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.
- 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.