A Matter of Time (Part 2)

La Ronde's Le Boomerang Roller CoasterLast week, we looked at how content benefits from timing. This week, we’ll explore timing within writing – the art of pacing narrative.

Pacing is what keeps your reader reading. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, pacing is easy to identify: what starts out as a problem grows steadily (and generally, rapidly) worse. When I write my humorous mysteries, I use humor to relieve some of that growing tension in my mysteries, and my uphill roller coaster ride is one of short climbs and plateaus; thriller writers often choose steeper climbs with no reprieves before the final sheer drop. As the writer, you need to choose what effect you want to create in your reader, and then manipulate your scenes and character development accordingly. For an excellent overview of pacing in fiction, read this post by K.M. Weiland.

Note, however, that I didn’t say ‘narrative of story’ in my opening paragraph. That’s because nonfiction benefits just as much from effective pacing as does fiction. Think for a moment about the biographies, how-tos, memoirs, travel pieces, or any other nonfiction you’ve read recently. Did they keep your attention? Did the author tease you with promises of solutions or details and then slowly reveal them, building momentum so that you couldn’t put it down? Or did you plod through pages of dry facts and lose interest to the point of feeling like the reading was a chore?

That’s the tipping point for me as a writer, whether I’m penning fiction or non-fiction: losing interest. Even when I’m the one doing the writing, I try to think like my reader.

Am I getting bored with a litany of facts? Then break it up. Focus on one fact and bring it to life with a concrete, preferably colorful, example, then note the other facts briskly. For instance, in my forthcoming memoir, I list items not to do with a new puppy. I got bored with listing the list, so I described how I totally did the wrong thing with our dog concerning the first point, then simply noted the remaining ones. Making a list personal will engage your reader and create momentum to continue reading.

Use dialogue. Even if it’s imaginary, it can help your reader place themselves in the same situation.

Use a metaphor or simile to make your explanation more understandable. Details enrich writing of every kind.

Keep focus. Confine paragraphs to one point, then move on – visual cues like breaking up text help your reader follow your organization and your pace of developing thought. You don’t want your reader lost in the middle of a page-long paragraph, because they might decide it’s not worth finding their way out.

In fact, write your nonfiction like you’re telling a story with its own beginning, middle, and end, and you might hear that awesome compliment: “It was such a good book, I couldn’t put it down, even though it was nonfiction.”

Timing really is everything.

5 Replies to “A Matter of Time (Part 2)”

  1. Thank you, Jan, for discussing these very useful writing techniques.

    In reading what you said about applying to both fiction and non-fiction, I thought of David McCullough’s writing. He is one of my favorite historical writers, because he manages to write about history in a way that it feels alive, personal, and fascinating, rather than a boring list of dry facts and dates. I can see how he uses some of the techniques you’ve listed here, to do that.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Some of the best nonfiction I’ve read moves faster than a lot of novels. It all depends on the writer and their skill. Thanks for commenting, Joe!

  2. I was recently reading Maeve Binchy (Oh how I love her!) and thought of how she so often puts in dialogue that seems very simple, short even… but later I see what she’s doing. She creates a great pace with this- a simple listing of dialogue that keeps us reading (devouring, really) her really REALLY deep, thoughtful ideas…

    1. I like her work, too! I have to admit that since I’ve learned to craft plots, some of my enjoyment of fiction has faded, because I can’t stop myself from analyzing what the author is doing…”hmm, now why did that character idly mention her favorite fairy tale? There must be a good reason…”

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