I was listening to a CD by the Seekers while driving the length of the New Jersey Turnpike. As the highway slid under my car, song after song sculpted my mood. Some tunes were brisk and upbeat; others, haunting, even mournful. So I thought about the scenes in a novel, that they should be ordered like the songs on a CD. Their pace should vary. Too many fast-paced scenes in succession exhaust readers; too many slow ones bore them.
So how can you control the pace of a scene?
You can slow the pace by using the passive voice; narration; and longer words, sentences, and paragraphs. Complex sentences and nuanced paragraphs invite your readers to reflect on their meanings, and multi-syllable words slow down readers’ eyes. So use slow-paced scenes to focus on details, complicate a problem, set up a later scene, and develop a character.
Conversely, to increase tension and heighten suspense, you can quicken the pace by cutting out all but the action. Use staccato dialog, familiar words, and simple declarative sentences, even occasional fragments. Make the paragraphs short and snappy. The white spaces invite readers’ eyes to fly down the page. Of course, save the fastest pace for the climax scene, when your protagonist, apparently in a hopeless situation, engages in a titanic struggle to triumph over the antagonist.
The pace of a scene communicates a mood. So be sure it suits the scene’s function. When you’re ready to critique your work, read each scene aloud while concentrating on whether the mood matches the function. And finally, when you’ve written a series of scenes, check that their rhythms vary. Remember, novels like CDs are tiresome when the rhythm is constant.
About the Author:
June Trop June Trop and her twin sister Gail wrote their first story, “The Steam Shavel [sic],” when they were six years old growing up in rural New Jersey. They sold it to their brother Everett for two cents.
Now associate professor emerita at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she devotes her time to writing historical mysteries with a connection to early science. Her heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, is based on the personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.
June lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, where she is breathlessly recording the story of her plucky heroine’s next life-or-death exploit.