Pacing, as it applies to fiction,
could be described as the manipulation of time. Though pacing is
often overlooked and misunderstood by beginning writers, it is one
of the key craft elements a writer must master to produce good
fiction. Best-selling author Elmore Leonard recommends simply
'cutting out everything, but the good parts.' While this is
interesting advice, the following article covers the matter of
pacing in a bit more detail.
The elements of time delineated
in your story or screenplay include the time of day or period; scene
versus summary; flashback; and foreshadowing. Elements of time raise
the following questions:
1) When is the story being told as
compared to when the events of the story took place?
2) Is there
a distance in terms of time?
3) Does the story begin with the
birth of the protagonist and end with the death? or Is the time more
4) What narrative strategies should you use to convey
the sense of time passing or the distance of the narration?
Scene is necessary to all fiction. You can't have a story
without it. In order to have a crisis moment, for example, it has to
be in a moment in time and, therefore, it cannot be summarized. A
summary covers a longer period of time in a shorter passage. A scene
covers a short period of time in a longer passage. What could take
only a few seconds in real time might be covered in paragraphs, even
pages, depending upon the writer and the event.
whole, one mistake you need to avoid is summarizing events. Instead,
realize them in the moment. Sometimes, when you are writing a first
draft, you might be tempted to put the moment into summary, but the
scene is how you dramatize the action. The question is to try to
balance the scenes and use the exposition gracefully. Most short
stories have at least three scenes. A 'short' might only have one
scene. A chapter could have three or four scenes, although it could
just as easily have one.
The scene should probably have
movement. Just as in a story you have conflict, crisis and
resolution, a scene might have the same sort of shape. You should
use scenes in one specific moment in time to show important behavior
in your characters. Stretches of time or activities in the story
that are secondary to the story's development should be expressed
through a 'narrative bridge.' You use summary in the narrative. Now,
that doesn't have to mean boring. For example, 'The Things They
Carried,' an excellent short story by the writer Tim O'Brien, goes
back and forth between summary and scene.
Here's an example
of summary that is hardly dull:
'After the chopper took
Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village
of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs,
they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched
the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot
afternoon and then, at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender
died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.'
that is secondary can similarly be summarized by indirect discourse.
So, if you find dialogue that expresses information that is fairly
routine or not too interesting, you should summarize it. For
example: 'Hi, John. How's it going? You feeling better?' 'I'm OK,
thanks a lot,' said Mary.' Instead, just say, 'They exchanged
greetings, and Mary confessed she felt OK.'
pages on a large table and look at them like an artist would.: How
many scenes do you have? Are there too few or too many? Do there
seem to be any missing scenes? What about if you rearranged the
sequence of events? Could you use the beginning of the ending scene
to frame the story? Take the sheets of paper, and 'cut and paste'
the sections that need moving
If there is a scene that you
are having trouble with, especially one that provides a turning
point in the story, focus in on that scene. Could it use action, not
necessarily physical action, but movement, change? Try to expand the
scene into three to five pages to give you a greater opportunity to
explore the interpersonal dynamics. Think about dramatizing how the
balance of power in the scene changes.
place, but you also have to consider the time of the year, the time
of day and how you reveal this information without being too
obvious. This information is not always essential - - it depends
upon the story in question. Basically, it is similar to an
'establishing shot' in a film. Just remember to be consistent and to
make the timing logical. It might be boring to mention 'in the
evening,' but you could use other words to show the time of day.
However, don't skip the time element altogether since it adds
veracity to the lives you are portraying. If a family is having
breakfast, then we know the time of day. If a character is wearing
mittens, this establishes the time of year.
and foreshadowing are techniques that play with narrative time. It's
possible they may be used to enrich the narrative, and you might add
them during revision since they provide emphasis and balance.
A flashback is a narrative passage that takes us to the past
of when the story is set. The flashback reveals something about the
character that we didn't know before that explains things by showing
not telling. You should use it when the character is going into a
situation that varies from the behavior we have come to expect from
him or her. However, you need to be sure that the flashback you have
selected tells us something relevant to the story. There's nothing
worse than slowing down the action with a flashback that doesn't
contribute to the story.
Instead of flashback, you might use
dialogue, narration or some detail to give the required information.
Also, remember the power of inference. There may be more going on in
the background of a character than you reveal in the actual prose.
Be economical with your words. Imply what you can about the
character or situation without being obvious. Flashback reveals
information at the right time, but it may not be part of the central
action. Flashback is an effective technique to show the reader more
about character and theme.
You might use a flashback if, in
the present of the story, the character is unsympathetic and you
want to provide another viewpoint. For example, think of Scrooge in
'A Christmas Carol,' where we get the examples demonstrated by the
appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past. We see Scrooge as a boy
in flashback and feel sorry for him. The same thing happens with the
character Anders in the wonderfully constructed story, 'Bullet in
the Brain,' by Tobias Wolff. Anders is portrayed as especially
unsympathetic. The story is told entirely in the present tense,
except for a long flashback in expository prose that enumerates all
the events in Anders' life that flashed through his brain as a
bullet went through his head during a bank robbery. The passage
begins by noting what Anders did NOT remember during this scene.
'He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had
most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him -- her
unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with
his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in 'Uh-oh, looks like Mr.
Mole wants to play,' and 'Let's hide Mr. Mole!' Anders did not
remember his wife, whom he had also loved, before she exhausted him
with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of
economics at Dartmouth.' And it goes on for paragraphs. This
information is expository, rather than in a scene, but it flashes
back to Anders' past.
Some writers rely on flashback as a
way of avoiding the central conflict of the story. Sometimes, it's
easier for the writer to avoid the conflict altogether, since
conflict produces anxiety -- fiction is trouble, after all, and we
want to produce some tension and anxiety. You, too, may be able to
re-order time and use flashback in your story, though you often have
to wait until after you have a first draft. Sometimes an entire tale
can be told in flashback with a frame (for example, think of the
movie 'Sunset Boulevard,' and its dead narrator), or 'Heart of
Darkness,' also a frame story (actually a novella). Sometimes the
mechanics of the flashback technique can cause you to use cumbersome
verb constructions. Keep this simple. If you are writing the story
in the past tense, you can begin the flashback in past perfect. You
can use 'had' plus the verb a couple of times. Then you can switch
to the simple past. I gleaned this nugget from Janet Burroway in her
helpful book on writing fiction. As she says, 'the reader will be
What is foreshadowing? It is not conflict, but
the promise of conflict. One example would be the opening of Truman
Capote's 'Children on Their Birthdays': 'Yesterday afternoon the six
o'clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit.' Or the opening of Richard Yates'
novel, 'The Easter Parade': 'Neither of the Grimes sisters would
have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the
trouble began with their parents' divorce.' Both of these openings
promise that things go from bad to worse. Or how about, 'The boy
woke up, got dressed and slung a rifle over his shoulder as he ran
out to the school bus.' We know that something's going to happen
with the rifle, which raises a story question. If the story
questions are strong, then your reader will stay interested in the
Foreshadowing can be used to get the reader
through a dull section of a narrative. For example, you could create
suspense by something that WILL happen: 'Susan had no idea when she
paid her $5 for the afternoon matinee that she had just made one of
the biggest mistakes of her life. She would've been better off
staying home that day.' We don't know what calamity is about to
befall Susan, but we get the feeling she made a huge miscalculation,
and we look forward to knowing what it was, the worse the better
really, in terms of entertainment value.
Of course, you need
to use this technique judiciously. You can employ the minor
characters to foreshadow the actions of the major characters, for
example. If you make a promise by foreshadowing, then make sure to
fulfill the promise; otherwise, the reader will feel gypped.
With foreshadowing, it might be better to err on the obvious
side because if your attempts are too subtle, there will be no
shadows to see.