Have you ever picked up a book, tuned in to a TV show, or sat down to watch a movie and found yourself bored or disappointed because nothing happened? For a novice writer, or one with a limited number of fiction sales, that’s the last thing you want a reader to think while looking at your stuff.
And yet, it happens. Often. And the reasons are fairly common. In my experience the two most likely causes are a writer who falls in love with his own words, or a writer who doesn’t take the time to match the pace of his writing to the pace of his story. Fortunately, both conditions can be corrected, but the cure requires the writer to set aside ego and surrender to practicality.
Most writers new to the craft over-write but under-edit. This typically results in work that is either too complex—think: purple prose—or laden with weasel words, saidbooks and unnecessary speech tags. And that only covers a story opening (arguably the most important part of any story).
Pacing also applies to story arc, the rise and fall of tension within the overall work. But we’ll restrict our study to “local” pacing here and start with a sample story opening, that hasn’t been edited (enough):
Like an army of invisible barbarians, the wind struck the house one gust after another. The repeated attacks against the weakening structure came with the sounds of warfare, too. The groans from the building mimicked those of the dying on a battlefield, and while the ancient, weather-grayed farmhouse shuddered from the assault, it seemed unwilling to surrender, unwilling to give in to the inevitable demands of nature, unable to rest from the ongoing struggle to remain upright.
Inside, another battle raged as Jett Fordham fought to keep a fire going. The hearth was old, the chimney built of fieldstone. On balance it lacked as much mortar between the rocks as it maintained. The updraft remained weak, and smoke from the miserable excuse for a blaze grew thicker within the room. Jett’s options seemed to be limited to death by exposure or death from smoke inhalation.
While I readily admit to a lack of credentials when it comes to scene-setting, I feel confident in spotting one that’s overdone. My first editing impulse would be to nuke the entire first paragraph and focus on poor Jett, shivering inside a ramshackle house trying to light a damp log with a pack of old matches.
However, I recognize that a certain amount of scene-setting will help set the tone, too. So I’d settle for putting graf one on a diet (added words are bold) and reducing it to:
Like an army of invisible barbarians, the wind struck the house one gust after another. The groans from the building mimicked those of the dying on a battlefield, and while the ancient, weather-grayed farmhouse shuddered from the assault, it wouldn’t surrender.
That much of it I could live with, although the warfare analogy is still a bit overworked. The second graf is closer to actual story stuff, but some streamlining wouldn’t hurt. To wit:
Inside, Jett Fordham fought to keep a fire going. The hearth was old, the chimney built of badly mortared fieldstone. The updraft remained weak, and smoke grew thick within the room. Jett’s options seemed limited to death by exposure or death from smoke inhalation.
The objective here is not to eliminate luxurious prose; the goal is to improve the pace. If this story were intended for a literary magazine, I’d be tempted to leave some of the darker purple bits in. For a popfic market, however, I’d press the accelerator and leave the flowery stuff in storage.
Let’s look at a less literary attempt.
Jamie knew that Chuck, his best friend since forever–grade school at least, but maybe earlier than that–was in deep, deep trouble. Chuck didn’t exactly have a first-class mind, but he was a pretty decent guy nonetheless. He cared a lot for his friends, his dog, and his family. He was never intentionally mean or dishonest. The problem was, Chuck had a hard time figuring out just who his real friends were. He was simply too nice to understand that just because someone smiled at him, that didn’t make them pals. And now one of those not-exactly-a-friend types wanted him to re-pay a loan with way more interest than principal.
This passage has a certain colloquial “voice,” and it’s really not all that bad. But let’s see what happens when the weasel words and backstory are pulled out. Watch the pace speed up as sentences get shorter and more to the point.
Jamie knew that Chuck, his best–if not his brightest–friend, was in deep trouble. Chuck was a decent guy, but he had a hard time figuring out who his real friends were, and now one of those not-a-friend types wanted him to pay off a loan with far more interest than principal.
There’s no shame in writing tight prose. In fact, I’d argue it’s much easier to sell. Yes, there are markets for work which features style over substance, but they’re pretty rare. If you want to sell your work, the best approach for those who haven’t already established themselves, is to be direct, concise and to the point. It helps to have a damned good story, too.