Pacing is critical to any story – too fast and your reader wants off the ride, too slow and boredom sets in. Following is an exercise to help you check the advancement of plot, and it works equally well with novels or short story. The goal is to break the story into scenes with a specific eye to pacing.

In previous posts I discussed writing a scene outline during the planning phases. I update it frequently because I’m not able to cast the story out too far ahead of me. The story gets fuzzy. I still don’t know who the murderer is in my current book, although I’m getting closer. I take part in the investigation as the police do because the process feels more authentic. Following is another type of scene outline that serves a completely different purpose.

The Exercise: Complete a new scene outline for the first half of the book (or whatever amount is giving you trouble). I just broke my first 45,000 words into about 46 scenes, including some very minor transition scenes. By examining each scene for its purpose and intensity you can get an objective feel for the pacing. As I expected, I had too much set-up and narrative in some areas. The scene outline made it very easy to make logical changes and to add a few additional scenes to ratchet up the tension.

Once again, Excel was a perfect choice for this exercise. Excel starts a new document as a workbook with worksheets available as tabs at the bottom of the document. It makes it easy to toggle back and forth between several documents. I made the process even easier by using two computers. I opened the new Excel workbook on my daughter’s laptop. Next, I pulled up my current book on my own laptop. I simply scrolled through the manuscript and gave a brief description of each scene. I set the columns up like this:

  • A: Chapter # and Scene #
  • B: POV and other characters in the scene (I also noted the first time a character was introduced. This will be helpful later as I think about character development and additional details to add.)
  • C: Purpose – a brief description to make sure the scenes serve a variety of purposes
  • D: Scene Description
  • E: Action (H/M/L) (high, medium or low action) – This was most beneficial. It allowed me to see where I had several low action scenes in a row. I realized I needed to add conflict to these scenes, and it helped tremendously. It is surprisingly easy to heat up a scene after it has already been written. Hardships and drama can always be added to make the main character’s life a little more miserable.

As I was moving through the exercise I realized there were scenes I wanted to add, and changes I wanted to make. I started a new worksheet and labeled a column for the page number where I wanted to insert new information, and a column to describe the changes/additions. At the end of the exercise I had twelve rather significant changes to make to the first half of the book. I would rather deal with them now than let them grow into bigger issues while working on the second half of the book.

I’ve read plenty advice that says to get the story written first, get the words down on paper, then go back and work at revisions. I have found if I’m actively revising along the way that it keeps the story fresh in my mind. I don’t forget the details from page 20 that could play an important part on page 200. If you are lost in the story and having trouble wading through the details and unsure of your pacing, a fresh scene outline might be worth your time.

Next time: word choice