Poor line-by-line pacing is one of the most common problems I run into while editing otherwise great manuscripts. Authors who are skilled at writing descriptive paragraphs can run into trouble when they apply the same sort of language and sentence structure to action sequences, and vice versa.
Afraid you sometimes fall into the same rut? Chris Eboch to the rescue!
She’s the author of Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and this week in Pen to Pen, she’s stopped by to give some practical advice on improving the pacing of your stories. Buckle up and enjoy the ride. —Dale
Grab Readers with Page-Turning Pacing
By Chris Eboch
A page turner.
“I couldn’t put it down.”
Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?
Characters, plot, setting, and theme are all part of pace. But once you have a fast-paced draft, you can pump up the pace even more by focusing on the line-by-line level. In fact, relatively minor changes in sentence structure and paragraphing can make a scene much more dramatic. A page that is one solid block of text looks dull and intimidating. On the other hand, with short paragraphs the reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. The book literally becomes a page turner because the reader finishes each page so quickly. This means you can make action scenes more dramatic by using short paragraphs.
Here’s an example from my middle-grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Seshta is on the roof, spying down a stairwell. When someone comes up the stairs, she must escape.
She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.
Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.
From the stairwell, a head rose into view.
Seshta let go and fell.
Imagine all that in one paragraph. It wouldn’t have the same pace.
Sentence length affects pace as well. Short sentences have a different rhythm from long ones. Long sentences can feel leisurely, while short ones have blunt impact – the difference between a hug and a slap. You want a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths, because if everything is the same the story will feel clunky or sluggish. But save the longer sentences and paragraphs for description and introspection, and use short sentences and short paragraphs for maximum impact in action scenes.
Here’s another example from The Eyes of Pharaoh. This is the end of a chapter where Seshta is waiting for a friend who is supposed to bring important news.
Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
But Reya never came.
The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to seem more important and ominous.
Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, just see how it looks on the page. Do you have variety, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?
Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.
Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences? How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference between even small changes in wording and punctuation.
For example, consider the following two (unpublished) action scenes:
My car picked up speed as it rolled down the steep hill. The light at the bottom turned yellow so I stepped on the brakes. The car didn’t slow down. The light turned red as I pressed harder, leaning back in my seat, using my whole leg to force the brake pedal toward the floor. I sped toward the intersection while other cars entered from the sides. I sailed into the intersection, horns blaring and brakes squealing around me as I passed within inches of two cars coming from each side.
My car picked up speed as it rolled down the steep hill. The light at the bottom turned yellow.
I stepped on the brakes. The car didn’t slow down.
The light turned red.
I pressed harder, leaning back in my seat, using my whole leg to force the brake pedal toward the floor.
My car sped toward the intersection. Other cars entered from the sides.
I sailed into the intersection. Horns blared and brakes squealed around me.
I slid within inches of two cars coming from each side.
These use nearly the same words. The only differences are that in the second version I broke up some long sentences into short ones, and I use seven paragraphs instead of one. I think the second version captures more of the breathless panic that the narrator would be feeling.
Or compare these examples:
I heard a noise and looked up with a gasp in time to see a huge rock tumbling toward me.
I heard a noise above my head. I looked up and gasped.
A boulder tumbled toward me.
It’s almost hard to follow the action in the first example, because too much happens in one sentence. Shorter sentences clarify the action and give each piece more impact.
You can do this exercise with published books as well. Note sections that are poorly paced and try rewriting them to see how things change as you vary the structure.
Master pacing, and keep those pages turning.
About Chris Eboch
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for young people. Her writing craft books include Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance with outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Fans of Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and Terry Odell will want to check out Kris Bock’s romantic adventures. “Counterfeits is the kind of romantic suspense novel I have enjoyed since I first read Mary Stewart’s Moonspinners,” writes Roberta in a 5-star review at Sensuous Reviews blog. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.
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