Friday, August 17, 2007

On Pacing

If you’d asked me a couple of days ago how to make a book fast-paced, I’d have said, Keep it moving and up the stakes. It’s the typical advice. In his Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain tells us to increase pace by expanding scenes and cutting sequels—in other words, more action, less thinking and feeling.

But I was reading something by David Griffith last night, and he says the way to keep up a fast pace is to set and answer questions, doing this continuously from scene to scene and from sequence to sequence, thus keeping your reader in a state of anticipation and expectation until the end. As soon as you answer one question, you immediately raise another. That way, we enter each scene with a question hanging over us from the previous scene, and we immediately get out of that scene as soon as a new question is raised. According to Griffith, it’s when a writer fails to keep raising these questions that a book or movie becomes slow and the audience loses interest.

Intriguing stuff. I know I deliberately do this in my mysteries—Sebastian learns something to make him think Suspect A is the killer; he chases down this new information, only to discover there is an innocent explanation. But before I swerve away from that scene, he learns SOMETHING that raises a new question in his head and sends him off after Suspect B, and so on. From the very beginning I have made a conscious effort to make the series fast-paced, and editors and reviewers alike constantly comment on how fast the pacing in this series is. Yet I never connected the pacing with the question/new question technique I was using. And it never occurred to me to apply it to other genres.

A fascinating idea. I’m going to take a look at the plot for my next thriller, and make sure I keep those questions coming.


Lisa said...

This is a terrific post and I learned something similar in a workshop I recently attended. Answering questions and raising new ones throughout does seem to be a key component to interesting fiction -- I've started noticing it in the books I read and invariably, the ones that hold my attention the most, do seem to do this well.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think I try to do this in my novel length fiction but I never really thought about it as a technique. I think it helps to realize that, to put a name to it if you will. Great post.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I haven't read either of the gentlemen you quote. I find some "how to" advice irritating, though I like books about writing by people who've really been there, like Larry Bloch. From the hints on pacing you give here, I'd say Griffith is closer to the secret than Swain. But was it ever a secret?

Steve Malley said...

First thing popped into my head were the words "DaVinci Code". Poor technique, cardboard characters and a *truly* ridiculous MacGuffin, but man, oh man, they do chase from puzzle to puzzle, each solution opening up a new riddle until the book's over.

I was distracted enough not to even wonder what the French police need with a staff cryptologist...

This was one of those posts set my writer-sense to tingling. To the Fountain Pen!!!

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post. Pacing has always seemed an abstract concept to me, more a matter of opinion than fact. But the idea of questions and answers makes pacing concrete and measurable. "Do I always have a question in the air?" can be answered with a definite "yes" or "no." If the answer is "no," the fix is obvious. Thanks for a useful tip.

Bernita said...

Leap-frogging. Yes!

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