Pacing Problems

I came home from school with a headache. The kids seemed to be getting rowdier everyday.

I suddenly remembered I’d have to get Rellie’s homework to her, so I grabbed her books and headed for her house, not really looking forward to going. Things had changed so much and so fast.

I strolled slowly to Rellie’s house, then knocked hesitantly on the door. Her grandmother answered it.

“Why, hello there…uh…Kris? Yes, Kris, it’s been such a while, I almost forgot your name!” she said.

I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.

“Um, yeah, well, I brought Rellie’s homework.” Then I added, in case she was wondering, “she asked me to bring it over.”

“Ah, yes. Well, why don’t you take it up to her.” she smiled. “Rhematism.” was her excuse.

I took it as a hint.

“No, no, no.” I dropped the books on a chair and turned to leave, but then she spoke.

“Oh, please, couldn’t you talk to Rellie. She’s been so out of it recently. I’m very worried.” She was wringing her hands.

Now, in any other situation if someone had tried to change my mind for me, I would have stuck to my grounds and portly refused, but there was Rellie’s grandmother, looking horribly old and fragile just begging for my help. What else could I do but grab the work and trudge upstairs.

I knocked on Rellie’s bedroom door, waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply, opened the door.

Rellie was sitting in a rocking chair looking out a window. Her back was to me, so I said her name, softly at first, then a little louder.

She didn’t move, so I walked over to her and placed a hand on a shoulder.

She had that blank, unseeing look on her face again, and she was clutching a stuffed animal. A baby lamb with a pink bow on its head.

Ah, my teen self was trying very hard to set a mood. I can tell by the way I tried to give the characters some hesitancy. But I flopped, because my pacing really sucks. First of all, why so much set-up in the beginning? We can clean it up. Let’s change the first part. Here is the original:

I came home from school with a headache. The kids seemed to be getting rowdier everyday.

I suddenly remembered I’d have to get Rellie’s homework to her, so I grabbed her books and headed for her house, not really looking forward to going. Things had changed so much and so fast.

I strolled slowly to Rellie’s house, then knocked hesitantly on the door. Her grandmother answered it.

My first problem is the “rowdier” part. Sounds too adult…and remember, I was a kid when I wrote this, so something is amiss, and I’d make bets it’s the books I’d been reading. Back in the 80s, literature didn’t often cater to people under thirty. I’d been reading The Call of the Wild and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at school. These were my influences. Nowadays, teens read books filled with characters that think and act like teens. So we need to give this story more of a teen feel and leave “rowdier” out of it.

Next, why did I spend so much time explaining about needing to get the homework and heading for Rellie’s house? Why not start the scene at Rellie’s doorstep? So here is how I’d change this portion:

Why did I agree to bring Rellie her homework? God, what an idiot. What if she answered the door? What would I say to her? Could I just hand her the worksheets and leave, or did she expect me to stick around for a while?

I felt dumb just standing around on Rellie’s porch staring at the door, so I sucked it up and pressed the doorbell. Maybe I’d get lucky and Rellie wouldn’t be home. Sorry, I’d tell her teachers, she wasn’t around. I tried.

But then the door opened.

Now I’ve created a little tension, I’ve shown characterization, and gave it some teen vibrancy. The pacing feels quicker because I’m showing how the character feels, not telling the reader what Kris (my character’s name) is going through.

Okay, the next passage:

“Why, hello there…uh…Kris? Yes, Kris, it’s been such a while, I almost forgot your name!” she said.

I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.

“Um, yeah, well, I brought Rellie’s homework.” Then I added, in case she was wondering, “she asked me to bring it over.”

“Ah, yes. Well, why don’t you take it up to her.” she smiled. “Rhematism.” was her excuse.

I took it as a hint.

“No, no, no.” I dropped the books on a chair and turned to leave, but then she spoke.

“Oh, please, couldn’t you talk to Rellie. She’s been so out of it recently. I’m very worried.” She was wringing her hands.

The first problem I have is that the dialogue sounds stilted and unrealistic. Obviously there are problems with grammar and capitalization as well, but my teen self wants to remind everyone this was a first draft written on paper, and it wasn’t something I went through and tried to fix. Okay, now that my teen ego is soothed, let’s change the pacing by showing character emotion and some strong dialogue.

You might think that the best way to quicken pace is to make this part shorter, but not so! Pacing is not determined by length. It’s determined by what is happening within the story. You can make a story drag by putting in too many details, or repeating information. In this case, the pacing lags in some places, is too quick in others. Let’s even it out.

“Kris!” Rellie’s grandmother stuck her hands on her hips and leaned back. Looking me up and down, the way old people like to do when they’re checking out how much you’ve grown, she said, “Feels like I haven’t seen you in ages. What have you been up to?”

Mrs. Whitfield’s over-eagerness sent goosebumps up my arms. “Uh…I have Rellie’s homework.” I pushed the worksheets at her, hoping she’d take them and I could get the hell out of there. A stink like rotting oranges drifted to my nostrils, and my stomach wanted to rebel.

She didn’t take the papers. Instead, she opened the door wider. “Go ahead and bring them to her. She’s in her room. I know she’d love to see you.” The catch in her voice betrayed her intentions.

I know, I wanted to tell her. You don’t want to be alone with her, either.

“I don’t think so. I have stuff to do.” I pressed the papers into her hand. This time she took them. “Sorry.”

She grasped my arm before I could turn away. “Please,” she said, voice so low it was barely audible. “Please go see her.” Her eyes watered. “I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know what to say. If you could—”

“I can’t.” I shook off her hand. “I don’t know what to say either.”

A tear slid down her face, disappeared into the folds of her cheek. “Yesterday she stole my blood pressure pills. Took them right from my purse, as if I wouldn’t notice. It’s the first cry for help, you know.”

The rotting oranges filled my throat, my stomach. My head began to throb. “She’s not going to commit suicide,” I said. Though what did I know? I couldn’t even talk to Rellie anymore. I didn’t have the words to make her feel better. How would I know whether or not she’d take her own life?

“She needs friends,” Mrs. Whitfield continued as if she hadn’t heard me. Her voice became hard. “She needs you.”

I added more to this part of the scene, and yet it feels the pacing works better than my previous attempt. There’s tension. Emotion. A greater understanding of each character’s motivation. And that keeps the pacing from lagging.

Here’s the next part I need to revise:

Now, in any other situation if someone had tried to change my mind for me, I would have stuck to my grounds and portly refused, but there was Rellie’s grandmother, looking horribly old and fragile just begging for my help. What else could I do but grab the work and trudge upstairs.

I knocked on Rellie’s bedroom door, waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply, opened the door.

Rellie was sitting in a rocking chair looking out a window. Her back was to me, so I said her name, softly at first, then a little louder.

She didn’t move, so I walked over to her and placed a hand on a shoulder.

She had that blank, unseeing look on her face again, and she was clutching a stuffed animal. A baby lamb with a pink bow on its head.

First of all, I can’t help but laugh at my word choice. Portly? Maybe if this story was set in the eighteenth century that would work, but modern teen language does not contain odd phrases such as “portly refused.” Although I’m impressed my teen self used such a term.

Next to consider: In my first draft I was definitely establishing motivation as to why Kris decided, against her better judgment, to visit Rellie upstairs. And it really isn’t written all that terribly, though in my revised piece I’ve made the motivation stronger because the word suicide is hanging in the air between Kris and Mrs. Whitfield. Certainly Kris can’t back out now. She’d be a jerk to do so. And we can’t have a jerky protagonist. Who wants to spend hours with a callous, unlikeable, rude character? Not the reader (unless you give your callous, unlikeable, rude character a redeemable quality, but more on that another time).

So we can move onto the scene where Kris visits Rellie. Notice the repetition: “waited for a reply, then, when I got no reply.” Repetition slows pacing, remember? We need to streamline that part. Let’s also up the stakes for our protagonist and the tension within the scene. How? Let’s give our protagonist good reason to not want to open the door.

She was right. Rellie needed a friend. I couldn’t pretend she was going to get better by remaining alone. I took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll see Rellie.” I took the worksheets from Mrs. Whitfield.

She clasped her hands to her chest and glanced toward the ceiling. “Thank you,” she whispered. I wasn’t sure if she was thanking God or me.

I trudged upstairs. The banister was sticky. Like it had recently been waxed. I pulled my hand away. Wiped it on my jeans.

When I came to the landing, I stopped to listen. There was no sound. No television blaring, no music playing. Eerie silence. An old sticker with a smiley face grinned at me from Rellie’s door, one eye torn in half. It was winking at me, daring me to enter.

What if I walked in and found Rellie lying on the floor, bleeding from a gash in her wrist? Or hanging from the ceiling with a belt?

My half-digested lunch threatened to come up. I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t walk in and see my best friend dead.

I opened my eyes. The smiley face mocked me.

She’s not dead, I tried to tell myself. She wouldn’t. She’s stronger than that. Remember when the guy she was crushing on stole her lunch and tossed it in the garbage? She didn’t freak out, didn’t cry, bitch, or moan. She plotted. After school she slipped into the boys’ locker room and drew his naked likeness on his locker, making sure to feature his tiniest parts. That’s not the sign of a weak person.

But was suicide for weak people? I didn’t know. Seemed to me you had to have guts to go through with it.

Damn it. Why was this so hard?

I knocked on her door. When there was no answer, I opened it, holding my breath and bracing myself for the worst.

The room was cold. Like death. I shivered. The window was open all the way, the curtains waving with the harsh breeze. Standing in front of it, her back to me, was Rellie.

She wasn’t dead. I let out the air my lungs held and felt the blood drain back into my face. “Hey, Rellie.”

She didn’t turn around.

I moved closer. Stepped beside her. She clutched a stuffed lamb. Her lips were tinged purple.

“Have you been standing here long?” I asked.

She blinked. Continued to stare out the window. I glanced at her nightgown. Her matted hair. The dull look in her eyes. She didn’t look like Rellie. She looked like her ghost.

It was almost as bad as finding her dead.

I upped the stakes by making Kris fear that she’d find her friend dead. Would you want to open that door? I also added a hint as to who Rellie was before the tragic accident that killed her family. And then I gave the reader hints as to Rellie’s state of mind. The clothes, the hair, the stuffed animal. I did not say: Rellie looked as if she hadn’t taken a shower in days. I showed it. And this creates more tension. More suspense. The reader wonders, is Kris going to be able to get through to Rellie? Can she save her friend?

I don’t know. Can she? We’ll see what happens in another installment of my story revision.

Pacing makes a huge difference in your writing. Some places you need to sow things  down, create suspense and up the tension. Other times you need to speed things up. Use snappier dialogue. Show things happening one after the other during an action scene. It takes a few tries to get it right. I could further tighten this piece, find places to make sentences smoother. But this is a good second draft; a good revision. It will work well enough for my needs, which are to both show character emotion and make things more difficult for my protagonist. Two essential parts of storytelling.

How will you fix your pacing problems? Try these techniques and see if they work for you.

#pacing #revision #storypace #YA #story #edits #teen

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Princess Revision: Chapter One, Scene Four

SEPTEMBER 6, 1966 I was standing in the rain in front of his car as he was fixing the flat. I noticed his high cheekbones, and watched the way his lips moved as he talked. I thought getting a flat in

Princess Revision: Chapter One – Scene Three

Susan applied her last bit of makeup just as the doorbell rang from downstairs. “Oh, God…it’s Bobby. How do I look?” She turned around in a circle, “You know, I look good, and he’s going to go nuts…no

Princess Revision: Chapter One – Scene Two

I had met Jake two years before. He was a junior in college, and worked at this fancy restaurant as a bartended. He told me that it was love at first sight. The light was dim, and I was being escorted