Thursday, July 23, 2009


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 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: "I was standing on the corner, waiting for Jimmy to bring the car around. He had promised me he'd drive me out to Brooklyn to the cemetery." That "had" is a clue that I need to revise. I can improve the pace by taking the events in sequence. "'I'll drive you to the cemetery,' Jimmy said. The next morning, we drove across the Brooklyn Bridge."

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? 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 (out in October) 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.”


Anonymous said...

Bang on!


Sandra Parshall said...

Some agents and editors now say that if a novel begins with a telephone ringing -- usually awakening the protagonist from a sound sleep -- they won't read any further. Even a useful device becomes a cliche when it's used a million times.

One kind of backstory that *must* be included in a mystery is the victim's history, because that's where the solution to the murder usually can be found. I have trouble with this -- how to get it all in while avoiding an info dump, when to reveal this or that, how to make the revelations feel like "action" and plot developments when they're really just talk.

Sandy Cody said...

Nice post, Liz. Full of advice that most of us already know, but need to be reminded of - often. By the way, to all the "daughters" I often read your blog, but never take the time to comment. Decided it's time to let you know I enjoy it. Thanks!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Sandy. It was fun sharing a panel with you at Deadly Ink. :)