May 29, 2012

Pacing: A Guest Post by author, MK Graff

I'm so excited to have M. K. Graff, affectionately known as Marni, visiting today to talk about pacing. Marni is a friend and writing cohort of my mother's, and she's fast become a friend to me. I love her spirit, style, and writing. 

I found this post quite informative, and I hope you do as well.



“Variety of pace without loss of impetus is characteristic
of every good novel I can think of.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

Heavy words for a writer to live up to, and this quote from Le Guin shows writers how important pacing is to your work. Pacing is like a dam that forges and slows the speed at which a novel moves. Learning how to operate that dam is one of the most important tasks an author has to learn to keep his readers turning pages. Without mastering this, we end up writing stories that lack momentum, might feel uneven, become anticlimactic, or even seem melodramatic.

Here are five tips for understanding and developing this important plot skill.
1. Length matters: Length controls your story’s momentum. Short scenes and chapters, coupled with terse sentences and snappy dialogue will all contribute to a feeling of intensity and speed. In the reverse, long scenes and leisurely sentences or extended dialogue passages tend to ground the story with a sense of place and time. This is perhaps the simplest way to control your pacing. As your story nears the tense scenes, learn to condense everything. Limit the length of your scenes to 500-800 words. Stop your scenes at important moments.  Change back and forth between POV. See how it works?

2. Vary pacing. As important as the high-tension action scenes are, it’s even more important to vary your pacing with slow, introspective scenes. You need those slow scenes to give both your characters and your readers the chance to catch their breaths. The most exciting of scenes lose intensity if not balanced with moments of deliberate quiet. Think calm before and after the storm.

3. Paying attention to details builds all-important momentum. Slow motion is often used in film to denote that something tremendously dramatic is happening. To mirror this technique in your own writing, slow it way down by piling on the smaller details. There’s a shooting in your scene. To get the full impact of this event, take your time and describe every step in detail: the look on the gunman’s face as he fires, the recoil of the gun, the flash of the barrel, the horror the sees on the victim’s face, and finally the impact of the bullet and the spreading red stain across the victim’s shirt.

4. Control your tell vs. show ratio. Now do the reverse and don’t linger on a scene, but shock your readers by announcing it and then plunge them into the action after that gun is fired. Instead of taking the time to show the details, you can thrust the gunshot upon the reader simply by telling him it happened and go on from there.

5. Manipulate sentence structure. Controlling the ebb and flow of your sentence structure with the use of clauses, longer versus shorter sentences, and brief versus involved paragraphs contribute to the pacing. This is a subtle but effective technique and also  applies to the length of the words you choose: long=slow, short=fast. For those intense scenes, cut back on the beautiful, long-winded passages and slap your reader upside the head with staccato structure. Short sentences and snappy nouns and verbs convey urgency, whereas long, measured sentences offer moments of introspection and build-up.

It all sounds easy; the trick is to get the balance right.

About M. K. Graff

Marni Graff is the author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, set in the UK. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford and introduces Nora, an American writer living in England. She becomes involved in a murder investigation to clear her best friend as a suspect, to the chagrin of DI Declan Barnes. The Green Remains follows Nora’s move to Cumbria where she’s awaiting the publication of her first children’s book and the birth of her first child. When Nora stumbles across the corpse at the edge of Lake Windermere, she realizes she recognizes the dead man. Then her friend and illustrator, Simon Ramsey, is implicated in the murder of the heir to Clarendon Hall, and Nora swings into sleuth mode.

Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes a weekly mystery book review at Auntie M Writes. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven and founded the group Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers. She has also published poetry, last seen in Amelia Earhart: A Tribute; her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Southern Women’s Review. Her books can be bought at Amazon or at Bridal Path Press.


Thanks, Marni! And it was such a pleasure seeing you at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. One of the highlights!

You can check out my review of Marni's The Blue Virgin here (4 stars).

Do you have a trick to keep pacing balanced in your writing?


Jennifer Willis said...

What a great guest post! Even experienced writers can struggle with pacing, and Marni has done a wonderful job breaking the process down. Thanks for sharing this one.

Tia Bach said...

I enjoyed it, too. Glad you stopped by. I get so frustrated when a story is up and down, fast and slow.