I’ve been thinking about pace this week. Of all the elements of story, it has to be the one I had least interest in, the chapter I was most likely to scan or speed-read in any books about novel writing. Surely pace is built-in to every sentence, a stylistic tic I have no control over?
After the story started to come together last week, I’ve been continuing working on it in outline. That means lining up scenes in a spreadsheet, building them up, entwining them with others and creating rough chapters. The order changes too, as I shuffle events so that they build up to a crescendo or unravel.
This narrative momentum is hardest to plan, but the more I think about structure, the more pace becomes important. It requires a simultaneous look forwards and backwards – where the story’s going and where it’s been – and a focus on locking each scene into the story.
Too often a preoccupation with pace is equated with a novel being fast-paced. I’ve come to realise that it is not just the province of crime or thriller novels, but every novel, even those of my favourite authors. I’ve always admired the leisurely pace of Henry James’ novels, and the way they almost always crack three quarters of the way through, and it’s only then you realise how much was weighing them down.
In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King has an unsurprisingly sharp insight into the art of pacing:
“The leisurely luxury-liner experience of a long, absorbing novel like The Far Pavilions or A Suitable Boy has been on of the form’s chief attractions since the first examples—endless, multipart epistolary tales like Clarissa. I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.”
That pacing, whether fast or slow, is core to the novel form comforts me. All this focus on plotting had me nervous. Something about it felt inauthentic, as if working out the perfect turning point of the a story, or the scene in which everything came together and formed a kind of resolution was somehow too commercial. Too easy.
In fact the exercise has helped firm up my story: some previously key scenes have lost significance, whereas new ones have come to mind and taken over. It feels like they are finally slotting into place; that, as well as being scenes of interest in and of themselves, they lead the story on to its conclusion, the one I’ve had in mind from the very beginning.
I stopped short of the end of my first draft, as I did not feel I had earned it. The nib of my pen scratched drily at the paper, filling lines with aimless sentences. There was no feeling of momentum. Scenes that diverted from the story carried as much weight as those that developed it. The ending approached, and the only way I could make the one I wanted was through some pretty lengthy exposition.
Now, after weeks of reworking the story, I’ve hammered out a narrative arc that I think works. Not only that, but the story has changed so much it is not worth finishing the final 10,000 words of the first draft.
I’m wary of eureka moments however, as I think I’ve had a enough of those in the past 80 weeks to know I might not be there yet. But this week I realised how a significant scene wasn’t working, and how it must be altered drastically, so that everything else clicks into place.
The new outline has me excited – it brings a new dimension to my main character, a reason for the two narrative strands, a clear viewpoint, and space for other characters and subplots.
Now for the detail.
Word count this week: 0
First draft: 128,661