Critique Technique, Part 38 — Pace: Speed It Up, Whoa It Up, or Change It Up

Racing horses
photo credit: dawvon via photopin cc

In the last article, I identified the general questions critiquers want to ask about scene and story pace—does it vary, is it appropriate, and if not, what needs to change—and eight factors that affect pace: sentence and paragraph length, active or passive voice, dialogue versus narrative, tone, language, description, complexity, and what’s happening.

Now let’s apply the factors to the questions.

Does the Pace Vary?

As I noted last time, even the shortest piece may have a varying pace but once you get beyond the flash-fiction story or filler article, the pace has to change. Readers need changes of pace to keep their interest. If the pace doesn’t change, either nothing’s happening or the author doesn’t know how to present the changes that are happening.

Changing pace is one way the author tells the reader something different is happening in the story, something is changing. For example:

  • A scene of frenetic action, written in short, simple, highly active, and dialogue-free sentences wraps up. It is followed by a scene of quiet conversation that uses tone, language, and longer sentences to slow the pace down while maintaining a degree of tension.
  • A languid description of an apparently idyllic river valley (long narrative sentences, quiet tone, lots of descriptive details) suddenly shifts when a spaceship screams down to a landing and disgorges a company of storm troopers (short sentences, active language, dialogue among the troopers, different and fewer descriptive details).

Is the Pace Appropriate to This Moment in the Story?

Musicians sometimes mix music in a minor key, which usually indicates a sad emotion, with an up-beat tempo, creating a cognitive dissonance. Some of the best examples from classic rock are Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” but there are many others. It’s possible, although rarely easy, to do something similar in writing: write a fast-paced scene for a situation that would normally require a slow pace, or vice versa. In a situation like this, there needs to be a clear reason for doing it. That cognitive dissonance has to serve a purpose.

While a skilled writer may be able to do that, more likely you’ll find a dragging scene that would be better at a faster pace, or one that goes too fast and needs to be slowed down.

When a scene drags, it’s a good bet the author is providing too much information, has selected an inappropriate tone or style, or has let the scene go on longer than necessary to achieve its goals.

On the other hand, if a scene goes by too fast, the author probably hasn’t developed the elements of the scene enough: it skips from one incident to the next without taking any time for character reaction, setting or plot development, etc.

Is the Pace Appropriate for the Entire Piece?

Whether the pace of an entire piece is appropriate can be much harder to answer, particularly if the work is book length, because you may not see the entire piece at once. The more time that passes between chapter reviews, the harder it will be to make a judgment.

If you can see the entire story, you need to have a sense of what the author was trying to convey. Pace and tone will be closely connected here.

The author’s going to have a lot of work to do if a long piece’s pace isn’t appropriate for its topic or message. If this happens, be sure to give him or her that feedback: it may be essential for the work to succeed.

What Needs to Change, and How?

What needs to change and how will be much easier to deal with at the scene level. Here are questions you can ask yourself as you review a piece.

  • If sentences and/or paragraphs are too long, how can the author shorten them to pick up the pace? If they’re too short, what can she do to slow things down? Would simply changing the mix of long and short sentences or paragraphs be enough?
  • If sentences are written by the author in the passive voice (as this clause is), how could he convert them to active voice (like that)? There will be very few situations where you’ll want him to convert an active sentence to passive voice. An example might be a brief bit of bureaucratic writing to show an organization blocking the protagonist.
  • Is the author using narrative to describe what a character is feeling, rather than having her show her feelings by saying or doing something? Conversely, is she having a character explain something where a one-sentence summary in narrative would be more effective? Offer suggestions about what would work better, and why.
  • Are the characters using language that’s appropriate to their personalities and to the situation they find themselves in? Is the language the author uses in the narrative appropriate for the situation? If not, suggest more apt words.
  • Tone is more likely to be not quite right than completely wrong. So, would a slight change in tone change the scene’s pace enough to fit better? Talk with the author to get a sense of what she intended before you make your recommendations.
  • Every descriptive detail should matter to the story. Do they, or are they bogging the story down? If the latter, suggest what the author could cut and explain why.
  • Conversely, is the reader having trouble creating an image of the scene and setting because there’s too little description, or it’s unhelpful? If so, ask the author to describe the setting to you out loud so he can capture the important details.
  • Is the author presenting so much information—not just setting or other details, but linguistic asides, secondary plot lines or activities, unnecessary characters and conversations, etc.—that the pace grinds to a halt? Then, as with descriptive details, suggest what could be moved or deleted to refocus the scene on its central elements.
  • Are a scene’s events essential to its goal and purpose? Show the author how she can remove unnecessary events to move the scene along. On the other hand, if the scene is too sketchy, show her how she could expand the scene to both slow it down and deepen it.

As you’ve seen, pace is a complex thing to evaluate and critique, with many subtle and interrelated parts. How do you help an author adjust the pacing of his or her work to make it more effective? Quick! Add your suggestions in the comments box below.

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