By Ross B. Lampert
Last time we 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, dialog 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, it has to change. Readers need changes of pace to keep their interest. If the pace doesn’t change in a piece, 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 dialog-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 keeping the tension up.
- A languid description of an apparently idyllic river valley (long narrative sentences, quiet tone, lots of descriptive details) suddenly shifts when a space ship screams down to a landing and disgorges a company of storm troopers (short sentences, active language, dialog among the troopers, different and fewer descriptive details).
Is the pace appropriate to this moment in the story? While it’s possible to create a scene that would normally be presented slowly, let’s say, at the opposite pace, it isn’t easy. At least not intentionally. Musicians sometimes mix music in a minor key, which usually indicates a sad emotion, with an up-beat tempo, creating a cognitive dissonance.
While a skilled writer may be able to do something similar, you more likely will 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? This question is a much harder one 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 message 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 work’s pace isn’t appropriate for its topic or message but don’t let that keep you from giving him or her that feedback—in fact, it may be essential for the work to succeed.
What needs to change, and how? This will be much easier to deal with at the scene level. Here are questions you can ask 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?
- 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 burst 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 something? Conversely, is she having a character explain something where a one-sentence summary in narrative would be more effective?
- Are the author and his characters using language that’s appropriate to their personalities and to the situation they find themselves in? 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? In this case, suggest what he 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 scene to you out loud so she 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—that the pace grinds to a halt? Then, as with descriptive details, suggest what could move or be deleted to refocus the scene on its central elements.
- Are a scene’s events essential to its goal and purpose? Show the author how he can remove unnecessary actions to move the scene along. On the other hand, if the scene is too sketchy, show him how he 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?