by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.
Every fiction proceeds at its own pace. But how do you set a pace and control it? How do you slow down? How do you speed up? Unlike a racehorse, a fiction's not alert to subtle shifts in its rider. But like a racehorse, a fiction does have someone else in charge—you, the author. Like a good jockey, you can speed your horse up or slow him down, all the while maintaining a pace that beats as regularly as your horse's heart. Here's how.
"A fiction's pacing is tied to its sense of time. . ." —Lenard-Cook
Time, Time, Time
A fiction's pacing is tied to its sense of time, which I like to call the mind of the story. To explain what I mean by that, think about how your own mind operates. Yes, there's this moment now (Oops! It's gone!), but even within this moment, where you sit at your computer reading this column, you're thinking about your next appointment, or what to make for dinner, or something your partner said before s/he left this morning, or about that decision you've been putting off.
The best fiction operates the same way a mind does (though in a less unedited way than, say, James Joyce's Ulysses). This means that a fiction will have its own what I call "present tense" (don't confuse this with the grammatical present tense), moving ever forward with each tick of the clock. At the same time, however, each moment contains other moments, just as your mind does. The trick of pacing is to establish the rhythm of the fiction's mind. When you digress into moments outside the fiction's present tense in order to enrich the brew, you'll nonetheless keep the fiction true to this particular pace.
For the sake of example, let's say your story takes place over the course of a three-hour period beginning at 9 a.m. Here's a picture of that three-hour period, which will represent the present tense of your story.
9 a.m. 10 a.m. 11 a.m. noon
beg—— — ——– — ———end
I've intentionally used an example with a clocklike precision to make my point, but a fiction's present tense can cover a single moment or a lifetime. The important thing is that once the pacing of your fiction's present tense is set, you not deviate from its own particular rhythm. If you're at all musically inclined (or even if you're not), you can think of this as your fiction's tempo, and assign it a key signature.
"In the best fiction, no matter where we are in relation to the story's present tense, that clock will still be ticking." —Lenard-Cook
Think of Your Reader
You're a reader. Otherwise, you wouldn't be a writer. And it's likely you've read something where suddenly, the timing feels all wrong. Even otherwise outstanding fiction sometimes slips out of tempo. But like a clock, when pacing works, we don't notice it. In the best fiction, no matter where we are in relation to the story's present tense, that clock will still be ticking.
So your narrator's standing there looking out the window, the first cup of coffee of the day in hand. A car drives by. It's a limousine, and he remembers the first time he saw Carol from this very window, as she stepped out from the back of a limo. He remembers how he felt when he first saw her, how he knew he had to know her, and how things were once he did. Then he remembers how it was at the end, when Carol left him, here, all alone, looking out the window, just as he is now.
In that paragraph of narrative, I alluded to a number of flashbacks. But meanwhile, in the fiction's present tense, time has ticked on, according to the fiction's particular pacing. (This isn't a real story. I just made it up. Although, of course, it could be…) If this fiction's present tense takes place over the course of one morning, and now our narrator's cup of coffee has grown cold, we've probably spent one-quarter of our narrative on this flashback. In other words, if the entire present tense of the fiction is three hours, the amount of time we spend on a lengthy flashback will equal the actual time elapsed according to the fiction's particular pace.
"If it's important, do it as a scene. If it's not (moving from one place to another, say), do it as narrative." —Lenard-Cook
Narrative and Scene
When it comes to narrative and scene, there's really just one simple rule: If it's important, do it as a scene. If it's not (moving from one place to another, say), do it as narrative. If it's not important at all, get it out of there. I don't care if it really happened. If it's not important to the fiction, it doesn't belong there.
Every scene in a fiction should have a purpose. Every scene offers forward movement. A question will be asked. The reader will learn something new. Change occurs. Things are different at the scene's end than they were at its beginning. Here's a brief example from my novel Coyote Morning:
On that Monday morning in April, Alison Lomez watched through her kitchen window as her seven-year-old daughter Rachel shuffled to the end of their gravel driveway, where the school bus would stop for her. At first, Alison thought it was a dog that trotted up and sat down next to Rachel, a small yellow dog that reached to Rachel's chest. Dog and girl watched the empty road that wound down from the mesa. Whose dog? Alison thought, and then, what kind? and then, coyote. At this, the animal slowly turned its head, and looked Alison squarely in the eye. As Alison watched, Rachel bent to say something to the animal before resuming her vigil.
In this first paragraph of the novel, my pacing must work extra hard. Not only am I setting the pace for the rest of the book, I want to set up suspense and establish my characters, situation, and setting. As Coyote Morning's present tense occurs over three days, my first three paragraphs cover just one moment in time, a "present tense" I'll return to again and again over the course of the novel. Notice how time is elongated in this paragraph; it's as if Alison's adrenaline has kicked in, slowing the moment, increasing the horror. Intentional? You bet. I'm a very intentional writer.
Now that you understand something about setting the pace, next time, we'll explore just how you can quicken it and slow it down. Stay tuned.
About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel and was a 2004 selection of both NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series and the Durango-La Plata Reads countywide reading program. Her latest novel, Coyote Morning (UNM Press, 2004), has been compared to work of Carol Shields and Sue Miller. Visit Lisa's website, www.lisalenardcook.com, for information about her books and more writing inspiration.