What do we mean by pace? Generally, it’s taken to mean the activity level of a plot. When lots of outward and visible events occur, especially in rapid succession, pace is said to be fast. When a novel is more contemplative and less active, it’s pace is slow.
Fast pace is associated with commercial novels and slow pace with literary fiction. Fast is thought to be commercially successful; slow is feared to be critically successful. Fast is cheap but makes big money; slow is highly valuable but makes little. So it is thought. That’s as far as the discussion of pace usually goes.
In everyday terms, pace is both footsteps and their speed. Gait and rate. In fiction terms, who says that has to apply only to plot events? There are other ways to pace a novel. There are many kinds of steps through which you can put your characters and readers. Let’s look at four of them.
Inner Journey Pace
Commercial fiction writers are on comfortable ground when we talk about plot pace. Make plenty of things happen. Drop complications like rain. Twist. Turn. Surprise. As Raymond Chandler said, when you’re out of ideas have a man come through the door with a gun. Figure out why later on.
But what does that mean if your novel is mostly inward, character driven, and meditative? When not much visibly happens, how can you create a sense of things driving forward? Things can drive forward, obviously, just not in the same way.
In character driven fiction, it’s the intensity of a character’s need that creates tension. That by itself is not enough, though. Pace means change. If plot circumstances don’t change, something must. In practical terms that means complications, twists, turns and surprises that aren’t visible but are nevertheless real, changes that happen inside. These are the steps in an arc. If a such steps happen in every scene then you have a lively pace.
In each scene, ask: In what way can my protagonist become his or her own complication? In this scene, how does another character show a different side or assume a different role with respect to my protagonist (a twist)? In what radically new direction does my protagonist realize that he or she must go (a turn)? What self-discovery is an utter surprise to my protagonist?
This can work in plot-driven stories too, BTW. Why not?
This type of pace has less to do with what your characters are going through and more to do with what your readers are going through. Stories have an emotional effect on readers, we hope, but that effect can change. You can pace it too.
Have you ever driven a standard-shift automobile? As you accelerate you take the car through the gears. You hear the engine rev up, then drop in pitch as you release the clutch to engage a higher gear. Downshifting is the reverse. A low engine sound revs dramatically higher as you shift into a lower gear. You surge or slow, depending. Physics causes you to press back in your seat or press forward into your shoulder belt.
This can be accomplished in many ways in fiction, but one way is to shift in a scene from tension to energy, or the other way from energy to tension. Think of tension as a tiger poised for a pounce, and energy as the pounce. A shift inside a character is like that. As emotional gears shift, the reader feels the force of physics. There’s a sense of surging forward or pulling back.
In each scene, ask: How does my protagonist realize that his or her way of life is in conflict with his or her view of life? How does my protagonist show courage here, yet in what way must my protagonist also have faith? How is my protagonist rebelling now, and how can that descend into heresy? What constitutes justice at this moment, but what instead would be mercy? In what way does your protagonist gain control in this scene, yet also realize there is much he or she doesn’t understand?
Create a shift from tension to energy, or the reverse, and you cause your readers to shift gears too. That’s one way to regulate emotional pace.
Pace of Expectations
At any given point in your novel, readers have expectations for what is going to happen. In an artfully executed story, those expectations change. In a great story, what actually happens is unexpected, surprising, challenging and yet, finally, exactly right.
Certain expectations are inherent in a story premise. A romance is going to end with a happy union. A mystery is going to end with a solution. A thriller will end with safety. A personal journey will end with healing and resolution. The job in such stories is to work against such expectations, making it seem as if the expected outcome is unlikely or, better still, cannot happen.
There are other ways to play with readers’ expectations, though. Most manuscripts signal pretty quickly the outcome that we, its readers, are supposed to want. And mostly that is what we get. But what if you started out with a misleading signal?
To do that, work backwards from the actual outcome; that is, what your protagonist will actually do at your novel’s end. At the beginning, make your protagonist’s purpose and goal the opposite of that. Next, list the awakenings and realizations that will lead your protagonist to reverse course. Those little prods, nudges and epiphanies are the steps. More steps mean greater pace of changing reader expectations.
This too is a sense of pace that occurs in readers. It’s readers’ changing understanding of what is right and wrong.
The most straightforward way to enact this is by gradually revealing your protagonist as innocent, naïve, shortsighted, headstrong, mistaken or possibly deluded. Conversely, you can gradually reveal your antagonist as knowing, rightly motivated, perseverant or even wise.
Simply put, if we come to feel that your hero has it wrong and that your antagonist has it right, the truth of things is in doubt. The more you play with that—seesawing back and forth on what your protagonist should believe and do—the greater is your novel’s moral pace.
Think of yourself less as a story spinner and as more of a questioner. Think of yourself as Socrates. Think of yourself as Bertrand Russell. Think of yourself as Jodi Picoult.
There are other kinds of pace we could discuss, such as the pace of change in relationships, in perceptions of place, and so on. But that’s enough for one morning, yeah? Now over to you….
How are you going to accelerate your novel’s pace today? Not plot pace, but one of the other ways in which your readers feel things changing?
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