The Role of Pace in Writing Fiction
They say confession’s good for the soul, so here’s mine: I was never a fan of classic literature. As an English major, I read the classics, but I was always willing to push them aside for the kinds of genre fiction that put a particular expression—you know the one, curled lip, flared nostrils—on the faces of my professors.
Not long ago, I decided to give classic lit another try. What a surprise! A Tale of Two Cities was a highly entertaining potboiler, with coincidences beyond belief. The Sound and the Fury was captivating, once I muddled past the strange opening chapter that had stopped me cold as an undergrad.
And then there was Moby Dick.
Of all the classic lit I was force-fed in school, it was Melville’s novel I most despised. Folded within its pages, I found a synopsis I wrote for a lit seminar:
Crazy ship captain wants to kill white whale. Ship sails all over the world. Many descriptions of stuff like how to carve harpoons and who has to swab the decks. Ship finds whale. Whale squashes ship. Crazy captain and everyone else dies except the guy telling the story.
At the bottom of the sheet was a large C+, next to a note by Dr. Brewster, the seminar professor. Succinct, he admitted, but I think you’re missing the point.
The fact remains: I couldn’t get through Moby Dick without skimming then, and I can’t get through it without skimming now. But it does bring up a point about what many readers expect from fiction nowadays. A good story’s a good story, whenever it was written, but I suspect many of the classics, if published today, would undergo some serious trimming. As writers of fiction, we know that when readers—including editors and agents—begin to skim, we’re as sunk as Ahab.
Pace in Fiction Writing Pulls ‘Em In
Fiction of any era has always depended on readers continuing to turn the pages.
A synonym for page turning is pace. Pace in writing fiction pulls ’em in. It’s a common misconception that pace and length are fused at the hip, but note that the Harry Potter books grew lengthier as they progressed, and they have excellent pace, whereas the far shorter Robinson Crusoe has been inducing coma for what seems a millennium. In 21st-century fiction, especially genre fiction, three factors cause skimming. At least two of them fit under the broader category of SDT (Show, Don’t Tell), the bedrock principle of good storytelling, and all apply equally to novelists and writers of short fiction.
Let’s follow Sean as he begins his day.
Sean awoke when his alarm sounded at 7 am. He got out of bed, then he used the restroom. He showered, brushed his teeth, and shaved. He put on underwear and a shirt and pants. Then he knotted his blue tie with sailboats on it, and went into the kitchen, where he ate some cereal with a bagel and coffee. Then he went down the hall to get his coat from the closet, took his car keys from the ceramic duck Lisa gave him when she dumped him, and went out the door.
I’ll bet you were already skimming before Sean picked out a tie, and probably you only came back to the narrative when Lisa came into the picture. The point is that most readers assume things. When we see Sean getting up to go to work, we assume certain actions—and we don’t need them spelled out.
Sean slapped his hand down on the alarm—seven, already?—and got out of bed. The usual morning ritual in the bathroom. The usual breakfast in the kitchen. He only shifted off autopilot when he reached for his car keys in the hall. The ceramic duck. And Lisa, of course.
The only significant detail not assumed is Lisa. We wonder about her, which makes us care a little more about Sean. Which leads to pageturning, at least partly because we haven’t been bored stiff by the overexplaining of things we already assume or understand.
A common misconception is that repetition means identical wording. But repetition also shows up as the same information using different wording. Either way, this is stuff we already know.
Back to Sean and Lisa:
Sean remembered when Lisa decided to break up with him. “Sean,” she said, “I’m breaking up with you.”
Slightly different wording, but repetitious nonetheless. A point worth remembering: Dialogue is often a more compelling way to present information to a reader. The first sentence tells us what happened. The second sentence shows us through dialogue. We don’t need both.
The ceramic duck stayed in Sean’s thoughts all the way to work. And, by extension, Lisa was there, too.
“Sean,” she’d said, “I’ve decided to break up with you.”
Suppose we find out at some point that Lisa wasn’t taking things well either:
Lisa was sad. She sat in her apartment and cried.
If we know Lisa sat in her apartment and cried, we already know she’s sad, so the first sentence combines repetition and over-explaining.
“Lisa?” Karen’s voice was behind her. The Stealth Roomie strikes again. “What’s wrong?”
“Damned allergies.” Lisa wiped her eyes. “I hate this time of year.”
If we’re following the story, we know Lisa’s tears aren’t from allergies. Maybe Karen knows this, too, and that’s a story thread to be developed. But either way, we’ve been shown that Lisa’s crying, so we don’t need to be told she’s sad.
The third problem leading to reader skimming is weak structure. Some of the previously mentioned elements of repetition and over-explaining fit here, of course, as well as these three blunders notorious for glazing readers’ eyeballs:
Poor sentence rhythm. Lengthy sentences and paragraphs that can work (to an extent) for descriptive passages are skim-inducers in action sequences. Action scenes benefit from a “feel” of urgency—short, vivid sentences in active rather than passive voice; short paragraphs that pull the reader’s eye to the next action and then the next.
On a related note, be careful of overly lengthy scenes filled with narrative containing no dialogue, unless it’s an action scene. What qualifies as overly lengthy? It can be when an objective reader (not your husband or girlfriend) begins skimming a scene to get to whatever’s going to happen next.
This term brings to mind Mark Twain and his justifiable disdain for longwindedness, whether in the spoken or written word. Speechifying is a lengthy, uninterrupted passage of dialogue from a single character. What worked well in a Shakespearean soliloquy can be deadly in prose format.
There are several ways to break up such a monologue. Show another character’s reaction—either a physical reaction or actual dialogue to interrupt the speech. Or, have the speechifier stop talking and do something physical before resuming. Another option is to use a minor event, such as the sound of a car backfiring outside, to interrupt the speech. A single-speaker chunk of uninterrupted dialogue—even it it’s broken into several paragraphs—is an invitation to skim.
This term sometimes refers to character introspection, not a bad thing in itself, since such bits of internal dialogue personalize a character and make us care about him/her because of greater understanding. But when we see a lengthy passage where a character thinks and thinks and thinks—and does nothing—we’re forced to eavesdrop on those thoughts, which leads to skimming.
Let Me Sum Up, He Said
Tips in this article notwithstanding, no story is skim-proof. There are undoubtedly readers who skimmed the final action sequence in Silence of the Lambs, and a reader’s reaction to any short story is almost always a subjective judgement, as all freelancers know. A short story sent to a number of literary magazines may encounter one editor who loves it, another who loathes it, and probably neither can give a coherent reason why. That’s the reason behind the emphasis on persistence, which applies equally to short and long form writing.
But, allowing for the vagaries of editors everywhere, there are things you can do to make any story better, and editing your work for pace isn’t a bad place to start.
Today’s readers and editors tend toward shorter attention spans, which increases the dangers of skimming. By reducing the S Factor in your work through an awareness of pace in writing fiction, including over-explaining, repetition, and weak structure, you send it out with a better chance for acceptance.
And who knows? Maybe if Sean hadn’t spent all his time deciding between the red power tie and the blue one with little sailboats on it, he might have Lisa in his apartment instead of a ceramic duck.
After a lengthy teaching career, Kris Franklin began freelancing with outdoor/fitness articles and stories, often built around humor. This led to a newspaper job writing features and then to his own humor column. His published work includes short form fiction, nonfiction articles and essays, and three suspense novels set in the Colorado mountains where he lives. Kris is a writing instructor for the Institute for Writers. He teaches Breaking into Print and Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.