Use all the Gears


How to vary the pace in fiction

 My husband sometimes jokes that we should get discount on cars as I only use one or two of the gears. That’s totally unfair of course. I quite often use third and fourth. In fact I’ve even been known to go into fifth when I’m feeling reckless (!)

In fiction too, we have several gears to choose from, and good writers use the whole range. Put simply, just as in driving, a low gear is best for a slow pace; the higher the gear, the faster we take our readers.

First there is reverse. In writing terms this is flashback. Flashback has its place in establishing backstory and filling us in on characters’ histories, but if overused, it can hold up the progression of the narrative, leaving readers frustrated, so should be used sparingly.

Interiority is the equivalent of first gear. Allowing us access to characters’ thoughts and exploring their reactions to events enables us to understand their psyches. It is satisfying for our readers to get inside our characters’ minds, but if we allow too much interiority the narrative sags and so too does readers’ interest.

 Description is like second gear: it’s useful for scene setting, to allow us to pause within a fast narrative; sometimes it can also illuminate character or theme. But it’s another slow pace so we need to balance it with other types of writing.

Dialogue can be compared to third gear. If it’s short and focussed it can move the text along quickly and works well interspersed with interiority and description to vary the pace.

Finally there is narrative. This can represent fourth gear, particularly if the sentences are short and there’s a sense of urgency. This type of writing can increase pace, although narrative techniques can vary, and with them the subtleties of different speeds.

Using all the gears help us to produce varied and interesting texts, allowing the reader to read slowly when the occasion demands and speed up their pace when necessary. Of course different genres will weight the ‘gears’ differently: thrillers are more likely to use fourth gear, literary fiction will focus more on first and second.

A tension graph (see blog of same name) will enable us to check whether we have a good variety of gears, keeping our readers interested and satisfied.

Good luck with your driving! I’m just off to practise my gear changes.