Category Archives: Pace

Picking Up The Pace, Revisited

According to Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, one of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because of a slow pace.

I’ve read slow-paced books before. The truth is, they can be boring.

According to Stein, there are a number of techniques writers can use to keep the pace of a novel or non-fiction work (including blog articles) moving at a healthy clip.

First, short sentences move the pace along. Second, short paragraphs do the same. Finally, short sentences combined with short paragraphs create the fastest pace of all.

To achieve these shorts, first tighten sentence structure (get rid of words like even or just, for example) and reduce redundancy. Second, judicially shorten sentences and paragraphs in action scenes.

I say “judicially” because a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can become exhausting … and equally boring. Varied sentence structure is by far more interesting than one subject/verb/object sentence after another.

Besides regulating sentence and paragraph length, a writer can control pace by skipping steps, or condensing action. For example, suppose a character decides to bake a cake. Including all the steps would look something like this.

Duncan Hines Moist Delux German Chocolate Cake

    Martha went to the pantry and picked out the cake mix she wanted — German chocolate. She flipped to the back of the box and checked the list of ingredients. Off she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the egg carton, and selected three eggs. Next she turned on the oven, setting the temperature to the required 350 degrees. After retrieving her measuring cup, cake pan, and mixing bowl from the cupboard, she opened the box.

Nothing is wrong with this paragraph. The writing is clear, the sentences are varied, the verbs are strong. But so far the reader hasn’t learned anything. Martha is going to bake a cake — we got that. But five sentences later, she still hasn’t done it. In other words, this scene can be compressed in a sentence or two.

    Martha settled on German chocolate cake for dessert and prepped for her first baking project in a year. When everything was ready, she whipped the ingredients together and popped the mixture into the oven as if she’d been baking cakes for a living.

In those two sentences, Martha not only gets the cake in the oven, we have a chance to learn something more about her in the process. We’re letting the reader imagine the particulars of baking the cake. As a result of the faster pace, we are able to make the scene do double duty.

Another technique to increase pace is to leave a scene out. The old time movies used this technique, not for the sake of pace, but to adhere to a standard of modesty when a couple would enter a bedroom and close the door. The intimate scene was left to the viewers’ imagination. The next scene in the film, then, would show the wife in the morning helping her husband with his tie, for example, or heading to the kitchen in her robe and slippers to start breakfast.

For the sake of pace, scenes in novels can be left out in the same way. Take a story about an innocent man going to prison. The courtroom scene isn’t necessary because the conflict will center on what the prisoner must endure behind bars. Hence, for the sake of pace, the court appearances simply are not present. The police come to the protagonist’s house, and in the next scene, he’s being strip searched in a federal penitentiary.

Jump-cutting, borrowed from film-making, is a similar technique, but instead of taking out a scene, the transitional action is omitted. Here’s how that would work.

A pastor is going to visit an accident victim in the hospital. He tells his secretary where he’ll be and heads for the door. When using the jump-cut, the author includes an extra line between text to indicate something has been left out or time has passed. In this example scenario, the next action is the pastor stepping into the hospital room with a Bible in hand. The transition—how he got from his office to the hospital room—is left out.

Whichever techniques an author uses, the important thing to remember is that these devices should serve the story. Jump-cuts for the sake of jump-cuts don’t move the story forward, and a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can lose readers.

If, however, the story is dragging or critique partners are falling asleep, it might be time to experiment a little with some ways to pick up the pace. 😉

This post, sans some editorial changes, first appeared at Rewrite, Reword, Reword in June 2011.

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Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

EXAMPLES:
Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

EXAMPLES:
Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

EXAMPLE
Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.

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Pace Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

I like fast-paced, page-turner novels. They pique my curiosity and force me to keep reading so that I can learn the secret or the answer or the perpetrator or the outcome. Will he survive, do they fall in love, will she choose the best job, can they make the rent, will he catch the thief? Questions drive a story forward and keep a reader turning pages.

I’ve even written about creating a fast pace in fiction as an important technique to learn (see “Picking Up The Pace”), and I haven’t changed my mind. However I have been reminded that a fast pace should not be the goal of a story but rather a means.

Acclaimed agent and writing instructor Donald Maass, in his new book Writing 21st Century Fiction has this to say:

Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. . . How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? (emphasis mine)

How indeed! First, I think it’s important to see pace for what it is–a means by which to keep readers engaged. Sadly, it seems as if a host of contemporary writers–novelists and script writers–are under the delusion that keeping readers (or viewers) glued to their seats for a prerequisite period of time qualifies a story as good.

Seat belts do that. So do roller coasters. But rides in cars and trips to amusement parks are generally forgettable.

Good stories definitely keep a reader’s interest, but there’s more. Good stories prompt the reader to think about the characters when away from the book. Good stories prompt the reader to mull over the outcome of the story once he finishes.

In other words, there has to be more than pages whipping by like telephone poles seen through the window of a speeding car. A good story is more than one long chase, more than a ticking time bomb.

Good stories are not easily mistaken for a different title. They have a uniqueness about them, though they may still include the tropes of their genre.

What is it, then, that makes the difference? Maass again:

The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

In short, the writer being authentic and individual and fearless makes the difference. But we’ll need to explore what that means in greater depth another time. For today, the take-home would be this: pace is a tool to use. It should serve the story and not rule the story.

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Paragraphing

Paragraphing is not a glamorous subject and rarely seems critical, but it’s as important to the structure of our writing as is the sentence.

First, both in fiction and non-fiction the purpose is similar: both sentence and paragraph are organizational tools. The former encapsulates a single idea. The latter collects sentences pertaining to a single idea.

Still, the act of collecting sentences isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. For example, all the sentences in this article relate to paragraphing. Should they, therefore, form one gigantic paragraph?

Technically an author would not be wrong to throw them all into one unbroken stream. However, the “organization” in that case would look much like a garage used as a junk room: all things not needed in the house regularly get stashed together. Even when each item has its own place, to the visitor, sorting through all the items will take much longer than if they are broken up and stored in separate cabinets and drawers.

Besides helping with organization, paragraphing also can enhance pace. The shorter the paragraphs, the faster the pace.

Longer, more leisurely paragraphs work against action scenes. Instead, shorter sentences and paragraphs convey a feeling of things happening quickly. Those that are longer don’t carry the same sense of urgency.

It’s interesting to note that in most newspaper stories, paragraphs are routinely only several sentences long. (For an example, check out this recent Los Angeles Times story). Generally, readers of a daily want quick, pithy facts, not lengthy, carefully constructed arguments. Short paragraphs create the kind of organization that allows a reader to move quickly through an article, from most important facts to least important.

Paragraphing contributes to writing in still a third way. It helps formulate style. As I wrote the above paragraph about newspapers, I couldn’t help but think that not all utilize the two-sentences-per-paragraph rule. Although I haven’t actually counted sentences, I suspect that the articles in the Wall Street Journal, for example, have paragraphs that are considerably longer than the L A Times. The issue is style. The WSJ, by its structure, conveys that its articles are attempting to do more than give a brief set of facts — they aim to look at their topics in more depth.

A second aspect of style, especially for writers interested in artistic expression, is variety. In the same way that using the same words over and over can become tiresome, using the same sentence structure or the same paragraph length can become monotonous.

A part of good writing in any genre is giving readers something that will hold their interest. Varying paragraph length is one way to do that.

To close, I’ll give an example of writing and let you judge (you don’t even have to read it 😉 ): is there enough variation in paragraph length? Does the structure entice you to read or does it appear too fast or too slow? From JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, book two of The Lore of Efrathah:

    Jim sprawled onto a pile of drying grass and stared at the strange night sky. Back in his world the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, and a handful of lesser-known constellations, were as familiar as the outdoor basketball court near his childhood home. But here in Efrathah the stars puncturing the blackness were larger, scattered, sparse.
    A lump formed in his throat. He pulled his blanket from his pack and rolled to his side, pillowing his head on his arm. After days on the run, he needed to sleep, not to think about this strange world. Better if he blocked out his surroundings — the canyon walls sailing by, the River Pegah churning toward Mithlimar, the two-tiered raft he lay on, Remalín at the helm, the rest of the trek team sprawled atop the woven mat. And those strange stars.
    He closed his eyes, listening to the water sloshing against the logs, to the wind whispers gusting through the canyon and the rhythmic breathing of his companions. To Bilg’s gentle snoring.
    His heartbeat slowed. He snuggled deeper into the pile of soft grasses covering the mat and drifted toward sleep. The image of a Vacant One formed. At the command of a malicious black knight, the soldier of death stalked toward Jim’s sleeping companions. Behind the knight, Vildoth-sadín — the faceless usurper — lurked in the shadows. Jim’s body tensed, and he snapped awake.
    Exhaling a long breath, he sat up.
    “Trouble sleeping?” Jonathan propped himself on his elbow, his walnut-brown hair more tousled than usual by the wind blowing through the river draw.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

Eight days, and counting. 😀

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Picking Up The Pace

According to Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, one of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because of a slow pace.

In the last four books I’ve read, one in particular had a notably slow pace. The truth is, there were sections of the story that were boring.

According to Stein, there are a number of techniques writers can use to keep the pace of a novel or non-fiction work (including blog articles) moving at a healthy clip.

First, short sentences move the pace along. Second, short paragraphs do the same. Finally, short sentences combined with short paragraphs create the fastest pace of all.

To achieve these shorts, first tighten sentence structure (get rid of words like even or just, for example) and reduce redundancy. Second, judicially shorten sentences and paragraphs in action scenes.

I say “judicially” because a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can become exhausting … and equally boring. Varied sentence structure is by far more interesting than one subject/verb/object sentence after another.

Besides regulating sentence and paragraph length, a writer can control pace by skipping steps, or condensing action. For example, suppose a character decides to bake a cake. Including all the steps would look something like this.

Duncan Hines Moist Delux German Chocolate Cake

    Martha went to the pantry and picked out the cake mix she wanted — German chocolate. She flipped to the back of the box and checked the list of ingredients. Off she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the egg carton, and selected three eggs. Next she turned on the oven, setting the temperature to the required 350 degrees. After retrieving her measuring cup, cake pan, and mixing bowl from the cupboard, she opened the box.

Nothing is wrong with this paragraph. The writing is clear, the sentences are varied, the verbs are strong. But so far the reader hasn’t learned anything. Martha is going to bake a cake — we got that. But five sentences later, she still hasn’t done it. In other words, this scene can be compressed in a sentence or two.

    Martha settled on German chocolate cake for dessert and prepped for her first baking project in a year. When everything was ready, she whipped the ingredients together and popped the mixture into the oven as if she’d been baking cakes for a living.

In those two sentences, Martha not only gets the cake in the oven, we have a chance to learn something more about her in the process. We’re letting the reader imagine the particulars of baking the cake. As a result of the faster pace, we are able to make the scene do double duty.

Another technique to increase pace is to leave a scene out. The old time movies used this technique, not for the sake of pace, but to adhere to a standard of modesty when a couple would enter a bedroom and close the door. The intimate scene was left to the viewers’ imagination. The next scene in the film, then, would show the wife in the morning helping her husband with his tie, for example, or heading to the kitchen in her robe and slippers to start breakfast.

For the sake of pace, scenes in novels can be left out in the same way. Take a story about an innocent man going to prison. The courtroom scene isn’t necessary because the conflict will center on what the prisoner must endure behind bars. Hence, for the sake of pace, the court appearances simply are not present. The police come to the protagonist’s house, and in the next scene, he’s being strip searched in a federal penitentiary.

Jump-cutting is a similar technique, but instead of taking out a scene, the transitional action is omitted. Here’s how that would work.

A pastor is going to visit an accident victim in the hospital. He tells his secretary where he’ll be and heads for the door. When using the jump-cut, the author includes an extra line between text to indicate something has been left out or time has passed. In this example scenario, the next action is the pastor stepping into the hospital room with a Bible in hand. The transition — how he got from his office to the hospital room — is left out.

Whichever techniques an author uses, the important thing to remember is that these devices should serve the story. Jump-cuts for the sake of jump-cuts don’t move the story forward, and a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can lose readers.

If, however, the story is dragging or critique partners are falling asleep, it might be time to experiment a little with some ways to pick up the pace. 😉

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