Breaking the speed limit

A thrilling fast-paced first chapter that pulls the reader into the story does not have the power to create tension for the entire story. A dramatic, edge-of-the-seat beginning might even decrease the tension. After the first thrill is over, the following chapter drags as it introduces the reader to the necessary details about the protagonist’s life. Exciting events carry more tension if the reader cares about this character. Then, any hints at a rising problem increases a perceived threat. First, get readers invested in the main character before full-blown action starts.

The next skill to master is plotting the increasing waves of problems. They need to hit like waves hitting the shore as the tide rises. Each successive wave comes in further, but there’s a lull between each. Tension should build in a similar manner. Variation also helps to build dramatic excitement. The destination of a trap door or the conclusion to a car chase may be in question the first time this device is used. A similar situation may even carry the story forward a second time. But, after that readers start yawning if they see it again.

The way we string together words and the type of words we use contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences full of subordinate clauses make the reader work harder to understand the story. Short sentences with direct verbs are the antidote. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. Pace-changing requires knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes–to let the reader savor the experience–or by speeding up the dramatic pace. A good exercise to show how this works is to take a paragraph out of academic writing and rewrite it. Eliminate all unnecessary words and change verbs to their simplest form. For good measure, reduce all the lengthy vocabulary to the easily understood words that mean basically the same thing. The passage will move faster because the reader can actually read it at a higher speed.

Changing pace in writing can alter the level of perceived politeness. For example, use of passive verbs (regarded with disdain by many professional writers) can slow down the pace. But, this is often because it creates a style that is gentler and less accusatory than its active counterpart. “The door was left open, again,” takes no more words than “You left the door open, again.” But, it sounds less demanding. And, the more demands that are placed on the protagonist, the faster the pace.

Repetition creates poetry but doesn’t have to be confined to poems. Using the same sentence structure makes reading easier and picks up the pace. Overusing this technique marks writing as the work of an amateur. So, repetition can either move the story along or bring it to a screeching halt. If you want to add a striking cadence to prose, incorporate both repetition and changes to sentence lengths to break the monotony.

When you drive a car, alternating rapidly between the gas and brake jerks the car uncomfortably. However, a sudden change in the pace of writing does not have the same effect as a lead-foot driver. Inserting a five word sentence in the middle two long ones creates an interesting contrast. So, the best advice on the speed of writing is to not keep it the same.

This entry was posted in Literary devices, Story structure, Style and voice, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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