Pacing and Flow
© 2008 Daniel Arenson
I’d like to discuss two ways of improving the flow and pacing of your fiction: controlling “infodump” and varying sentence length/structure.
When writing fantasy or science fiction, it can be challenging to describe the setting (your "imaginary world”) without slowing down the story. World-building is always fun: we create imaginary kingdoms, heroes, legends, cultures, and a host of other details about the setting. When writing, it’s tempting to occasionally halt the story and launch into little “essays” about the world. Whenever this temptation arises, it’s best to resist. As important as some info might be, the pacing of the current scene always has the higher priority.
Instead of pausing the story to reveal necessary information, it’s best to dispense the info in bits and pieces, unobtrusively, in a way that seems like part of the story.
For example, this is wrong:
“Trog chased the troll into the palace, brandishing his sword. His grandfather had built this palace fifty years ago, long before Trog was born. It had faced countless troll invasions, and stood under siege during the great Goblin War, during which Trog’s grandfather died. The old warrior’s tomb still stood inside the palace, and even to this day, the guards swore they could see his ghost wandering the halls at night. Inside the shadowy palace, Trog cornered the troll by a fireplace, and launched into an attack.”
This is right:
“Trog chased the troll into the palace, brandishing his sword. As his footfalls echoed in the towering hall, Trog tightened his lips. If your spirit truly still fills these halls, grandfather, help me now,
he prayed silently. The troll ran down a narrow hall, and Trog followed, rage pulsing through him. This palace has stood against countless troll invasions. My grandfather died defending it from trolls during the Goblin Wars. I will not let a troll desecrate my grandfather’s honor!
He cornered the troll by the fireplace and attacked."
In the first version, we paused from the chase to explain about the palace and its history. In the second version, we wove the information into the story, so that it becomes part of the chase scene.
The scene and characters are what we should focus on. When it becomes necessary to provide information, we should place it naturally into the scene without slowing down the action.
When considering pacing and flow, it’s also good to vary the length and structure of your sentences. Otherwise the tone can become awkward.
Consider the following paragraph:
“Sheathing his sword, Trog left the library. Grumbling under his breath, he marched down the hallway. Hunger aching in his belly, he entered the kitchen. Mouth watering, he took some bread and began to eat.”
All of these sentences are of the same structure, providing repetitive, dull writing. It’s best to vary the structure of your sentences to create a more dynamic, flowing read.
We should also vary sentence length. Consider the following:
“Trog lifted the spellbook. Dust flew into his eyes. Trog sneezed and slammed the book down. More dust flew. Clutching his sword, Trog left the library. No book would help him, he knew. He headed toward the kitchen. What he needed was a good meal.”
We writers of commercial fantasy best avoid such style. If you have several long sentences in a paragraph, provide a few short ones alongside them, and vice versa.
Of course, you should match the style of writing to the scene. Action scenes benefit from shorter, simpler sentences. Reflective scenes might warrant longer, more complex ones. In most cases, however, you’ll want to vary the sentence length and structure to at least some degree. Your writing will flow much better.
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