There is nothing worse than a story that drags along. I love description as much as the next fellow–maybe more, but readers today are trained by television and technology to expect a story to zip along. Your descriptions, character and place, need to be a part of what moves the story.
I recently read some tips by Alicia Rasley on keeping the pacing in a story going. These have application to story performance as well, but I will talk more about that in another blog post
She graciously allowed me to reprint. She writes books to help writers with their art including one on pacing that offer more in-depth information on the subject if these tips simply whet your appetite.
Top Ten Ways To Revise Sentences for Better Pacing
By Alicia Rasley, www.edittorrent.blogspot.com
For a comprehensive journey through plotting a book, try The Story Within Interactive Plotting Guide.
1. Start with meaning. Always. Make the sentence mean what you want it to mean, then you can pretty it up.
2. Make every sentence move forward so it says something new. Don’t get diverted by irrelevancies like “start every sentence differently”. If each sentence in a paragraph means something different, each sentence will BE different. Beware of myths of sentence starts! Writers are often told to start with present participial phrases, but in fact, in most well-written books, few sentences start this way. Why? Because the particular role of participles is not to “start sentences differently,” but to signal two near simultaneous actions. A lot can go wrong with participles, so they really shouldn’t be “go-to” sentence openings.
3. However, the sentence ENDING can be more important than the beginning, and is more fun for experimentation. Whether a sentence (and paragraph) end on the upbeat or the downbeat can make the difference between a voice that gracefully conveys the meaning and one that is chaotic and incoherent.
4. You can vary the pacing by varying whether modifying phrases lead (slow down pacing) or trail (speed up pacing) the main clause. Always try to put the main action into the main clause, and put the conditions and additions into the modifiers. Just identifying your main action can help you craft more meaningful sentences.
5. The key to a vivid voice is: Avoid the generic. The generic is bland, vague, and passive. You don’t want that to be your voice. While there is far more to voice than sentence construction, you can learn your voice and how to exploit it by experimenting with sentences. Vagueness is the enemy of verisimilitude. As soon as the reader stops making meaning and pictures with your words, your story stops living for her. Aim for concrete words that are in the common argot– that is, don’t overuse words that call attention to themselves (because they take attention from your story). But there are plenty of strong, vivid words in the common language. You can have, “He crossed the room,” you don’t need “he transversed the cubicular chamber”. But you can also add more precise words– “He crossed the ballroom,” is different than “he crossed the bedroom.”
6. Don’t puzzle the reader with indicators that take them out of time, like “before” and “two weeks earlier” and “once”. As much as possible, make the sentence proceed chronologically when you want the reader to get
through the scene and read on without stopping. So “after” works as a sentence opening, but “before” is likely to be confusing. The second the reader has to re-read a sentence to understand it, that reader could be lost to you.
7. Try and make that main clause pretty direct. As long as the main clause is clear, you can add a lot on (the cumulative sentence), modifying phrases and adjectives and adverbs which add to the meaning, without confusing the reader. The main clause doesn’t have to start the sentence, but there’s no doubt that sentences that start close to the main clause have greater directness and propulsion.
8. There is no reason to feel like you have to cram too much into one sentence. That’s a good reason for starting with that main clause, because then you can make sure that everything that follows relates specifically to something in that main clause. If a sentence feels too long and complicated, go through and see if it will be easier to read as TWO sentences. Experiment! For example, dependent clauses (When I was young) can be useful for imbedding lesser but still important action or feeling in a sentence, and won’t detract much from the clarity of the main clause.
9. For really explosive sentences, try to put the most dramatic term last in the sentence. At the very least, avoid ending on a weak word like “of” or “be.” So if you have: Torture or murder, it was a choice he still wasn’t sure of,consider recasting it to put a powerful word last:
This was a choice he still wasn’t sure of, torture or murder. (Mary Buckham has more about this on her website– it’s her idea!)
10. Paragraphs are, in prose, the basic unit of meaning, and in fiction, experimenting with length, complexity, and sequence can make paragraphs more powerful and meaningful. Experiment with a topic or first sentence to improve your pacing by giving your paragraphs greater context and meaning.