Novelists learning from playwrights: pacing

In this three-part mini-series, we will look at what novelists can learn from scriptwriters, particularly playwrights. While the two are very different forms of storytelling, writers of books can certainly learn from their stage counterparts.

In this final instalment, we’re going to look at pace.

In a play, the writer has to be aware of the audience’s attention span. Putting people in comfy seats, turning the lights down low after giving them drinks, it’s not long before eyelids start feeling heavy!

In a play, there can be no waffling! Every scene has to move the plot forward and has to drive character development. Any stagnant scenes run the risk of sending the audience to sleep.

In a novel, there is space for more ‘padding’. There is time for you to explore a little more of the setting and the background. You don’t have to tell a story in such a limited time. But you do need to be aware of pace.

Characters drive the pace.

Every character has a part to play in moving the story forward. A character’s motivation is key. Make sure you understand why the character is there in your story. It is going to help you to move the story forward at a pace.

Remember, a playwright only has their characters to tell their story, so the character’s motivation has to be clear. In novel writing, you need to do the same. The character’s wants and desires need to be just as clear in your novel. What is driving the characters?

Structure helps with pace.

The typical three-part structure of set-up, confrontation and resolution can help you to keep building the tension and keep the story moving forward. Placing obstacles in the way of your characters, halting and slowing their progress to their objectives, is one way to keep upping the drama and keeping your readers engaged.

As a novelist, you have more time than a playwright to explore. But, by thinking about voice and scenes, as well as pacing, you can build a really engaging story. Next time you watch a play, a TV show or film, take note: how has the writer kept the story engaging and squeezed every drop out of the dialogue and setting? Notice how there is no wasted time. How can you emulate this in your novel?

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