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.

Narrative includes:

• 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. 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. Just make sure every word spoken has a purpose beyond mere chit-chat.

The tricky part is incorporating narrative and dialogue in an ebb and flow that keeps your reader turning the pages. In other words, PACING.

Start by analyzing your scene to determine where it falls in the overall story arc. 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.

Tips to keep in mind when you want to …

Pick up the pace:

1. Keep sentences shorter.
2. Use strong, punchy verbs.
3. Dramatize key scenes. Flesh out the conflict with crisp action and dialogue.
4. Avoid lengthy passages of description or backstory.
5. Eliminate pleasantries, greetings, introductions, and other forms of chit-chat in dialogue. Keep it snappy and relevant.
6. 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.

Slow the pace:

1. Use longer, more complex sentences.
2. Explore your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.
3. Let your character slow down to notice his/her surroundings. Use the setting and/or situation to create an emotional connection.
4. Introduce relevant backstory–but only when it will best serve the plot.
5. In a high-stakes or deeply emotional story, a little humor (appropriately handled) can ease tension and give the reader a respite.

When the Clouds Roll ByMyra Johnson is a two-time ACFW Carol Award finalist and winner of the RWA Golden Heart. When the Clouds Roll By (Abingdon Press, September 2013) is her latest release. Myra currently serves as president of ACFW-Charlotte Chapter. She and her husband reside in North Carolina with two pampered lapdogs.

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