Thursday, May 9, 2013


Elizabeth Zelvin

Pace is one of those elements of a story that readers may not be aware of as part of the writer's craft, but which makes the difference between a story that drags and one that keeps readers turning the pages. I've been writing my whole life and editing the writing of others for what feels like almost that long. But it's only since my first novel was published that I have become fully aware of all the details that can make or break the pacing of my novel or story and how I can tighten a scene or a chapter in revision so that it sweeps the reader along.

Backstory is everything about the characters and setting except what happens during the period in which the story is taking place. In a mystery, it may include the protagonist's whole history, information about his family, and the events that took place in earlier books in the series. In crime fiction, current opinion seems to be that the less backstory, the better. Some writing mavens even say that NO backstory is the right amount. I wouldn't go that far, but I have learned how leaving it out can improve pace. In a literary novel, all those details that have nothing to do with the immediate scene form the texture of the narrative. In a mystery, they may slow it down.

Suppose my protagonist, Bruce, says: "Jimmy walked into the coffee shop ahead of me. Just inside the door, he stopped short." I might like to have him tell the reader a lot of digressive detail about Bruce and Jimmy's relationship to each other, how they feel about coffee, that the coffee shop used to be a neighborhood candy store when they were kids.where it was a big treat to go in there with a dime or quarter to spend and the old man behind the counter would let them take as long as they wanted choosing the candy. This could be great stuff. But not now. We want to move the reader right on to what or who in that coffee shop takes Jimmy by surprise.

One bad habit I let myself make in a first draft but have learned to change in revision is starting a scene in the middle. Suppose Bruce says:

We were stalled in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, and Jimmy was cursing softly. He had promised to drive me to to the funeral in Brooklyn, even though he had been reluctant to leave his personal briar patch, Manhattan. I had told him it would only take twenty minutes, but I had kept my fingers crossed when I said it. I had told him I needed his moral support, and Barbara had backed me up.

That "had" is a clue that I need to revise. I can improve the pace by taking the events in sequence. When does the scene start, with the discussion about going to Brooklyn or on the bridge?

The discussion:

“Drive me to the funeral tomorrow,” I suggested.

“In Brooklyn?” Jimmy sounded horrified. He hated to leave his personal briar patch, Manhattan.

“We could be there in twenty minutes,” I said, keeping my fingers crossed. “And I’d owe you big time. I need your moral support, dude.”

“He’s right, Jimmy,” Barbara said. “We can’t do this without you.”

The next morning...

On the bridge:

Jimmy leaned on the horn and used the F word, not his usual style. We were stalled in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“I hope you mean the guy in the Lexus, not me,” I said.

Jimmy growled and muttered the Serenity Prayer. That was more like it. His Higher Power must have been listening, because twenty minutes later, we were opening the ornate front door of the funeral home.

Another bad habit is starting a scene BEFORE the beginning. If the scene is about what happens in Brooklyn, why not start the scene in Brooklyn?

The funeral home stood on a king-size corner lot. The front door wasn’t locked. Jimmy pushed it open. We walked into a sumptuous entrance hall. A gentleman with a bald head so shiny it looked polished greeted us with an inaudible generic murmur and an outstretched hand.

All the words in this passage appear in the book, but I have to admit it took me 1,873 words to get there, including two paragraphs of “had” and two paragraphs of Bruce thinking about the puzzle of who killed the deceased. In other words, I’m still learning.

The chapter started:

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” I bellowed over the clamor of the train.

When I’m writing the first draft, I have a tendency to rev myself up by starting a scene with the phone ringing. The first sentence of Death Will Help You Leave Him is “I scootched into the back of Jimmy’s Toyota.” In the first draft, before Bruce got into the car, he answered the telephone, engaged in some banter with Jimmy and Barbara, and ran down the stairs from his walkup apartment into the rain before getting into the car.

Luckily, I ran that chapter past a workshop group that included a very experienced short story writer. (Short story writers had better know about pace.) He looked at Page 1 over my shoulder, put his index finger on “I scootched,” and said, “The story starts here.”


Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Just one question? Should we leave the reader breathless all the time or give him or her a chance to recover? This is probably a better question for thrillers than mysteries, but I think it's important for both.
All the best,

Diane S. said...

Love this, Elizabeth. I would love to have you look at one of my scenes one day to see where I need to fix. Right now, I'm still pressing forward on the first.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Steve, I don't use the word "should" about writing, in my work as a therapist, or anywhere else. Some writers make the end of every chapter a cliffhanger because they don't want the reader to close the book--like the way radio announcers transitioning from talking about the program to a series of commercials never take a breath. If you're writing a character-driven work, you might want emotional closure in a scene rather than nonstop action. Patricia Wentworth, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s and is still read today, ended many scenes with "They went on talking." I wouldn't advise anyone to do that in 2013.

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Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
"Should" here is just a softer way of saying, "Hey, people, give me some advice!" :D
I asked this same question elsewhere in a different way, which might resonate more: What is the correct balance between back story and action? Everyone seems to have different answers, most along the lines of "the correct balance is that which doesn't make your reader stop reading." But readers are all different. No matter how nebulous or useless, I'm looking for an answer along the lines of how many words "should" a mystery novel have. Take it as rhetorical if you will, but both questions came up writing my latest novel, my first mystery. (Yeah, I know, it's a wee bit late to be asking, but the info will be useful in the next).

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