Why we really need a montage- working with pace

This week my MA novel-writing students at City University are covering pace. Often, people assume that this simply means going as fast as you can. A lightning- quick story with lots of running around and many things happening. But actually, pacing is about controlling the passage of time in the story- and for your reader. It’s about making them turn the pages feverishly, or stay glued to every word.

The most common pacing error I see in new writing is too much summarising. Telling us what happened instead of letting us see it, moment by moment on the page. (At the weekend I taught a class with Erin Kelly, queen of the psychological thriller, who suggested thinking of the book as a series of scenes, like in a film. This is so much easier, especially for first-time writers) Writing moment by moment is vastly more engaging than telling, and allows the reader to infer things and have unanswered questions, which builds suspense. So if you’re struggling with writing that is concise, clear, and flat, go moment by moment instead. It’s essentially the opposite of what we learn in school, which is why fiction is sometimes harder for people who are good at other types of writing (eg journalism). You’ve got to unlearn all those habits that got you an A in Mrs Smith’s English class.

Nb- this doesn’t mean you have to show us every single instant from the scene, such as ‘I opened the door. I crossed the room. I picked up the cup’ etc.) if you start sounding like a Dick and Jane book, vary your sentence length and structure, and use some dialogue or direct thoughts. Or skip over it altogether by using a jump cut, which I have talked about before.

Of course, sometimes you want to summarise the passing of time in a concise way, but as we tragically don’t have access to the montage (see below) in narrative writing, we have to find another way.

Try writing ‘it was a year later’, then jumping into another moment by moment scene. If we need to know any other information, slip it into the scene via thoughts, dialogue, or telling details the reader can observe. Or even start with some dialogue:

‘I hate Christmas,’ said Mary, toying with the angel from the tree. It was a year later and during that time Santa hadn’t called her at all, or replied to the letters she put up the chimney. She told herself she didn’t need him, but how could she forget him when his face stared out of every shop window and Christmas card? 

*rushes off to write Santa-themed erotica*

So, to summarise, if you’re having issues with your pace, try

  • jump cuts
  • moment by moment writing
  • cutting out backstory, info dump, and summarising
  • starting the scene with dialogue or action, then explaining afterwards where and when it is  (this also creates a bit of mini-suspense if we’re not totally sure how we got here for a paragraph or two)

Think of different ways to get from A to D, without going via B and C. If all else fails try to invent the narrative montage. Please.

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