How to Craft Perfectly-Paced Scenes

How to Craft Perfectly Paced Scenes

Now that I’m writing the second draft of my novel, I’ve been pondering the technical parts of story and prose—and, lately, I’ve been thinking about pacing. Generally speaking, I think I have a good grasp on how to pace my scenes, whether they’re full of action or dialogue or time jumps, but I know that’s a skill I’ve developed over a lot of time (and a lot of drafts) and still need to keep developing. And, just because I feel more comfortable with the pacing of my novel doesn’t mean there still aren’t times when I struggle to insert my protagonist’s inner dialogue into the prose in a natural way, or make tense dialogue short and snippy enough to evoke emotion. All prose-related skills take time and (lots of) editing. But I do think there are ways to help writers nail the essence of a scene on the first or second try, and that comes down to becoming aware of the passage of time and how action affects our senses.

When I say “becoming aware of the passage of time,” I don’t mean anything technical, scientific, or existential (though, perhaps those things would benefit your writing). Think of it like this: you register the passage of time differently depending upon factors like time of day, mood, work (or lack thereof), lighting, etc. Getting wrapped up in a meaningful conversation will make three hours feel like three minutes; being stuck doing boring tasks at work can make a half hour feel like half of your life. These are the types of things you want to consider when you’re writing a scene or chapter—what internal and external factors would affect the feeling of the passage of time? Then, with those things in mind, make the prose match the mood.

How do you reflect that in your prose, you make ask? It isn’t easy, even if you know exactly what you want to convey. That’s why it’s important to be a bit more technical and consider how action (or inaction) affects our senses. Here’s a simplistic example: if you’re running for your life, how likely are you to notice the color of the flowers beside the road, or the color of the sky, or the smells of food coming from the restaurants you pass? How likely is it that you’ll stop to consider the motivation for your actions, or your strained relationship with your mother, or how much you want to live because of your upcoming vacation? All of these things are highly unlikely—your brain and body would be focused on survival—so if you include lots of setting details or a character’s inner thoughts in the middle of an action scene, your action scene isn’t going to read as quickly and realistically as you want. The feeling of urgency won’t be present because time will seem like it’s moving too slowly.

On the other hand, consider how much your mind would wander and how many details you would observe if you were stuck waiting for someone to pick you up for an hour or half hour? You probably would notice the color of flowers, the smells in the air, the feeling of your clothes, or think about your upcoming plans, your past mistakes, some funny moment that makes you chuckle. So if you don’t include more details in your introspection scenes, or in moments when characters are calm and the setting needs attention, they won’t read vividly or interestingly. Likewise, if the “musing scene” is brief or abrupt, it will seem like only a few minutes have passed because there’s no sense of the time being filled with anything else. To simplify the point, more action = fewer setting details/introspection, while less action = more setting details/introspection. Dialogue often falls between these two extremes and can be tilted either direction depending upon if it should feel short/tense or drawn out/relaxed.

Again, these are simple examples, so you’ll likely run into scenes that require a combination of these two extremes, or where you’d want to purposefully juxtapose the brevity or complexity of prose with the actual length of time passed within the story. But you can’t do any of those things if you don’t grasp how time is perceived and how our minds and bodies can limit information intake depending upon different factors (danger, action, boredom, inaction, emotional upheaval, shock, etc.). Thus, the best way to learn how to pace your story based upon time and action/inaction is to pay more attention to your own perception of time. Consider experiences where time fell in perfect pace with reality, as well as experiences where time felt completely out of pace; consider how your perceived the world when you were stressed or felt threatened, and compare that to how your tend to observe the world or your inner world when you feel relaxed, bored, or tired. Then, try to capture those feelings on the page and tweak your prose until you figure out how to create the correct balance for your specific scene.

These principles also apply to whole chapters or stories: the way you choose to organize your book, for example, will give different impressions of time, action, and feeling. For example, short paragraphs or chapters make a story feel more fast paced, while longer chapters naturally lend to more detail and a feeling of embodying the time being passed. Each story will need its own unique balance of the extremes—or, maybe it’ll fully inhabit one of the two extremes. But determining how to combine those elements for the big picture (the story) is the same as figuring out the small pictures (scenes)—and, thankfully, we always have editing to help us discover the sweet spot.

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