You must vary the pace, otherwise three things will happen:
- Your story will be monotonous and less enjoyable.
- Your story will be monotonous and you will look unskilled.
- The moments of climax and greatest tension and power will be less powerful.
- Know what you aim to achieve with the overall pace of this book.
- Decide at which points in the story you want to speed up and where you want to slow down.
- Know how to achieve those effects.
And these moments are when, exactly? Usually, either just before or just after moments of great tension or drama. Here are some options:
- You have been building up to something, dropping clues, winding up the tension…and you take a breath, offering a slightly slower scene, trusting that your readers will stay with you, tormenting them slightly. This must be carefully handled because if your readers aren’t 100% with you, they may lose interest.There's only so much torment they'll take: judging this is part of the dark arts of being a real writer.
- You are building up to something (as above) and then pile in a fast, dramatic scene which the reader thinks IS the culmination but actually there’s MORE to come. So, a sprint towards but not quite at the end of an already fast race.
- After 2. you will certainly need to slow down.
- After several scenes of drama and Big Moments, you could / probably should slow down with a more gentle scene, before moving forward again into the tension.
Think of one chapter as one breath, in and out. Now, you can either breathe in first and then out, or the other way round, yes? First, try the in-breath first, finishing on a big exhale. It feels complete, doesn’t it? Well, that’s like a chapter that finishes at the end of the dramatic moment, with the tension released. The reader could stop reading for the moment and pick it up again later.
Now try breathing out first, followed by a big in-breath. Not complete, is it? You can’t stop there; moment of tension; what’s going to happen next? That’s like a chapter that finishes just before the crucial event, a cliff-hanger, the reader on tenterhooks. No way is the reader going to put the book down now.
Controlling your chapter breaks in this way is your most effective single tool for controlling pace. This was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. By varying the point in the action where you end your chapters, you control whether your reader will be likely to choose that moment to put the book down for a rest, or whether he will be compelled to read on. Of course, you are supposed to allow your reader to rest at some point, otherwise you risk exhausting him at the wrong moment, but you want him to rest at the time of your choosing. This is about control, which is probably why I love being a writer: I'm a control-freak.
3. Sentence lengths
Again, short sentences create a faster pace and are very useful to create suspense. If you use them all the time, their ability to create suspense lessens. So, keep them for when you actually want them. (Short sentences have other uses as well, and suit certain voices, so it’s not only about pace.)
• It allows the reader to reflect, to process better what has happened or is about to happen.
• It gives you an opportunity to show your characters in a different, more enriching light.
• By providing contrast, it actually heightens the drama.
• It allows your book to become multi-dimensional.
Fleshmarket. One of the (many) negative comments my irritatingly perceptive editor made about the not-very-good first draft was that it was relentlessly grim. Bearing in mind that this is a book about death, surgery without anaesthetic, blood poisoning, filth, poverty and dead bodies, I took this as a compliment but I also had to deal with it. So, one of the things I did was to take the two most down-trodden and abused characters up Arthur’s Seat one hot summer evening, where they made a fire and cooked steaks, breathing the fresh air and looking down on the distant grimness of Edinburgh. This offered the reader a break from the awfulness of what happened – and made the forthcoming horror even more horrible…. (Pause to rub hands in glee.)
So, that's pace for you. It's all more or less going into Write to be Published, but you read it here first, you lucky things. Besides, you have to wait a whole year for that to come out.