How to pace a story so that it hooks the reader

2550606_3285dbc56f_z‘Tell me about pace,’ said one of the panellists in my video interview at John Rakestraw’s. If we hadn’t had a time limit I’d still be talking now.

A well-paced story is like an act of hypnosis. It has a travelling beat that takes control of the reader’s attention. It proceeds at just the right speed to trap the reader a little longer, urge them to turn another page.

How is it done?

With constant development and change.

You might assume pace is only a concern in fast-moving plots, such as thrillers. Not so. Every story will benefit if it is written with an awareness of pace; even a leisurely character journey.

Indeed, pace is a fundamental in most dynamic artforms – not just storytelling.

Video and music

If you’re making a video, you want to change something every 15 seconds. The change might be subtle, such as fading a colour, or panning a picture so the view reveals more. Or it might be obvious, such as switching to a different image or bringing in new music. Listen to a piece of music and you’ll hear how it’s being constantly modified. Even a simple verse/chorus/verse structure, which appears predictable, is developing. Other instruments are joining, variations are being made with the phrasing, note patterns or rhythm.

Singers do it too. When I used to take lessons, I was told that if a lyric is repeated, it must have different emphasis or emotion. (‘I get a kick out of you’ ‘I get a kick out of you’.) Listen to an actor repeat a line. The repetitions will not be the same (unless for a deliberate effect).

Law of physics

So audiences need change. This is, if you like, a physical law of any dynamic art. They need to be kept attentive while we have our wicked (or wonderful) way with them.

How can we do this in stories?

1 In a story, pace comes from change. Always be developing. In every scene. The change doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny, such as the reader’s perception of a situation or a shift in a character’s attitude. But every scene should take the reader somewhere they didn’t expect. Scenes with no change lie flat on the page.

2 Remember the singers and actors. Look for repeated lines, emotional changes and plot events. If you repeat something, develop it or make sure it will be read differently – perhaps with new significance. (Unless you intend deliberately to keep it static.)  Another type The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry Potterof repetition is the function of a scene – in My Memories of a Future Life, I jettisoned a scene that repeated an emotional beat I had already covered. Here’s the post that explains. This kind of repetition is hard to spot. The surest way I’ve found is by making a beat sheet, where I summarise the entire book by writing the purpose of each scene. This reveals the kind of repetition that will spoil the forward momentum. More about the beat sheet (left) in NYN1.

3 Don’t be slow but don’t rush. An ideally paced story keeps up with the reader’s need for change. Although we want to pull them along, we don’t want to overtake them. Paradoxically, if you do this, they might feel the story is slow. So when your trusted critique partners tell you a scene flags, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut material. Try writing a version where you enlarge a moment, explore it more. See if that does the trick.

4 Use variety. Readers get numbed if too many successive scenes have the same tone (except at the climax). Vary the feel of each scene. Give readers a breather after major revelations. Give them a lighter moment or regroup around the campfire after you’ve put them through the wringer. Another way to use variety is to cut away to a subplot. The contrast will intensify the impact of all your scenes. Again, the beat sheet will show you this at a glance.

5 Become aware of your prose. Pace can come from your style. Not from show-off words or sparkling metaphors, but at a basic, moment-by-moment level. Virginia Woolf said ‘style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm’. What might she mean? I like to think of it as the fall of syllables in a sentence. This is independent of length; a well-paced long sentence is as easy to read as a short one. But often we use more syllables than an idea needs; we cram in adjectives, adverbs and similes when we’d be better to choose a more vivid verb. (‘She shouted in a harsh voice’ or ‘she roared’.) A smooth sentence, though, makes every syllable count and uses them with grace. It has a quality of control, which keeps the reader in surrender to the writer’s mind.

And so…

Pace keeps a story alive and restless, makes it grow in the reader’s mind. It sets up an imbalance, a need for resolution. When this stops, you let the audience go. And the proper place for that is …

…THE END.

thanks for the runner pic Jacobo Garcia 

Well that’s my take on pace. What’s yours? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Jonathan Moore on July 21, 2013 - 9:22 pm

    Hi Roz – I’m in the process of going over what I’ve written so far, and this is quite timely. I do have a more comical episode early on, but I could easily convert some later chapters into funnier or more light hearted chapters to change up the tone a bit.

    “Always Be Developing” – a little nod to Glengarry Glen Ross there, I like it. I’m not sure I have the skill to know if I’m repeating an emotional beat or not – when I consider my MS in terms of the mechanics I have a habit of forcing what’s there to fit what it needs to accomplish. By which I mean if it doesn’t satisfy the need to change the story up, I pretend it does. Is such self deception common? Is this the bit where you remind me that people need editors?

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 22, 2013 - 11:57 am

      Hi Jonathan! Glad you caught the Glengarry reference there!
      What an interesting piece of second-guessing wool-pulling you’re describing there. And yes, I’m sure it’s common – at least I’m prepared to admit I do it too. But I go back the next day because I can’t bear the niggling voice that’s confronting me with the shortfall. Like looking in the mirror at an outfit you know doesn’t fit, and staring at it for long enough until you’re convinced it does. But the little voice will nag the next time you put the outfit on :)
      Although editors will force us to rewrite things that are difficult, we can learn much by becoming more sensitive to the instincts that warn us we’re fudging!

  2. #3 by John on July 21, 2013 - 10:05 pm

    Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff and commented:
    Pacing the story is something I heard of before. I never paid much attention to it. This is a very informative post on the subject. -John

  3. #4 by Katie Cross on July 22, 2013 - 12:35 pm

    Pace was something I really just figured out. That need for constant change or revelation to get things going. I used to stall in my writing. I could only write scenes, not chapters, so the whole story was incredibly confusing and incomplete. It wasn’t until I realized that I didn’t have any kind of movement or change that my writing world turned around.
    This article was a great review of that. Thanks!

    • #5 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 23, 2013 - 7:45 pm

      HI Katie! Meant to reply to you before and didn’t realise I’d zipped past your comment. It’s funny how we come to these epiphanies. I remember I grasped the momentum idea early on because I’d be dissatisfied with a scene unless it changed something. I always felt like that from the earliest stories I wrote. Just a lucky instinct, I guess. So it’s very interesting to hear how you came to this from the other end!

  4. #6 by Elaine Jackson (@ElaineJackson12) on July 22, 2013 - 6:38 pm

    Very helpful, thank you! I’ve also come to realise that a synopsis (not just when you’re done, but as you go along) can sometimes help to identify lags in pace.

    • #7 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 23, 2013 - 12:17 pm

      A synopsis – yes, that can be very helpful. I’ve sometimes written a synopsis from memory to try to recapture what I originally intended when a story goes off the rails. I never used it to check pacing, though. Thanks Elaine!

  5. #8 by selfxt on July 22, 2013 - 6:43 pm

    Hi Roz: I am looking for a link to the “BEAT SHEET”. there is one here on your blog, but the “page is not found”.

    Thank you for the pace insight it is most helpful…also critical. Pace & Tone can switch on or switch off a reader. Too much pace = same tone = exhausting & boring.

    I use the word DISTANCE: step back and look: Ah! but in stepping back are you “telling” the reader and not “showing” or by stepping in we quicken the pace….and then it gets breathless?

    So, the balance is the key.

    Okay…I will look out for your reply on the Beat Sheet link, but not this one:

    http://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/the-beat-sheet-step-by-step-%e2%80%93-starring-harry-potter/

    • #9 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 23, 2013 - 12:22 pm

      Hi! A few of the deeper links in the site are broken. A few years ago I moved the blog from another host and I’m still finding (or discovering when people comment) that certain links are no longer live. Unfortunately it’s such a huge jungle that sorting them out is tricky, but you could probably, with persistence, find a cached version. Or consult the Way Back Machine. Sorry about that!

      Glad you enjoyed the discussion of pace! And yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head – pace is how we keep the reader’s interest. I wonder if it’s analogous to comic timing, which is all about reading the audience and knowing when and how to deliver a line? Except in the novelist’s case, we have to guess how the audience might be feeling.

  6. #10 by selfxt on July 23, 2013 - 4:46 pm

    Thanks Roz…I’ll follow through. A “cache” always sounds like gold or machine guns! And can I keep the ‘comic timing’ analogy. I like that…we novelists are good at guessing: blind – intuitive – finger in the wind – good stuff.

    Bye

  7. #12 by selfxt on July 24, 2013 - 5:24 pm

    Sorry Roz…I was not “following” you on twitter??? now I am:

    NO NEED TO REPLY

    I found a link to the beat sheet thing http://jamigold.com/2013/07/do-beat-sheets-lead-to-formulaic-writing/ and my plan is this: (remember no need to reply)

    I am intrigued by such a wealth of information and strategies and help and really beautiful people sharing their journey: Now I am reading it all and soaking in it and then I am going to let it all LIE LOW: it will appear in my work or not: I give it the choice to make the difference or be still.

    So, I go about my business enriched without knowing the outcome….I am the ghost!

    Ha!

  8. #13 by Josh Taghon on July 26, 2013 - 3:54 pm

    Great article. :3 I’ll be bookmarking it. I realized my WIP has too many “depressing’ scenes. I’ll try to add a subplot that can contribute some more happiness.

    For a while, I’ve always had on my mind, “How does this scene contribute to the story?” This scene shows us this side of the protagonist, and that scene shows that he likes to drink beer when going to the gun range, and the following scene he must hunt down some crazy killer with a samurai sword that tells us there are “devilish” people around, etc.

    • #14 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 26, 2013 - 6:52 pm

      That’s it, Josh! For me it was a fidgety instinct. I’d be bored writing a scene if it wasn’t going to change anything. Then when I became more analytical about what I do, I realised that good novels did that too.

  9. #15 by What Happens to Us on July 30, 2013 - 1:07 am

    You can tell a good writer. They know about pace. Some, however, don’t really have a clue.

    I’ve been working on a WordPress post about pacing, and I guess they saw those words and referred me to you. Thanks for bringing to my consciousness that it’s all about change. It’s also about that obscene term, plot, but talking about pacing, change, and musicality is more specific and more enlightening.

    In my newly published novel, the whole first third is at a rapid pace, and then the middle third slows down immensely, just to give the reader a breath. The last third revs up to breakneck speed again until the protagonist is so out of breath that she’s filled with Jack Daniels and speed and blubbering in the dirt while her spirit leaves her body while a man with a gun talks angrily in front of her. Some books are like Beethoven sonatas with different movements, each with a different time signature and dynamics.

    Anyway, thanks for sparking my interest. Great job!

  10. #16 by Travis Ford on October 16, 2013 - 12:12 am

    This is another blog I’ve read about the pace of a book and I learn everyday. One of the first blogs I read was how 50 Shades of Grey was addictive. Is there any advice for the unsual style of pace? I always had a notice that a chapter ends when a big event occurs or before a big event occurs.

  11. #17 by Travis Ford on October 16, 2013 - 12:14 am

    This is another blog I’ve read about the pace of a book and I learn everyday. One of the first blogs I read was how 50 Shades of Grey was addictive. Is there any advice for the unsual style of pace? I always had a notice that a chapter ends when a big event occurs or before a big event occurs. Where on a blog I read they begin an end in the middle of the chapters…

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