There’s a word that I’m going to define now as I’ll be using it frequently in the rest of the article. The term Pace means thus: the temporal speed (as regards to the reader) of the story. A slow pace is one that is slow in relation to the reader, and a fast pace is one the reader perceives as moving quickly.
In any case, you’ve probably learned by now in your career as a writer (and probably before that as a reader) that different kinds of stories have different kinds of paces: romance novels and mystery stories are usually slow (at least in the beginning) while spy novels might be classified as having a fast pace.
Some stories are like wind-up mice: they start out slow, but when they get “warmed up”, they are nothing but straight action until the end. Some books start with a bang, endure slowly, and then crescendo up to a bang at the end. Some stories (like quite a few “sensible” novels you’ve heard me talk of) have slow pace the entire story through.
Regardless, every story has its right and proper pace. However, as the title suggests, we’re not going to be discussing the pace of entire stories in general; this is an article about engineering individual scenes of speed: things that happen in a few moments of our earthly time. We’re talking about the pace of certain scenes.
Now, even a book with a fast pace can have slow scenes. Whenever you want to measure the pace of something, you have to look at its relationship to two things: one, the relationship to the reader (as we have before discussed) and two, the relationship to your usual work.
First, it depends on what the reader thinks: creating a contrast may help with this. Set a long talking scene may be followed by a rooftop chase, and the reader will picture images of a daring getaway just as if they were watching a movie. This next scene feels fast because the other one felt slow.
Of course, the feeling of quickness is certainly now quickness itself. In order to find objective quickness, I’ve got news for you: things are only “fast” or “slow” in regards to your own writing. When readers are reading your book, they don’t stop suddenly and say, “This is far slower/far faster than this other book I read.” Readers, in the moment, only compare your work to your previous work. And since a book is a world of its own with its own distinct and defined rules, scenes become slow or fast depending on how slow or fast your work is in general.
Now, the logical question follows: what kind of writer are you? Do you naturally write scenes with slow pace or fast pace. It’s a trick question, because how can you know whether or not your writing’s pace is “slow” or “fast” if you only have your writing itself to compare with…your writing? The answer, then, is that your writing is neither slow nor fast.
But let’s play off of this idea. In order to write fast-paced scenes, they must be noticeably quicker than previous ones, correct? This means, by contrast, that you should make the slower scenes more slow to emphasize the speed of other scenes. So the golden rule of writing fast-paced scenes is: whatever you do, make them noticeably faster than the slow-moving ones, and make the slow-moving ones all the slower to emphasize said speed.
But you’re probably looking for some techniques, right? In addition to the above rule, here are my hot tips:
Write everything as it comes to you in the moment, and do scant editing on these parts. Sometimes, the quicker you write the scene (in real life, I mean) the faster its pace will be. Editing is a slow process, so having to rewrite the scene will probably result in it feeling like it’s happening in slow motion.
Keep descriptions and dialogue to a minimum. When the evil villain throws the Poisoned Spear of Unspeakable Doom at the hero, no one’s stopping to admire the carpet and make a comment or two about it. The hero’s getting out of the way ASAP, and whatever happens next happens fast.
The longer your sentences, the slower time progresses. I’m not recommending that your staccato-sentence your way through all fast-paced scenes, but don’t write anything long or wordy either. Keep your sentences at a good, restrained size.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it five hundred times: read what you want to write. A good tactic for learning how to write good quick-paced scenes (or any other kind of scene, for that matter) is to read fast-paced scenes in your favorite writing. Study them. Learn from them.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!