Setting the pace

One last workshop review from NJSCBWI15! I promise next week I’ll move on to different topics. Maybe even a couple of book reviews…

When we talk about pacing in a book, many of us immediately think about plot. The three act structure. Rising and falling action. Saving the cat.

All well and good. But pacing is more than just plot and action, and John Cusick gave a wonderful workshop examining pacing and how to improve yours. He began by defining pacing as “the speed at which a story unfolds” AND “the variations in tension, suspense, and action.”

John pointed out that variation is what drives readers, maintaining interest without overwhelming them. Let’s face it, even the most thrilling action movie needs some quiet scenes in which to catch your breath – just as the most literary and thoughtful of books needs a little “punch” to keep the reader reading.

I notice pacing a great deal – not just in terms of plot points but in terms of how our actual sentences create a rhythm and flow for the reader. John insists that action, description, and dialogue all contribute to good pacing and deepen the reader’s engagement. (AKA “Skip the boring parts.”)

John’s three questions for varying your pace?

  • What if?
  • What now?
  • What next?

All of these pertain to the action or plot. He continued the workshop by examining other influences on pace, and areas that are famous for slowing the reader down:

  • Description and Detail
  • Blocking
  • Rumination
  • Redundancy

John also discussed openings, emphasizing Vonnegut’s advice to “start as close to the end as possible.” I’m a big fan of Richard Peck’s advice to just get any beginning down on paper so you can write the book. Then, when you’re finished, go back and rewrite the beginning. 🙂

This workshop was interesting, entertaining, and full of good advice and tips to help you keep your reader hooked from first page to last. I won’t give away all John’s secrets; suffice to say if you get a chance to hear him speak about pacing, RUN don’t WALK to his event. (Yes, I hear you groaning.)

Most of the workshop focused on the big building blocks of pacing. I’ll give you a tip on something small. Pay attention to your punctuation. (Watch those commas!) Punctuation is the signal to the reader to pause, and your punctuation can amp up your tension or bring it to a halt. Have someone else read your sentences aloud to see what I mean. Often they sound a certain way in our head, but a cold reader will allow you to hear how the sentences really will be read.

Thank you, John.

does NOT read

the same as Thank you. John! (for example)

And many thanks to SCBWI for featuring “Z is for Zampetti” on their Blog Roll! If you’re not already a member, you should be!


7 thoughts on “Setting the pace

  1. You did a great job of summing up John’s workshop here, Leslie! I really got a lot out if this one, too. It was great to learn about the various ways to pace not just the overall structure of the novel, but to create variations in the speed, flow and tension throughout.

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