I met Nancy on my writing journey and I'm glad I did. She's a talented writer and a wonderful person. And somehow, she manages to juggle a skyrocketing writing career with her day job. Hmm. Maybe we need to drag Nancy back sometime to talk about time management and career planning (...as if she doesn't have enough to do).
Melissa, thanks for inviting me to talk about pacing, one of my favorite fiction craft principles. Pacing is one of those subtle elements of fiction the reader never quite notices, even when he or she is being completely controlled by it. So what exactly is it?
Pacing is the speed at which your reader travels through your story. Notice I did not say the speed at which your reader reads, but the speed at which your reader travels through your story. This is controlled by the author and is very important because bad pacing will ruin the reader experience and keep your manuscript from being accepted by a publisher. Before we look specifically at what makes bad pacing, the new writer should understand that pacing is a byproduct of tension and mechanics (mechanics as in sentence and paragraph structures, word choice, punctuation, etc.)
When tension is high, pacing is normally faster. The reader is desperate to know what happens next and devours the words as quickly as possible to find out. Some things, like dangling by a tree root over a gulley a hundred feet below, finding the front door kicked in, or a wife and mistress discovering one another, will drive the reader forward more quickly to see what transpires.
When tension is eased, so is pacing. Depending on your genre, you don’t want to always keep the reader an anxious bundle of nerves on the edge of their seat. There are times you need to rest your reader, either after a particularly emotional scene or intense action sequence, or allow them a momentary respite, and you’ll ease the pacing deliberately. Take in some setting detail, reflect on a past event or character detail in a relevant way, or ease in some backstory. (A free tip for you here is this is exactly why a backstory dump is bad. If you know they are bad, but didn’t know precisely why, this is it. Backstory eases pacing so much it grinds your story to a halt and you don’t want that.)
When your pacing is fast and tension high, you want shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and familiar words—essentially easy reading. The more you study other authors and recently published novels, the clearer this will become.
So now that we’ve defined pacing, buckle up and let’s see what it looks like in fiction. Remember that as the author, you are in the driver’s seat, and your reader is strapped in next to you completely at your mercy.
· Pacing too slow (Sunday driving in the far left lane)
Readers don’t like this, except for a very select few I’m sure exist but I’ve never met. They dutifully read page after page waiting for the real story to begin or to get back to the story while the author waxes on and on about setting, back story, and historical facts or period detail (the usual culprits) in a way that doesn’t advance the story.
Reader symptoms are the urge to skim, or skip entire paragraphs or pages looking for dialogue or some relevant and specific action that trigger the start of or return to story. This shows up more prevalent in the scene level.
· Pacing too fast (The high speed chase)
This is where knowing what genre and audience you are writing to becomes a factor in your pacing. If you haven’t identified those two things yet, genre and audience, I would encourage you to do so before finishing this amazing story of yours and finding out it’s going to be a really tough sell because it doesn’t quite “fit” anywhere if traditional publishing is your goal. If you write thrillers or suspense, you’ll actually need to be full throttle longer and more often than other genres such as romance or historical. Like a high speed chase, the problem with maintaining too much speed consistently for the reader is you will literally wear them out. If they’re being given too much information or action to process over and over it becomes overwhelming and if there’s no end in sight where they can catch their breath, it will spell trouble.
Reader symptoms are having to reread sentences or sections, or refer back to a previous scene or paragraph, pausing to go “Wait, what just happened?” This will be the rarest of pacing issues and will occur most often on the paragraph level.
· Pacing is erratic (Lost while late to an appointment)
These are hard stops that send your reader flying into their seat belt, or gas pedal to the floor that throws them into their headrest, and not knowing what to expect next because it’s become apparent the author doesn’t know either and is trying to fake it.
Reader symptom is abandoning the story. This will show up at the manuscript level most often, and a good, consistent critique partner who works with large portions of the writing will be able to pick this up whereas someone critiquing only a single scene or chapter cannot. A bonus tip is: this will usually be a flag for plot problems, and seat of the pants writers are more susceptible to this than plotters are.
· Pacing is good but occasionally off (The student driver)
There’s a speed bump that shouldn’t be there, a little too much acceleration too quickly, riding the brake or stopping too hard short of the line. This will be the most common pacing problem with new writers but take heart because the learning curve is very short for this, especially with a good critique partner. Often times the fix is simply relocating the offending sentence, paragraph, or scene.
Reader symptoms are indefinable. They know every once in a while something is out of place or off but if the story is holding them, they’ll overlook it. This is going to occur in every level but most often in paragraph and scene. It’s fairly easy to spot in the sentence level for the newest of writers, and at the manuscript level, it’s more a style and voice issue that likely will take a multi-published author or editor and agent to suggest areas for improvement.
Good pacing gives the reader a smooth ride, whether it’s in a race car tearing through a road track like the thrillers or the prettiest horse on the carousel like the literary works. A good eye for this will develop with practice and critiques as you write. Remember, pacing is a byproduct of tension and mechanics and depends on a solid plot unfolding well. As you master those elements, both your writing and the pacing of your work will improve together.
Nancy Kimball is an award-winning author of epic historical heroes. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and an active member of their large online critique group, Scribes. Nancy wrote off and on for fun until 2010 when an online friend told her about this little thing called NaNoWriMo. The rest is history. Since then, she has won Bethany House author Karen Witemeyer’s 2011 Fan Fiction challenge, first place in the general fiction category of the ACFW Writers on the Storm Category Five contest, and placed fourth in the 2011 Christian Writers of the West The Rattler contest. At the top of her bucket list is visiting the Colosseum in Rome to be photographed holding her debut novel, which she hopes will be soon. You can visit her author page on Facebook or drop by her blog where you never know what author she’ll be interviewing or prizes she’s giving away. Everything from critiques to gift cards and of course, books, while she muses about her author adventure. http://www.nancykimball.blogspot.com
Wow! That was a great article, Nancy. You did a super job of breaking down the issue of pacing and you infused a lot of helpful details to boot. Thanks so much! I'm sure writers of all skill levels will benefit from this post.
And thanks to my visitors as well. Hope to see you back next week. = )