3 Quick Fixes to Speed Up a Scene's Pacing

Have you been told that your story is a big sluggish, or that it just didn’t hold the reader’s attention? It could be that the pacing of your scenes is off. Here’s what could be dragging your pacing down to a turtle’s pace — and 3 quick fixes to speed up the pacing.

Too many words

Often we use far more words than we need to in early drafts as we’re working out our scenes. It’s a way of clarifying what’s happening. But once a scene is set, those extra words may linger on like an uninvited guest at a cocktail party. When I was a magazine editor, I often had to fit copy to the space allotted, and it became somewhat of a game to see how many words I could cut without losing the content of a story. It always surprised me to see how much baggage was left in the writing — despite careful editing.

Quick Fix: Go through your manuscript and use the highlight function to black out any words you think you can do without. Look especially for such words as “very,” “really,” and “nearly,” and phrases like “in order to” and “so that she may….” Also look for passive language, which tends to use more words. Now read your scene aloud, recording if you wish. Play back the recording and see if the scene still makes sense without the blacked-out words. If they do, delete the words. If you need to restore some words or phrases, simply remove the highlighting.

Repeating what’s already clear

Again, this goes back to clarifying what’s going on in a scene for ourselves as we’re writing it. But if your writing is clear, you may not need so much explanation. This is especially true with reiterating a character’s emotions after making it clear through her words or actions. Here’s an obvious example of what I mean:

She pushed him out the door and slammed it, crying “Leave me alone!” She was upset with him and wanted to be left alone.

The character’s upset state of mind and desire to be left alone is clear from her actions and statement. Leave it at that.

Quick Fix: Using the highlight function, black out all explanations following any dialogue or action. Read aloud and record. If the scene is not clear, go back over the dialogue and action and sharpen your choice of words. Then read the passage to a friend and see if he can follow what’s going on.

Overly long paragraphs

The paragraph break is one of the most effective tools for speeding up a scene’s pacing. Readers need to give their eyes a break or they will find themselves slogging through the scene, working harder to keep track of what’s going on.

Try this: Scan your page. If you have paragraphs that go on for more than 5 or 6 lines, ask yourself if you can break them up. And don’t be afraid to have one-line — or even one-word  — paragraphs.  As a scene becomes more tense, the paragraphs should be shorter. That’s one of the best — and simplest — ways to keep readers engaged.


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