Setting the Rhythm: Pacing Your Novel

Although it can be sped up or slowed down as necessary, a human heart has a regular rhythm. Exercise, illness, and emotional excitement (both positive and negative) speed the heart up and make it move more quickly. Sleep, meditation & reflection, and prayer slow the heart down. A healthy heart will beat steadily along with alternating periods of speeding up and slowing down with only an occasional irregular heartbeat.

Too fast a heartbeat, for too long, is exhausting and makes for an inability to think or to emotionally engage. To slow a heart rate for too long will set you to sleep, sloth, or inactivity. So it is with books. Setting the right rhythm leads to a fast enough book to keep the pages turning but resonant enough to lead to a satisfying read.

This is fiction’s basic heart flow: Goals, conflicts, disasters, reactions, dilemmas, decisions. (Bickham and Swain) Dwight Swain uses the word “tempo” to describe this, and that’s apt both for heart rhythms and composition, both literary and musical.

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