Tension and pace are the next most crucial items in the writer’s armoury. It doesn’t matter how vital your subject matter, or how brilliant your writing style, if you don’t have tension in your story, and if it doesn’t move with pace, your readers will get bored or frustrated, and (writer’s worst nightmare) might even give up.
Let’s look at those two things – tension and pace – in order.
TENSION – Or one might call it suspense. This doesn’t mean that every work must necessarily be a murder mystery or a fast action thriller. The suspense may be emotional (Jane Austen), intellectual (John Fowles), political (C.P. Snow), legal (John Grisham), sexual (Jilly Cooper), psychological (Kasuo Ishiguro), philosophical (Ayn Rand), or any other interpretation of the word. The reader must WANT TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN.
This means your work must contain elements of what one might call the three C’s.
CONFLICT – clashes of opinion, personality, or circumstance.
CRISIS – dilemma, problem, setback.
CONUNDRUM – enigma, mystery, paradox.
All depiction, all dialogue, all reflection, must in one way or another have a bearing on the tension in your story. They should not be diversions just for the sake of beautiful description or clever intercourse.
Take this random passage from one of the most suspenseful of all writers, John Fowles –
‘…as men always will, I tried to extract some hope from her. That she would wait for me, not judge me too quickly… such things. But she stopped me with a look. A look I shall never forget, because it was almost one of hatred. And hatred in her face was like spite in the Virgin Mary’s; it reversed the entire order of nature. I walked beside her in silence. I said goodbye to her under a street lamp. By a garden full of lilac trees.’ (The Magus)
This has poetry and romance and emotion, but it also has tension, even though it apparently depicts the end of something. It makes one want to read the whole book.
It also contains our second element – pace.
PACE – This is a nebulous quality, but it is also essential. Many modern critics put it down to the length of sentences. Short snappy sentences, thanks perhaps to the digital age and the pace of modern living, are the vogue now. However most classical writers were not concerned with the length of their phrases or paragraphs. Indeed they were often highly convoluted. But this did not mean that they lacked pace. One would hardly describe Dickens or Tolstoy as laborious, nor in the theatrical field, Bernard Shaw. Yet all constructed lengthy complex phraseology which made the reader work at the meaning.
I find that the best way to determine whether a passage lacks pace is to read it to myself as if to an audience. I then soon get a sense of whether the stuff is ponderous and needs simplfying. Another factor is the use of adjectives and adverbs. It is a vital piece of advice, yet difficult for novices to comprehend, that wherever possible do NOT use either. They invariably lead to cliché, and they are invariably unnecessary. See the above John Fowles passage.
Or take this simpler example:-
‘He hurriedly picked up his bag and ran fast to catch the vital train.’ That has two adverbs and an adjective in it.
‘He grabbed his bag and sprinted for his train.’ That has neither. Which has more pace? The description is in the verbs, so the adjectives/adverbs are unnecessary.
Likewise a lack of detail can paradoxically detract from pace. Meaning that a simple sentence can be lacking in urgency, whereas the addition of circumstance can transform it. To use our example:-
‘He grabbed his bag and ran for the train.’ Well, it’s a basic depiction of an urgent action.
However – ‘He grabbed his bag, grimacing at its weight, and sprinted for the station, praying he had not missed his train.’ That gives both suspense and pace to the moment.
Or another example:-
‘She glanced over at where he was working, and as usual her heart leapt.’ Okay, the girl fancies the guy rotten.
But – ‘She stole a glance in his direction, and as he hoisted the bales, she noted that same animal quality again.’ A bit Jilly Cooper perhaps, but it has the tension in the attraction (‘stole a glance’, ‘animal quality’), and pace in the physical description (‘hoisted the bales’).
Tension and pace – “This literary bombshell I’m wrestling with is going to scare the pants off any publisher.”
Go for it.