I’m Nina Milton, and this blog is all about getting out the laptop or the pen and pad to get writing. My blogposts are focused on advice and suggestions and news for writers, but also on a love reading with plenty of reviews, and a look at my pagan life, plus arts and culture. Get all my posts as they appear by becoming a subscriber. Click below right...

Saturday 11 May 2024

Psychic distance – is it telling or showing?

Psychic distance  – also known as narrative distance – is how close or removed a reader feels from your characters and the events of your story. It affects how emotionally invested a reader becomes and how much they care about what happens, especially to the narrator. 

As a writer, you can control narrative distance and achieve the right balance by incorporating both near and far narrative distance. But before attempting this it is vital to know exactly what you are doing. If you accidentally create too much narrative distance, you can leave a reader feeling disconnected from characters and less likely to read on. If you have too close distance too often, things can become confused.

Psychic  distance is part of understanding point of view. And that's a very complex technique in itself, which I've already written about extensively. If you still feel a bit wonky over how to use POV, or even what it really is, first check out this blogpost HERE and this blogpost HERE.

Within POV is the technique of creating a character's  internal monologue.  Usually, we only see the internal monologue of the narrator, whose POV we are in. To quote MasterClass;


Getting inside the mind
of the narrator isn't easy
Internal monologue…is a literary device that allows the reader to observe the inner thoughts of characters in a narrative.” Internal monologue prevents the narrative becoming emotionless.  When internal monologue is used, the scene is described through the perspective and voice of the character, making it emotional and personal. This prevents the writing becoming expositional. In other words internal monologue veers towards being SHOW, rather than TELL.  Browne & King put it this way: “One of the signs that you are writing from an intimate point of view is that the line between your description and your interior monologue begins to blur. Readers move effortlessly from seeing the world through your character’s eyes to seeing the world through your character’s mind and back again.” 

Psychic distance is the gap the reader feels between themselves and the events in the story. It can range from feeling like youre deep inside the protagonists mind, experiencing their experiences to a wider, impersonal view. Psychic distance can be thought of as occurring at different levels of distance; in other words this is  a spectrum, or scale

In his work, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (1983) offer five points on the scale, with the largest distance between the reader and the events of the story being represented as the beginning “level” at level 1. As the psychic distance between the reader and the story narrows, psychic distance progresses through levels 2-4,  with level 5 representing the closest distance between the reader and the events of the story. Gardner gives five examples showing how psychic distance exists on a continuum. 

The furthest psychic distance, viewing the scene from far away and with some formality would be: It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of the doorway. In contrast, the closest psychic distance, where the reader experiences first-hand the events of the story, reads like this: Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul. 

A single piece of fiction may require a mixture of psychic distances, and Gardner makes the point that skilled authors control the inevitable shifts that are needed with care and without alienating the reader. At one end, readers are up close and personal with characters, experiencing the world through their senses and getting to know their innermost thoughts and emotions. At the other end of the narrative distance scale, readers get very little character insight. The story’s setting, events and character behaviour are conveyed objectively and unemotionally.

Most novels travel up and down the psychic distance scale. Authors vary narrative distance to give rhythm to their writing – and to share both the inner world of a viewpoint character and the wider context of the external world. Too great a narrative distance can cause problems for your story. When you create too much narrative distance:

  • Readers struggle to make an emotional connection to your characters
  • Readers are less invested in story events
  • Readers are less engaged with your story as a whole

These are all problems associated with SHOW, DON'T TELL. That is because  psychic distance  is linked to SHOW, DON'T TELL. This may feel an odd thing to say, but look at the Level One example from Gardner, that with the widest distance: 

It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of the doorway

This is remote and objective. It is exposition, in other words, it is TELL.  

It doesn't give us ay sense of   particular characters in the story as  persons with thoughts and feelings. The narrator is very much in charge,TELLING us a lot about where we are and what's happening: it's all about information and context. But if it stays at this level we might not care much about the people that the story is telling us about, and it limits the writer's scope for exploring how they experience the world and themselves. 

Compare this to the Level Five example; Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.  Here, the reader is already inside the character's head to such a degree we can see him most intimate thoughts. The author is SHOWING us the character's thoughts. They are close-up and subjective: almost a brain download, with thoughts and sensory information all jumbled up. The character's voice is wholly present and the narrator's voice has faded out. It's extremely expressive of this person's character and situation. 

One of the reasons for moving around in the spectrum of psychic distance is that staying at such a close level, where the character's thoughts are all on SHOW,  the reader may fail to understand what's going on in the outside world of the story.  

Lisa Cron, in her book,
Wired for Story, (2015) argues that the best way to convey thoughts in the third person limited is akin to telepathy) and that the greatest stories clue you into what the characters are thinking so deftly that when it comes to figuring out exactly how they did it, youre still left wondering. She cautions against the use of italics, quotation marks and tags because once you master the art of slipping your charactersthoughts onto the page, the reader can automatically differentiate a characters inner thoughts from the narrators voice’ 

It is generally considered that the first-person is a more subtle way of gaining access to a characters mind, where you can go deeper into a character. But by using the technique of closer psychic distance, the limited third-person point of view can be just as intimate, if you wish it to be. 

 Virginia Woolf, who famously was able to enter the deepest parts of a characters mind always uses masses of close psychic distance, to the point of stream of consciousness. The does make her books a challenge! 

Thinking no harm, for the family would not come, never again, some said, and the house would be sold at Michaelmas perhaps, Mrs. McNab stooped and picked a bunch of flowers to take home with her [...] There it had stood all these years without a soul in it. The books and things were mouldy for, what with the war and help being hard to get, the house had not been cleaned as she could have wished. It was beyond one person’s strength to get it straight now [...] This had been the nursery. Why it was all damp in here; the plaster was falling. Whatever did they want to hang a beast’s skull there for? gone mouldy too. And rats in all the attics. The rain came in. But they never sent; never came. Some of the locks had gone, so the doors banged. She didn’t like to be up here at dusk alone neither. It was too much for one woman, too much, too much. To The Lighthouse (1927)

However, Philip Pullman successfully uses a more distant psychic narration  in his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. 

In Book One, Northern Lights, (1995) the heroine, Lyra 

Belacqua, has been captured and is in danger:
 It wasnt Lyras way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasnt imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger’.

Pullmans style is to give objective comments and observations about his protagonist, leaving us with little doubt that it must be true.

Here is a great example from Hilary Mantel of closing in, slowly, from a greater psychic distance towards a very close one. It's from Wolf Hall (2009). Watch how we see Stephen from a distance, as Mantel TELLS us about him, and then zooms in tightly until she's SHOWING us his thoughts.

New Year 1529: Stephen Gardiner is in Rome, issuing certain threats to Pope Clement, on the king’s behalf; the content of the threats has not been divulged to the cardinal. Clement is easily panicked at the best of times, and it is not surprising that, with Master Stephen breathing sulphur in his ear, he falls ill. They are saying that he is likely to die, and the cardinal’s agents are around and about in Europe, taking soundings and counting heads, chinking their purses cheerfully. There would be a swift solution to the king’s problem, if Wolsey were Pope. He grumbles a little about his possible eminence; the cardinal loves his country, its May garlands, its tender birdsong. In his nightmares he sees squat spitting Italians, a forest of nooses, a corpse-strewn plain.

I'm not the only writer to think that psychic distance is part of showing and telling. Here's Emma  Darwen in The Itch of Writing;

My own lightbulb moment about this stuff happened when I saw that John Gardner's Psychic Distance fits beautifully with Showing and Telling, (or as I like to call it, Informing and Evoking)...The takeaway idea, if you like, is that different voices - the narrator's and the characters' - combine to make the narrative, interpenetrating each other to different degrees depending on the writer's decision about the best psychic distance for that moment in the story.

And  Writers in the Storm blog agrees with this idea. SHOWING is part of advanced POV techniques, especially when psychically close to the character's internal monologue; 

Point of view (POV) is the silver bullet of writing. If you master this, 95% of the common writing problems a writer faces will vanish. A solid point of view puts you (and your readers) firmly in a character's head, seeing the world through their eyes, and experiencing that world as they would naturally experience it. ..Seeing the story through a character's eyes means you'll write it as that character sees it, not as you see it. It helps keep you from pulling away and describing (telling) the scene from afar.

What am I thinking and feeling?

Because thinking about SHOW, DON'T TELL allows readers to understand what the characters are feeling, and why they act the way they do, you can use this close perspective when you want to make this clear, and pull the reader in, making them part of the story, not a spectator on the sidelines. It involves them emotionally. Sometimes, that's just what you want as the writer of your story. 

Friday 3 May 2024

Are you a King of Hearts Writer? 7 Reasons to Write a Novel Out of Order.

King of Hearts Meaning

“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” 

In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the King of Hearts was  definite in his opinion.

And when you  flip through a new novel it’s easy to imagine that the writer sat down and did just that; the story is so beautifully tight and compelling –  it's as though it had been written from the opening words, with the writer almost not pausing to draw breath until they reached 'The End' . 

Certainly, that's what I have always done. I start at chapter one and keep going until I get to chapter Z. I call that 'writing with the plot line'. First, I'll complete a plot outline, It will be a bit grey in places, and the ending will be blurred. Whether writing a novel or a short story, or even a poem, I work chronologically through. Even if I'm not sure what the plot will develop…even if the ending changes a hundred times, I keep going

Sometimes, this obvious strategy doesn't work well because the timeline of the story is deliberately disjointed a
nd out of order. Chapter One may be set in 1840, chapter two in 2023 and chapter three in 1955. An example of this is
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, which has two disjointed  timelines running alongside each other. In such a story, is sometimes better to write 'the story' rather than 'the plot'. One would start at the beginning of that story and move chronologically thought the storyline as each event occurred, then chop and change each section to create the 'disconnections'  planned in the structural plot. 

Both these methods can be see as 'writing chronologically', but many writers do not follow the King of Hearts advice at all. A journal article by Nancy Sommers suggests that  experienced writers  tend to work on whatever is easiest for them at the moment, rather than forcing themselves to work in a specific order.

To a degree, the writer's personality will dictate which strategy is right for them, but there are cons and pros to each method, which I'm going to take a look at in this blog, to help you feel freer to choose, and happier about your individual method. 

1. Free up the drafting phase

Writing in plot outline or timeline order helps you tell yourself the story and keeps your head from bursting! 

Writing out of order may allow the story to flow freely from your imagination. When we write out of sequence, we don’t have to remember that great idea or save it for later—we can just write it!

IN EITHER CASE try not to worry what the second or third draft will look like. Write with freedom and enjoy. the process… you don't always need to know what happens next. A 'blank' chapter can just be a paragraph (or even a sentence) of notes to jog your memory for the next draft. And of you have a great idea for a future scene while you’re working on an earlier on, you can move straight onto to it.

2.  Conjour New Ideas

Writing to plot outline doesn't negate new ideas.
Writing freely, with less of an overall plan gives you a special kind of freedom. This is when all sorts of possibilities for the novel come into your mind. 
I personally find going for a long walk alone always helps me brainstorm in this way, and I find I am manifesting conversations, developing or inventing characters, imagining descriptions of places, working on complete scenes, even full chapters. 

IN EITHER CASE ideas may come and go, so keep a notebook near. And some may have to be ditched, but that's all part of writing a novel. 

3. Avoid Writer's Block

I think that writing to an outline helps me avoid writers block because I never have a completely blank screen; the next step is always outlined in my plot plan.


Ronald T Kellog's research on working memory shows that complex writing tasks (and yes, wri
ting a novel or short story definitely comes into THAT category), put pressure on our working memory. If you have every had to stop typing because you just can't remember the direction your story was supposed to take, or the order it was supposed to go in, then that's because you have overtaxed your working memory. Writing in order of plot or timeline feels to me like a way of not taxing working memory, because the plot outline is there in front of me. But when you write out of order, the work becomes less a plot outline and more a freewrite, rather than 'an important

IN EITHER CASE make sure your thinking energy is focused into the characters and their story. This helps take the pressure off you, which every strategy you accept. You should always try to enjoy the development of characters, and feel proud as the scenes build up.

4. No Time to Write? Work Off-plan
It can be tough to find large blocks of time for crafting your novel. You have go to work, you have look after family, you have a social life...well, okay, the social life might have to be curbed. In fact, when I start a novel, I put my head down and keep going, cutting out 
evening telly and making the family cook for themselves.
I've met writers who entirely wrote their novel on the train to work, piecemeal. Finally they notice that the word count is growing. It's all a bit of a mess, but it is GETTING WRITTEN.  

They are not writing in linear form, but aiming for incremental pieces that may at first look like the jigsaw in the box. They are writing that paragraph and calling it a day, then building those paragraphs into the order once that first draft is finished.

IN EITHER CASE, progress is progress, and that’s what matters.

5. Push through the Barriers

Even when writing to a plot outline, you find yourself going over speed bumps w

hich slow progress. When I'm not sure my outline is working, I do skip scenes. I
f I'm not sure about a chapter I just make notes on the page and keep moving on, then sort out any problems about the order or any missing bits in draft two.
Doing that too often can lead to writer's block. If you throw away the plot outline and just write the scene that is in your head, then you are on your way to pushing through those barriers. Being able to stop writing the scene with the blockage, and start a new, random scene, may even help you solve the problems, as new ideas pop into your now freed-up mind.
IN EITHER CASE, there will be blockages, barriers and 'sleeping policemen' getting in your way. Sometimes, you won't know where to go with the story next. So use both strategies in turn to try and push though barriers.

6. "I Can't Work Without a Plot Outline"

Many writers, including myself, will state this. I love my outlines and timelines because I think they help my progress, prevent the 'blank page syndrom' and save time in the long run.
If you're stuck inside a novel, it is very refreshing to throw away the plot outline and just enjoy writing. Use techniques like 'write a scene that won't be in the final draft',  explore previously written scenes for more description and imagery, create 'character contemplations in which they think their way through their problems and start a character diary which covers the time before the novel begins....or after it finishes.
IN EITHER CASE, even if you already have a plot outline, it is still possible to write the scenes and chapters within it  flexibly. You've created a structure, but allowed yourself  the freedom to move within it and outside of it when you choose and create as you go.

7. Keep Your Passion Flame Going

If you aren't passionate about your story, it will probably not get finished. You have to be absolutely enthusiastic about this story in your head and the characters you love, or love to hate, to want absolutely to get to the words 'The End'. That drive is necessary because writing a novel is very hard; the hours are long, and the immediate rewards are fact the only reward until you see a contract in sight is the joy of writing this story, about these people. Of course my plot outline changes constantly, and I revamp it regularly, but having it in front of me helps keep up the joy of the writing.


Writing out of order, and with very little idea of what will come next can be a lot of fun. It makes the writing feel less of a chore, because you chose what you write next in your story and that can help keep that flame of passion alive. You give yourself freedom and for many writers that's where the passion comes from. They maintain the thrill and motivation by jumping to a new chapter when the progress slows with a previous one. 

Which Would Work For You?

If you haven't thought about using a different method of writing your novel before, do so now. Asking if you are writing in the best way for you. You might think; in my normal life, do I like a plan? Or am I more random. Am I a  non-linear thinker – the person who cleans the house at ten at night? Or do I like to come home after work to a well-ordered evening? 

And if the approach you are taking with your novel at the moment isn't really working for you, then see if you can make the writing process easier by swapping techniques. 

I've actually never tried to write a novel out of order, but if I was feeling stymied by the writing, I might try this  strategy. Nothing is lost, because all your writing is 'grist to your mill'.

Looking at that novel on the bookseller's shelf, it's seamlessness, its tight and perfect storytelling, don't forget that you can’t compare that book to its very first draft. Who knows how much blood the writer sweated? Who knows which tools and strategies they used, to craft that perfect novel? Just think about which methods might be the right ones for you and perhaps your completed novel well be 
just as seamless.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Writing about the Climate Crisis; Fact or Fiction?

Recently, I've been reading four different books about climate change – two nonfiction and two novels. It made me wonder, what is the best way to get your point across, when you want to talk about a subject you are passionate about?

Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Losing Earth (The Decade we Could have Stopped Climate Change) and Michael E Mann, who wrote The New Climate War (The Fight to Take back our planet), have both taken the route of  writing nonfiction to attract the readers' attention to their subject matter.  But have approached global warming at an angle, looking at one very very specific aspect. This is  an important thing to remember when writing nonfiction about a large, well-covered debate such as this. There are already a lot of books out there, and they already contain all the salient facts on the subject. Unless you have very up-to-date information to newly impart, it is essential that you decide on a 'slant' that can gain you interest in. swamped market. This is what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola advise in their writing manual for nonfiction writers, Tell it Slant. Both are award-winning authors and using the Emily Dickinson quote,“Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant.” intend to reveal  how to develop your own distinctive and compelling creative nonfiction, showing writers how to move beyond mere facts and, instead, make the most of their own “slant” on the world. 

 Nathaniel Rich takes the 'slant' of retelling the story of the early days of realisation, the 1070s, and how that knowledge was squandered by allowing energy companies and oil firms suppressed the truth of global warming for their own profits. Rich deeply researched his book, demonstrating his arguments conclusively. But he must have known that, handled with the wrong style, this book might have been very dry. He overcomes this problem by approaching each of his stories through the characters (the protagonists and the antagonists), by setting scenes in a dramatic manner and by using a hight percent of dialogue within them. He's telling a story, which feels tense and full of jeopardy, and he reveals it steadily, using the skills of the novelist to keep every read on the page. Rich is a novelist, as well as a writer of nonfiction, and he utilises those skills well. 

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 M Mann also knows exactly what 'slant' he wants to approach in his book. For him, the 'antagonists' are the fossil-fuel industry and their allies, and the story of how they deflected the blame for climate change to the  'protagonist' – that is, the little man in the street, who is instructed to "recycle, fly less, eat less meat", and are made to feel that this is 'all their faults'. Mann is a distinguished  professor of atmospheric sciences, but like Rich, knows how to use novelistic skills to pull his reader into his debate.

To counter these two fact-based books, I've been reading two iconic pieces of climate-fiction. 

Ursula Le Guin is an acclaimed writer of science fiction, who has been at the top of her field for decades. Her early book, The Word for World is Forest (1976), is a slender, but gripping account of a future  Earth, devastated by humanity. The book is set on one of many of the planets we are now mining for assets, leaving each planet in as bad a state as the Earth herself.  In this planet, called Forest,  the inhabitants strike the humans as simple, possibly ape-like. But they are wrong. These are sensitive, intelligent individuals, and they are not happy at the rape of their home. 

The late JG Ballard is also an acclaimed writer of science fiction, but particularly famous for his autobiography, Empire of the Sun. In The Drowned World, a very early novel which helped make his name,  Ballard describes a future world that is hotter than ours is now, and where the rains have fallen with such ferocity that the cities of the world are lost into deep lagoons. We follow a few of the survivors in this desperate attempts to stay alive...without killing each other. 

Very recently published, but reminiscent of The Word for World is Forest,  is the sci-fi novel in verse by Langmead is known for his sci-fi Dark Star, and like that book, this is written as a long-form poem.  It's a saga of colony ships, shattering moons and cataclysmic war in a new Eden.

Rochelle wakes from cryostasis to take up her role as engineer on the colony ark, Calypso. But she finds the ship has transformed into a forest, populated by the original crew's descendants, who revere her like a saint.

She travels the ship with the Calypso's creator, the enigmatic Sigmund, and Catherine, a bioengineered marvel who can commune with the plants, uncovering a new history of humanity forged while she slept.

She discovers a legacy of war between botanists and engineers. A war fought for the right to build a new Earth – a technological paradise, or a new Eden in bloom, untouched by mankind's past.

And Rochelle, the last to wake, holds the balance of power in her hands.

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So I have to ask, which of these books would make me more determined to help reverse the global crisis? The nonfiction states their case and made me feel both angry and more ready to act. But the fiction touched my soul, and gave me the passion needed. 

Thursday 14 March 2024

Pace Your Story – What Literary Pacing is all about

                                                               ......PACE is the timing by which the major events in the story unfold and by which the scenes are shown. Also the process of stretching out the big scenes by slowing down time and compressing offstage action (speeding up time) to match the reader’s emotional needs. This means that it might crawl along, feel crushed, or flow and slide like a slow river. It might then accelerate, thrusting forward, or hurtle like a booster rocket. Pace  is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm readers are pulled through  events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.

We usually expect pace to be created from the action, but dialogue and even inner monologue can engender pace. A build-up of  pace and is mostly used to advance the action and create nail-biting  dramatic tension, while drop in pace will create a different mood...dreamy, thoughtful. A slower pace can also cleverly be used to delay the peak of the tension for as long as possible, teasing the reader and gaining an explosion of drama once that pace changes. The technique used is a process of stretching out, by slowing down time and compressing offstage action to match the reader’s emotional needs. As  James Scott Bell explains in Plot & Structure, ‘When you’ve got a handle on the trouble for your character… you are ready to stretch.  Go through the scene beat by beat… Take your time with each one’

The opening to a novel is a good place to announce to the reader the sort of pace they should expect. Pace should fluctuate, changing regularly, to create variety within a piece, but it's you – the writer and author of the piece – who decides what the pace should be and when it should alter.

As a writer of crime fiction, sometimes I want my reader to know there will be more pensive moments, even among the thrills. This opening is dreamy and contemplative, despite the subject matter and opens my second novel, where I use devises such as longer words, sentences and paragraphs, deep imagery, and expanded descriptions, upping the pace just a little with action and dialogue at the end; 

The retrieval was unceremonious and without dignity. The woman’s body was winched from the Dunball Clyce at 17.13, dripping with sluice-slime. The hip bones shone white against the sun and there were fish swimming in her belly.

    It had been the hottest day that summer. The mountainous heaps of sand and gravel at the Dunball Wharf Aggregate Works had dried out so completely that a choking dust rose from them. The waters below had heated until their reek oozed into the nostrils. No one wanted to move fast, and sounds were muffled, as if the late afternoon sun had thickened the air. 

    The two detectives had arrived as the body was trundling on the gurney over to the white tent where the pathologist waited like an adjudicator at some macabre contest. The woman was found stripped of any clothing and the technician had thrown a green sheet over her poor mutilated and rotting body for that short journey, but the gurney jerked as its wheels stuck to the walkway, which was so burning hot it was melting the policemen’s thick soles, and the woman’s head slid to the edge, her heavy locks falling free, as if she’d just unpinned them. Despite the river weed and silt, her hair was still glorious; as black as a nighttime lake, not tampered by bleach or dye. 

    Detective Sergeant Gary Abbott had stepped forward, his hand outstretched, and touched the woman’s hair, crying out like a distressed relative. 'Take care with her, for God’s sake!'   (On The Gallows, Midnight Ink Press)

On the other hand, I wanted a more foreful pace to open my fourth novel, although still I hold back a little;

     John Spicer was already waiting, when Larry drove down into Harper’s Coombe.
It was like a lover’s tryst – a lung-drying desire.
Larry pulled the old pickup to a halt behind John’s Audi and jumped out the cab. The ground was so soft he felt his wellingtons sink by inches.  Across the coombe there were patches of shining water, the start of little lakes.
    Bloody rain. It was never-ending. Even down here in the coombe, the wind behind it was throwing water into his face.
    He pulled the fur of his trapper hat down around his ears and went to the back of the pickup. Water pooled on the tarp, trickling down to the metal base as he shifted it, wetting the random items he carried. His fingers were slippy as he spun the combination lock. It was an old-fashioned document case, but it did the job. Empty, of course, because the previous money he’d carried home was now in a Second World War tin box, which had belonged to his father’s father and had previously held old documents and his sister’s first baby shoes. 
    Soon, he would buy a soft leather case with a laptop inside, slender as a slate tile.

As the action grows, I start using very short, active sentences, curtailed paragraphs, stronger verbs and sharper phrases;

    'You’ll need a tow,' Larry grunted. 'You’re in too deep.'
    He mashed his way to the pickup, his jeans stuck to his backside. Somewhere in the back was a bit of good rope they could use to get the Audi out of its predicament.                                            
    He shifted the briefcase to one side. It was still wide open, like a dog waiting for a treat.
    The bastard owes. 
    A double payment.
    Fucking feels sorry. 
    For me.
    He’s in too deep.
    Bloody fluid fizzed inside his brain until it felt like it was oozing out of his eye sockets. He wiped them and looked at his hands. Nothing but mud and rain and hot, invisible tears.
    Blackmail is the bigger crime.
    The back of the pickup was littered with his stuff. Bits from the farm, bits for the car, a spare sack of layer’s pellets. He spotted the fat coil of blue rope towards the bottom and reached down for it. His hand knocked against his shotgun. 

At the end of this opening, a murder has been committed and I've already exhausted my reader, so I open the next section of the story with a much gentler pace; 

   All over Christmas, rain fell over the Somerset Moors – fast rain – hard. It splashed

into the canals and dykes, forcing up droplets, churning mud from the bottom. The waterways swelled, filled and spilled over roads and rail tracks, uprooting power lines as it spread.
    One morning I got up, booted the laptop up, and on every news site were images of my county, bogged with water. Floods were churning down village high streets, taking cars along for the ride, rising over the hedges. Families leaned from their bedroom windows as they waited for rescue. 
    My house escaped damage. The sluggish, smelly creek at the bottom of my garden moved up several gears, running swift and flush to its brim, but it didn’t reach the top of the gully. I was lucky. Most of Bridgwater had been built above the flood plain, but on the other side of the town, people were sandbagging their front doors.
    On the moors, a hundred square miles lay under shimmering water. In the deepest places only the canopies of bare trees and the roofs of churches jutted through the surface…and a few villages safely on the highest ground. These were islands in past times, and when they get cut off like that, it’s easy to believe the myths and legends of Somerset.
    How the county got its name because the Ancient Britons came here only in summer when the grass re-emerged from the waters, fresh, lush, virgin pasture for their flocks and herds.
    How Joseph of Arimathea sailed from the Holy Land after Jesus had died, landing his boat on Wearyall Hill where he planted his staff as a Christmas flowering tree.
    How early man built roundhouses on stilts and walkways to pass over the marshes.
    Once a week throughout the winter, I drove to Muchelney to visit an elderly client who liked a hand and foot massage, splashing my Vauxhall through surface water until I could go no further. Then I’d wait for the boat, a RIB that had become a bus service now Muchelney was an island again. I shared the boat with the postman, a local farmer, and the district nurse.
    When I stared out over the floodplains, I couldn’t help thinking that anything could be lost down there. 'You can’t see the bottom for the mud.'
      'It’s not just mud,' the nurse had said. 'Sewage, leaking chemicals. Dead animals.'
    'Even the worms are dead.'  (Through the Floodgate Midnight Ink Press)

I'm  slowing pace because I want to produce an absorbing read at this point. To help this, I focus on one subject in a prolonged way (for a crime fiction, at least!) Increasing pace can lose you that absorption, as you replace it with dramatic tension. So I used the rhythm of the writing to enhance the effect, with alliteration to highlight the watery theme and a repetitive start to some of the paragraphs, with 'how, how, how...' 

There are various ways to engender pace, including some quite small, but important adjustments:

    • To speed up pace, move more quickly over the parts which have no major impact on the character, especially minor common actions (preparing food, for instance), whilst focusing on any major action. 
    • To slow place, expand and dramatise outcomes, actions, especially minor actions (preparing food, for instance). 
    • To speed pace, use clipped dialogue, staccato words, shorter sentences, lots of full stops and short paragraphs. In screenwriting, minimise the scenes as you build-up tension. Use what you’ve learnt about about phonetic symbolism.
    • To slow pace, use longer words, words with a smoother feel, longer sentences and longer paragraphs. Use phonetic symbolism.
    • To speed pace, use the present tense. Reduce your use of the present participle (‘ing’ endings) and check you have not moved into the passive form.
    • To slow pace, try including the present participle and the perfect tense (he had seen her) within the simple past where this is might be effective.
    • To speed pace, take out most of the character’s thinking process. In acute scenes of action, this can be reduced to almost nothing. (This technique tends to be redundant in scriptwriting.).
    • To slow pace, allow the character to be reflective and record the thinking process. Use interior monologue, especially deep, unfiltered thought processes from the narrator.
    • To speed up pace, use snappy dialogue, snatches of free indirect discourse and no long speeches.
    • To slow down, delve deep into imagery and utilise a more dreamy mood.
    • To speed up, make images clear and precise, with sharp sights & sounds. Omit adverbs and avoid as many adjectives as possible
    • To slow, explain an outcome…use exposition rather than an active scene to describe something that has happened.
    • To speed up, avoid  ‘countersinking’, when the writer allows the actions implied in the story scene to become explicit – ‘let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave. You can countersink emotions, too, by allowing your character to give blatant and unnecessary clues to his own emotions…I laughed heartily as I told my news...and countersink action description…she rose from her chair and stood up.
    • To slow down, allow a little exposition, but be careful that this 'tell' doesn't replace 'show', but is there to do a job. 

Two further techniques can be used to vary pace.

  • Cliffhangers hold off the denouement of the scene ending. Some sub-genres of fiction have this as an accepted method of completing book chapters, and it’s particular useful in writing for children, while TV and radio series have employed this technique for many years. Delayed outcomes force readers to start the next chapter, and force viewers to make a note to watch again next week
  • Jump-cuts move from an unfinished scene to somewhere else entirely. This is a technique widely utilised by screenwriters, but novelists, non-fiction writers and other scriptwriters can use it too. For scripts, the jump-cut naturally shuttles to another scene. For prose, the jump can move into exposition, interior monologue, or backstory. It can also move to description, but do beware of the caution given above.  Be sure to jump back again, before the previous scene is forgotten.
  • Rapid-fire dialogue invigorates a scene. Pared-down dialogue has a natural velocity
  • Rapid-firing of situations and events, all occurring immediately, one after another will up the pace dramatically, especially if these events 'bare down' on protagonists.
  • Very short chapters, segments and added break-out parts, such as texts or newspaper headlines, turn up the pace. The reader digests them and passes through them smartly, giving the feeling of speed. 


  • Experiment with slowing and speeding up the pace of your work.
  • Take a scene that you know is too slow and use some of the techniques to speed it up.
  • Now take a scene which you would like to be more contemplative or introspective and again, try some of the techniques to widen and deepen the voice.
Share your resulting writing by commenting on this blogpost!