Fast-paced. Gripping. A page turner. “I couldn’t put it down.” Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?
Characters, plot, setting, and theme are all part of pace. But once you have a fast-paced draft, you can pump up the pace even more by focusing on the line-by-line level. In fact, relatively minor changes in sentence structure and paragraphing can make a scene much more dramatic. A page that is one solid block of text looks dull and intimidating. On the other hand, with short paragraphs the reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, giving a sense of breathless speed. The book literally becomes a page turner because the reader finishes each page so quickly. This means you can make action scenes more dramatic by using short paragraphs.
Here’s an example from my middle grade mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Seshta is on the roof, spying down a stairwell. When someone comes up the stairs, she must escape.
She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.
Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.
From the stairwell, a head rose into view.
Seshta let go and fell.
Imagine all that in one paragraph. It wouldn’t have the same pace.
Sentence length affects pace as well. Short sentences have a different rhythm from long ones. Long sentences can feel leisurely, while short ones have blunt impact – the difference between a hug and a slap. You want a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths, because if everything is the same the story will feel clunky or sluggish. But save the longer sentences and paragraphs for description and introspection, and use short sentences and short paragraphs for maximum impact in action scenes.
Here’s another example from The Eyes of Pharaoh. This is the end of a chapter where Seshta is waiting for a friend who is supposed to bring important news.
Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
But Reya never came.
The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to seem more important and ominous.
Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, just see how it looks on the page. Do you have variety, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?
Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.
Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences? How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference between even small changes in wording and punctuation. For example, compare these unpublished examples:
I heard a noise and looked up with a gasp in time to see a huge rock tumbling toward me.
I heard a noise above my head. I looked up and gasped.
A boulder tumbled toward me.
It’s almost hard to follow the action in the first example, because too much happens in one sentence. Shorter sentences clarify the action and give each piece more impact.
You can do this exercise with published books as well. Note sections that are poorly paced and try rewriting them to see how things change as you vary the structure.
Master pacing, and keep those pages turning.
Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page
Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
Photo: The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge.