Friday, June 30, 2017

Breathing Room: Or, what the ocean taught me about pacing

If you’ve been hanging around me or my social media sites much at all, you know I love the ocean. One of the things I love about it is how it always changes. Last week on one of my beach-walks, the ocean was quiet. No wind, so no waves – no crashing over the rocks, barely even any noticeable gentle-breaking against the shore. The gulls were strangely quiet, too. Perhaps they’d already had a good feed and were snoozing somewhere while their breakfast digested. In all that absence of noise, the sound I became aware of was the scritch scritch of crabs scurrying about under the rocks.

This was a very different experience than the beach on a stormy day – wind howling past my ears, surf pounding relentlessly against the rocks. The ocean on a stormy day is all about power, and not so much about subtle scritch scritching.

It’s not just the water that changes, of course. Every day the driftwood has been rearranged and new flotsam and jetsam has been offered up. There’s always some new shell or stone or piece of sea glass to catch my eye. And have you noticed how different the air smells at low tide than at high tide? All these things – the changing sights, sounds, smells – keep the beach interesting and make me want to go back again and again (and I do!).

Recently I was thinking about pacing in fiction. And just as a walk by the ocean every single day might get dull if things never changed, if it was predictable, if there was never anything new to grab my attention, so it is with fiction. If scene after scene is the same pace, I’m likely to put the book down. If it's all fast, I get tired; if it's all slow, I get bored. But if it changes, if it has both quiet moments that allow me to discover hidden treasures, and dramatic moments that take my breath away by their power or action or suspense, then I keep reading.

The variety in pacing comes naturally if you use an “action/reaction” or “scene/sequel” structure when you’re writing and revising. If you’re not quite so intentional while you’re first-drafting (like me), just think of pacing as giving readers time to breathe after those scenes that make them hold their breath.

Great pacing = giving readers time to breathe
after making them hold their breath.

Those slower scenes shouldn’t put your readers to sleep, however. You’ve likely heard the advice to “leave out the boring parts”. Think about it – which parts do you skip when you’re reading? Probably excess backstory, or some “set-up” or exposition that somehow missed getting cut during revisions. If it’s not essential, leave it out.

So what can go in the slower scenes? Each scene still has to move things forward plot-wise or character-development-wise, but the quieter scenes likely contain things such as:
  • a character reacting to what just happened
  • the aftermath of an action
  • description or essential backstory
  • introduction or continuation of a sub-plot. 
And of course, the pace can be slowed by word choice and sentence structure. So, conflict and tension, yes – you want the reader to keep turning pages – but vary it. Think breathing room.

If the ocean never changed…well, truth be told, I’d probably keep going to the beach, lol. I just love it that much. But if the pacing in a story never changes – whether it’s constantly fast, or constantly slow – I’m probably going to close the book. Want to keep me reading? Make me hold my breath, then give me time to breathe.