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PPWC: Kelley Armstrong on Pacing

Kelley Armstrong is a Canadian author responsible for several paranormal series, such as the Otherworld books and the Darkest Powers trilogy. At this year’s Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference, besides giving a keynote speech about how to deal with “the rules” as a writer, she also ran a workshop on pacing your novel.

Chief among her advice was to go through your novel and note each scene as either Active or Passive, and then see how many of each type there are. Active scenes should far outnumber Passive scenes. If Passive scenes are the majority of your novel, that’s not a good sign.
She defined them this way: Active scenes are scenes where something significant is happening. It doesn’t mean it has to be a fight scene or have explosions or otherwise…but something important needs to be going on. Passive scenes are quieter and calmer and often focus on dialog and character development. Still, even Passive scenes should still accomplish something.
While determining the Active or Passive nature of a scene, you should look at each scene and ask, “What does this scene accomplish?” If the answer is nothing, then the scene either needs to be removed or revised so it actually contributes something to the story, be it plot development, twists, or any sort of progress.
Kelley noted that scenes often are composed of three parts:
1. The planning stage, where characters figure out what they’re going to do.
2. The doing stage, where the characters are actually acting out the plan.
3. The analysis stage, where the characters look back and figure out what went right/wrong with the plan.
For the most part, you want have most of your scenes focused on the 2nd part, the Doing Stage. It slows the book down if the reader has to go through a scene of planning, only to then get into another scene where they see the plan enacted just as discussed previously. Skip right into the Doing part, and readers will be more engaged as the plan unfolds through the action.
Kelley also gave a number of points to help keep your novel’s pace strong.
1. Get in late, get out early. Start a scene as late into the action as possible, and finish the scene as soon as possible.
2. Taking care of business. Avoid writing in all the minor, inconsequential bits of business characters might need to attend. Don’t write about them brushing their teeth or walking the dog or things that “real people” have to deal with–unless something important happens during this time. You can skip over the details of the car ride across town. Just show the character at their destination.
3. Dragging dialogue. Dialogue can help move a story along, but there are also pitfalls, such as conversations that rehash things the readers or characters already know. Cut out small talk and avoid having scenes where you have nothing but talking heads (everyone knows what a talking head is, right?).
4. Cut out unnecessary detail, overly descriptive text, backstory, lyrics and poetry and introspective soap boxes and lectures.
5. Chapters should be a manageable length so the reader’s attention isn’t able to wander. Also, chapters should end as something is about to happen, providing a hook to take the reader on to the next scene.

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