The words you use, and the order and way you use them, makes a huge difference when you are trying to improve pacing in writing. This applies to any type of fiction—when you write a book or short story, the details definitely matter!
When your final product is in the hands of a reader, you want the story to take over and your reader to be so immersed in the fictional world, they forget they are reading. Grammar and sentence structure can be correct, but the words you choose can make a book difficult to follow (you’ll lose readers when this happens) or boring (yikes…you don’t want that) or work their magic and cause the reader to transcend the page and experience the story with all its power.
Use the right word and not its second cousin.
Remember, this is not the focus for your first draft. You let that come as fast as you can, with all your storytelling passion directed on getting the story on the page. During the first draft engage in pure creative writing—let it all stream out, even the clunky words. These writing techniques are for the rewrite stage when you have the story in place and are shaping your prose.
So what should you look for during rewrites to pace your novel and deliver all the story-power you can? Here are some writing tips for pacing with words:
To Improve Pacing in Writing, Determine the emotional core of your scene
Then ramp the intensity up by using words that support the power of what you want your reader to feel. Identify the type of tension/impression/mood you want to convey and use your word choice to accentuate and reinforce the meaning of the scene. The more your reader is pulled in and the more they feel and experiences the scene, the stronger your pacing.
To Improve Pacing in Writing, An example:
This is from my second book, Jasper Mountain:
Milena Shabanov sank to her knees before the heap of rocks. She ran her hand along the surface. Rough texture scraped and bit at her palm.
This pile of rocks. Her father’s grave.
Dirt and sand blew across the barren land, pelting her like a thousand tiny cruelties. Her hair whipped about, helplessly caught in the wind. She was so very tired. Too young to carry the burden of such fatigue.
The emotional core is loss, but as the scene progresses, her helplessness and how defenseless she is in this situation come into play, which these lines foreshadow. The mood is set, and the reader feels this without being told it. The reader gets the sense that the landscape is actually attacking her, and this is done through word choice (an example of active description, but that’s a whole ‘nuther blog:o) In addition, the words are working double-time, not only describing specifics but setting the tone and echoing Milena’s internal feelings of helplessness. This is pacing beneath the surface, and it’s a great tool to use when writing.
Another way to take advantage of this technique is to use word choice to create a moment of direct opposition as a way to add focus. In other words, if you are writing a moody, quiet, dark scene, burst through with bright description and colorful action verbs (if appropriate) to create tension and call attention to whatever is happening.
To Improve Pacing in Writing use strong action verbs that are fitting to the scene.
Back to the example from Jasper Mountain, the first sentence: Milena Shabanov sank to her knees before the heap of rocks. There are several verbs to describe Milena’s action. I could have used fell, dropped, stumbled, collapsed, slid down, crumpled, crashed (okay, some of these are getting silly) but you get my drift. Each word conjures a different image and tone. Some are melodramatic, silly, uninteresting, not-quite-right. I chose sank because the slow, sure movement made you see just what I did, and using sank also gives us the feel that Milena has let go and given in to what she’s experiencing inside. Emotionally she is sinking, and her action echoes that. The word carries the double-duty of outside action and inside emotion.
To Improve Pacing in Writing, beware of too many, unnecessary, and misplaced modifiers and adjectives.
The pacing slows when your reader has to weed through modifiers, adjectives and descriptors. Yes, they can also add depth and you want to be specific to draw your reader in to the experience, but be choosy and only use what adds to the scene.
As soon as she broke up with the lying, cheating, sleazy jerk who she’d met on her month-long vacation a year ago, but before her warm, salty, wet tears began to drip, she tore the rumpled, cold, unforgiving, queen-size sheets from the bed. She stomped through the house, around the scattered toys, but not before she’d passed the sleeping dog, and tossed them out of the clean, streak free window at the end of the living room.
Obviously I went overboard with that example in the name of making a point, but honestly, I’ve read some crazy things throughout the years. Also, in addition to too many modifiers, the action is in the wrong order, which is another tip….
To Improve Pacing in Writing, make sure your action goes in the right order.
There is a thing called action/reaction sequence, and going straight ahead is the best way to keep your prose moving. Don’t make your reader move backward to figure out what has happened in the scene or confuse them over the sequence of events. That yanks them out of the fictional world.
And one last reminder, work at this level once the story is done and down. Thinking of this up front will kill your muse. But once you’ve engaged that other side of the brain, deepen and pace your story using the one thing we writers have plenty of in our toolbox—the perfect words.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com
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