Sunday, May 23, 2021

Ready, Set, Action!

If you're interested in learning how to pace your story, you might take a look at The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s sequel to The War That Saved My Life. 

The pacing is worth studying to learn how a writer sustains a reader’s attention from page to page. 

Notice the way Bradley relies on strong, active verbs and short, rapid sentences:

Coming out of the ether was harder. My right leg was pinned, trapped. I couldn’t move. I broke into a sweat, struggling to pull myself free. I’d been caught in a bombing, buried in rubble. I couldn’t move my leg. Then somehow I was trapped again in the dank cabinet beneath the sink, in our old flat in London. Mam had locked me inside. The cockroaches—

Bradley also introduces a strong, underlying emotion that gets under the skin of the reader in the same way it gets under the skin of the character. (Can you identify the emotion?)

Here are a few more examples of the way Bradley uses short sentences, active verbs, and an underpinning emotion to drive the story’s pace: 

The galloping horses made Butter wild. He wanted to race. I held him tighter while he fought me, snatching at the bit. Sweat streaked his sides. I braced my hands against his neck. “Stop it, stop it, “ I said to him. “You idiot, behave!”

 The passage continues: 

We came to a ditch full of water. Ivy plonked into it and waded through. Butter hesitated, then leaped. I flew with him, up, out of the saddle, miles from the saddle. He landed on the ditch’s far side. I kept going. 

And it finally reaches its conclusion:

I dropped the reins, pulled my arms in, and took the fall on my shoulder like Lady Thorton had said. I rolled across the grass, unhurt. Butter pranced in place, his feet tangled in the dangling reins. He’d break the reins next, the wretched pony. I scrambled to my feet. 

Again, you can see how Bradley relies on active verbs, short sentences, and an underlying emotion. How would you describe the emotion in the passages excerpted above? Fear? Loss of control? Shame? 

In the following passage, you can see again how the pace moves within the passage itself from a relatively calm moment to sudden fright:

A week or so later, all of us except Lady Thorton, who had gone early to bed, were sitting by the fire at night, listening to the nine o’clock radio news. Suddenly someone hammered on the door. Susan leaped up. I leaped up too. A telegram, at this hour? 

It was Fred. He gagged, groaned, and vomited in a wide arc across the floor.

You can pick out the verbs—sitting, listening, hammered, leaped, gagged, groaned, vomited.— and can see that no word is used half-heartedly. For Bradley (and her readers), it’s almost always full-steam ahead, although you can see that she slows the story where it’s important to go deeper into the emotional challenges a character might be facing.

If you want to capture your reader’s attention, too, and hold it on every page, just remember to focus on the verbs that you select for your sentences and on the length of those sentences. 

Not every sentence needs to be short. Mixing up the length of sentences can offer an interesting rhythm to the pace. It gives the reader a chance to speed up or slow down, according to where the character is emotionally in the story.

And when you combine the emotional undercurrent with active verbs and short sentences, you'll have created an undertow that your reader cannot resist… a sure-fired way of persuading your reader to dive into your story and stay there. 

For more info about pacing in a story, visit: