Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes
Quick, think of a scene that has great pacing. Got it? Great. Did you think of people fleeing for their lives? Maybe a hero and villain fighting it out? What about a car chase?
Okay, consider this: every scene, no matter how relaxed the characters, no matter how law abiding and ordinary the focus, can have great pacing.
It’s easy to confuse the concept of pacing with action, because those are the examples we typically talk about. But you can have great pacing in any scene. Just as any scene can sag (no matter how much blood is being spilled).
Think of the quiet books you’ve read. The ones that were not driven by the need to solve a murder or stop the world from exploding. How does something so “slow” capture our attention as readers? Something kept you turning pages. What was it?
Now think of the mind-numbing action scenes where it was one punch after another, so you skimmed over it.
Yeah, action can be boring.
New, Fresh, & Unexpected
The answer to both the quiet scene that works and the active scene that doesn’t is that good pacing requires something new, fresh, and unexpected be unfolding right before the readers eyes.
What does this mean?
As soon as your reader understands what’s happening, imagine her or him putting a checkmark by that paragraph. “Got it!” she says.
If your next paragraph is more of the same, no matter how interesting, your reader will put another checkmark and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it.” If the next paragraph is the same, the reader won’t even bother with a check mark. She’ll roll her eyes a bit, and say, “Get on with it.”
This “get on with it” response—this is pacing failure.
What you really want is a response like, “Oh, really!” or “Oh, my!” or “No way!”
If we are in a chase scene, chasing alone isn’t interesting enough to create good pacing. The next paragraph of the chase must contain something new, fresh, and unexpected.
If the character is wounded and running for his life, the next paragraph cannot just be more of the character being wounded and running. It must contain something fresh.
If the scene is about a mother and daughter talking about their day and how the mother is going to make dinner, the next paragraph needs to contain something fresh & unexpected, even if it’s “quiet.”
Behind scenes that work, even quiet scenes, is a framework built out of new information.
And now for a few pacing tips and tricks to bring something fresh to your scenes. Ask the following questions at the paragraph level, the “unit of action” level, and the scene level.
Fresh Questions of Perspective
- Is this action, this dialog, this thought really fresh, new, and unexpected by the character or reader?
- How fresh is it?
- Can you come up with something that will be even more unexpected?
Fresh Questions of Involvement
- Does this fresh action, dialogue, or thought hook the character and bind her or him to the current situation even more?
- Is the reader hooked to this fresh “detail.”
- Does the character care about this fresh “detail”? How much? What about the reader?
- How “sticky” is this “detail”? Does the character continue to process it? The reader?
- Does this fresh detail create a craving in the character to respond for the next step? How about the reader’s response?
- What would create more involvement for the character and reader?
Fresh Questions of Scale
- What is the physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual scale (or power) of the fresh “detail”?
- What would be more powerfully experienced by the character? The reader?
Fresh Questions of Sincerity
- Is the fresh detail (the action, dialog, or thought) unexpected, yet believable & credible? It is born of truths found within your story world? The tone of your story?
- Does it stretch the bounds of “unexpected” in a way that creates sincere, authentic conflict for the character?
- Does it feel powerful, no matter how small the detail?
- Does it create a natural state of interest, worry, or dread for the character? The reader?
- What detail would be even more authentic? more powerful?
A Cool Fresh Trick
- Ask yourself what the reader will expect in the next chapter based on each specific “fresh” aspect.
- What are the reverberations and meanings the reader will assign to this detail? How about the characters involved? What will they think?
- Make a note and plan something “even better.” Don’t give your reader or your character what he or she expects.
In my next FictionZone column, I’ll look at how pacing generates spellbinding fiction in “You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story.”
This article is the 2nd in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:
- How to Be a Pacing Genius
- Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)
- You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story
- Shot Through the Heart: Threat, Consequences, and Emotions Equal Pacing
- The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
- Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
- Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
- Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twits, and Reader Engagement
- Pacing that Matters: It All Comes Down to Characters
- Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
- 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire
She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it. Learn. Pitch. Sell.”