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22.3.18

How to use ‘pace’ when you write

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Have you ever had a friend who walked too fast or too slow? Some days, it is a little irritating. Some days, it’s infuriating. Your pace as an author can have the same effect on your readers. If your story or ideas unfold too slowly, your readers get bored. If your story moves too fast, your readers get lost. Either way, the outcome is the same: they close your book (or click away from your site).

When I was in my late twenties, I died. I had a respiratory arrest and stopped breathing. And then the doctors in the emergency department of the Austin Hospital revived me, and it was back to life as usual. Except, of course, it was not. Everything had changed. Suddenly I hyper-aware of my breathing.

Pace is like breathing; you do it without thinking until you need to make a change. Then, you must become aware of it. What is your natural pace as a writer? Do you wander or sprint? Do you gush or expound? Do you skip or crawl?

I was the passenger in a car once with a very bad driver (who was also an evil bastard, but that’s another story). He stepped on the accelerator one second, and then slammed on the brakes the next. It made for a jerky and disconcerting ride. One of the first lessons about pace is consistency. Provide your readers with surprises. Take them in unexpected directions, yes. But don’t jerk the accelerator. Transition smoothly between the various paces; the more your reader knows you are in control, the more they can relax and come along for the ride.

Cut the description. Readers have an instinct for what they need to know. Yes, I can see the sun peeking through the clouds through my window, and hear the pigeons cooing, but do you care? Only if it is relevant to the story I am telling you, which it was by the way.

I once wanted to write the Great Australian Novel (it’s still coming), and my teacher raised the topic of dialogue. ‘Why do we need dialogue?’ I asked him. He was stunned into silence; it was a no-brainer in his view. Here’s how the scene should have unfolded:

Why do we need dialogue?

Well, I’ve never questioned that. Perhaps because it speeds up the pace of a story.

Not always. Often, it is just a clumsy way to explain stuff. Like, ‘Do you have the autopsy report?’ ‘Yes, she died of a bullet to the head.’ Yawn! 

True. Dialogue needs to sizzle. Dialogue needs conflict.

Stories shift the pace of writing. I have used a few in this blog. The length of your sentences affects the pace, too. You might notice that I favour short simple sentences. It’s not just because I am trying to emulate the great American journalist and novelist, Ernest Hemingway. Oh, no wait! That IS why I favour short sentences.

If you are the brilliant English novelist, Jane Austen, you can write long complex sentences that people will love to read: ‘It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ Why does it work? Because it is funny and foreshadows the entire novel in 23 words.

It is not speed so much as rhythm that gives writing a satisfying pace. Get to know yours. Speed it up, and slow it down, smoothly, and see how your readers respond.

PS:  Want more?  You may like:   Book promotion tips money cannot buy

 

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