Revising a short story: Pacing and Structure

A couple years ago, my nephew became fascinated by my sewing machine. Emulating his grandfather (my father is always fixing something), he decided he needed to fix it. He would shove the little screw drivers into every opening. One time, while I was sewing, I found one of the extra feet inside the gears. So when my neighbor was giving away a sewing machine, I brought it home just for my nephew. For two years of visits, we have gotten out our sewing machines and I sew while he “fixes” his machine.

During his last visit, however, he decided his sewing machine was all fixed and he wanted to sew. I wasn’t sure what would happen after all that “fixing,” but I went ahead and showed him how to thread the machine and taught him about the bobbin. Then we attached the foot pedal and plugged it in. To my amazement, it worked. It even had perfect tension and an even stitch. Since he was too small to reach the pedal and hold the fabric at the same time on the table, he chose to work the pedal while I guided the fabric. At first, he pushed the pedal all the way down and the needle had one speed: fast. After we made a few straight lines, he said he wanted to sew a circle. I told him to accomplish that, we would have to sew more slowly. So we practiced sewing different speeds by carefully pressing the pedal to different depths. Watching him practice sewing more slowly made me think of the next pass in my short story revision, pacing.

I enjoyed this video from Reedsy with Editor Anna Bierhaus to get me thinking about pacing.

Pacing

Pacing is the movement and momentum in a story. In today’s world of short attention spans with billions of options for entertainment, you might think all stories, especially short stories should go, go, go! But like all good songs, a short story also needs changes in tempo and rests. Often the moments of silence are the most exciting moments in music. So how do I use those ideas in my short story?

  • First I need to explore my characters’ three main conflicts: Internal, External (story specific) and Societal.
  • Then I need to see where I can raise the stakes (my poor characters already have it so hard).
  • I need to make sure that each scene is working as hard as it can: Goal, Conflict, Action that leads to a new goal, Character development, World building, and Reveals new information.

From Cat Rambo’s class, I focused on a couple of questions I want to apply to my story:

Is there a payoff for the reader every few pages: a grabber in the prose?

Where am I moving too quickly? Are pieces missing? This is something I often find in my writing. I expect the reader to see what I see in my head. I need to look for places where I jump over things the reader needs for continuity, believably, and understanding.

Where am I moving too slowly? Where can I cut out unnecessary details and words? Are there whole sections that don’t add to the story being told?

I read some other posts on pacing and found How to Master Narrative Pacing: 7 Tips to Help Pace Your Writing from MasterClass helpful.

Sometimes the story needs to slow down, so the reader doesn’t burn out.

Applying these ideas to my story

Since my last post, I have typed a new draft of the story. The process was slow and difficult. My inner perfectionist was on high alert and nothing was good enough. Each sentence took forever. However, I think this draft has potential which is exciting.

My story starts in medias res (in the middle of the action). My character is stunned and confused. The longest sentence in my first paragraph has eight words. The second paragraph has longer sentences full of action, keeping the quick pace until he escapes. The story slows for two paragraphs while he takes in his new situation then the next action begins.

Mapping out the story like this was insightful, but wasn’t giving me the overall feel of the story. I had another idea.

Listening: Last month I saw a #ProTip on Twitter from Kelli Russell Agodon that inspired me to explore another revision tool: the computer’s “read aloud” functions. I learned how to use Microsoft’s Narrator and added the Read Text Extension for Open Office. I thought listening to the computer read my story would help me hear and feel the pacing of my story, so I gave it a listen.

That works great for typos! The computerized voice makes the errors completely apparent. For pacing, however, it did not work for me. Even when I changed the voice to the woman speaking at a more natural speed, it was stilted and didn’t flow which was part of what I was listening for. I’ll be using this tool later when I’m working on line edits.

Scenes: After the listening experiment didn’t work, I went through my story and marked the beginning and end of each scene. I highly recommend doing this right after you’ve typed up and read your second draft. What I found is my story has a natural progression of scene and sequel, action and response. I also found a pattern of exposition setting up a scene. These short paragraphs of exposition may need to be tightened up if essential to the flow of the story, or may not be needed at all and can be cut. The exciting part is how obvious they became when I broke the story into scenes.

Everything builds toward the climax: This story, in general, moves well. To improve the pacing, I want to build more toward the climax. To do that I need to introduce a couple of ideas earlier, brainstorm some ways to raise the stakes and increase the tension and pacing going into the climax of the story. As it is, I think the climax occurs too abruptly after a reflective scene.

Structure

Another thing to think about at the big picture level of revision is structure. What other ways could I tell this story? The short story is often the format authors use to experiment with story form. Before diving any further into editing your story, ask yourself, Is there a better, more interesting way to present this story?

Applying these ideas to my story

I spent some time with this question and came up with some interesting ideas:

  • I could switch back and forth between my two character’s POVs more often. This could make it feel like their stories are more intertwined from the very beginning.
  • I could write the whole story from only my first character’s POV. This would make my second character have to tell her story to him and could make it more emotional and put her spin on it.
  • I could tell the story non-linearly, starting with my main character coming to acceptance of his situation and then telling what got him there.
  • That idea led me to telling the story like a reality show. In this type of telling, I could bring in interviews with people who knew my characters: family, friends, co-workers, before they changed. I think this could make a fun sequel or additional story.

I think the structure I chose in the first draft is the best for the telling of this story, however I do like some of these other ideas and might try them as well as separate pieces.

Next Steps

After making these changes, I will have finished the story level or developmental revisions. Next, I will look at each scene and make sure that every one is necessary and doing as much as it can.

I look forward to hearing how your revisions are going and reading any editing and revision tips you would like to share in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Revising a short story: Pacing and Structure

  1. Pingback: Revising at the Scene Level | Experience Writing

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