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06 July 2009 @ 06:00 am
The Art of Pacing  

The art of pacing

What is pacing? One thing I know for sure, it is something that drives me and many other writers crazy. Why? Because it is an art and like any art, pacing doesn’t fit into a simple formula. It depends on the type of story, the type of characters, the setting, the mood, etc. The pacing for a romance novel would be different from that of an action thriller. Just as an epic historical novel will have a completely different pace from that of a cozy mystery.

So how does that help any of us out there scratching our heads and wondering if we’ve paced our novel like a beautiful Arabian stallion or a broken-down mule headed for the glue factory. But here at the Inkpot, we have resources. So I asked a few of our pubbed Inkie members to let us know some of their secrets to a perfectly paced book. Here’s what they say:

Marissa Doyle
BEWITCHING SEASON (Henry Holt, out now!)
BETRAYING SEASON (Henry Holt, September 2009)

I have a couple of quotes scribbled on notecards and propped against the tschotkes on my desk, where I can see them as I type.  One is from Elmore Leonard and reads, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."  The other is by Kurt Vonnegut and says "Start as close to the end as possible."  Those two very brief sentences encapsulate for me the soul of proper pacing.  In fact, as I write, I often ask myself, "Is this really necessary?  Are my readers just going to skim this part?"  If the answer is yes, then it either goes or gets ferociously trimmed.

Another useful way to monitor pacing is to monitor vocabulary--I try my best to make each noun and verb as strong as possible, so that they don't have to be propped up by adjectives and adverbs.  Of course that's not always possible or even desirable...but being judicious about descriptive modifiers means that they pack even more of a punch when you do use them.  


Grace Lin
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, Little, Brown Young Readers, (July 1, 2009)

I cut my writing teeth with picture books, which I think is the perfect vehicle to teach pacing.  Within 32 pages a set up, a conflict and resolution has to be told in a satisfying and even way. Even in the quietest stories there’s a slow build-up to a climax and an ending that usually circles around to the beginning that gives the reader(s) a rewarding experience. If the pacing is off in a picture book, it is very obvious. So whenever I am stuck on a novel, I try to think of it as a series of picture books, thinking of each chapter as a picture book manuscript. I used this quite a bit when I was writing my first novel, "The Year of the Dog." It is a trick Lenore Look uses and it works!

R. L. LaFevers
THEODOSIA AND THE STAFF OF OSIRIS, Houghton Mifflin, Nov. 2008
NATHANIEL FLUDD, BEASTOLOGIST, Houghton Mifflin, Sept. 2009

Pacing Tips:

  • Consider writing in scenes - I'm often surprised when I find a book that doesn't have scenes so much as a continuous flow encompassing every moment of the character's life, whether it is relevant to the story or not.
  • Cut in and out of scenes as tightly as possible - Start your scene as late as you can and still have it make sense, then get out as soon as the purpose of the scene has been accomplished.
  • Stay in the Now of your story - The Now of the story is the real time of your story. It's kind of the literary equivalent of living in the moment. It is very closely related to...
  • Avoid flashbacks and info dumps - As much as you can, anyway. Because the minute you have a flashback or info dump, you've stopped the forward momentum of your story cold. If you must have either one of them, have it as late in the book as possible and be sure you teased the reader with it so that they are dying to know that mysterious bit of information that you've adequately foreshadowed.
  • Include dramatic action, not any old action – In order for action to speak louder than words, it has to mean something, it can’t just be action for action’s sake. Don't just have your character doing the dishes, but add subtext to the scene by having her dish washing convey something that is not stated. For example, is she practically scrubbing the pattern off the china because she's furious but can't say so? Or is she focusing on doing the dishes perfectly and precisely so she won't break down in tears in front of her entire family?
  • Avoid sitting and thinking scenes - Sometimes they can't be avoided altogether, but if you add dramatic action, you can give them some depth and layers that makes them more compelling. Can the way the characters drink/stir/sip their tea say something about their mental state they’re in? Can it convey things they are unable to put into words? Can you find a way to show the reader that the character is lying to herself? To others?
  • In tense moments, use shorter sentences and paragraphs to convey that tenseness. Also consider shorter scene and chapter length. Both will reinforce in a physical sense what you are wishing to convey emotionally.
  • A Very Left Brained (But Effective) Pacing Tool: Make a list of all your scenes, just a quick one sentence log line, such as Theo sneaks into basement to put away staff. Once you’ve got all your scenes listed out, assign a number from 1 to 5 to each scene, with 5 being a highly charged, nail biting scene and 1 being a yawn in terms of tension. (Remember, there are many different ways to achieve that 5. It can be emotional intensity, blowing things up, a fight, a chase, a bitter confrontation the book has been building to.) Sometimes, just the simply act of assigning a Dramatic Tension Score to each scene can be enough to make you aware of where the dead zones are. If not, quickly graph them out (either on graph paper or in an Excel graph)  and you’ll very easily see the long flat plateaus of where your novel stalls.

Kate Milford
THE BONESHAKER, Clarion, Spring 2010

I only have two decent pacing tools, which are 1) be sure that every scene/moment/action/etc is truly essential to moving the plot forward or not and 2) to try and write prose that would work for screen without too much adaptation.

With the first point I try to keep myself from writing scenes that exist strictly for backstory, or to illustrate a character, or for the sake of worldbuilding; for a scene to justify itself it has to also advance the plot in a visual or active way. Having said that, The Boneshaker is about a girl whose mother is a storyteller, and there are at least three passages where someone tells someone else a story. I hope and believe they manage to be visual despite being literal telling, but I could be way wrong.

With the second point, I try to avoid introspection, overly-long description, overly-long passages of dialogue, that kind of thing. When you're writing for screen, you can't really use adverbs. You can't say what someone's thinking, you can't waste valuable page space on long description. I tend toward the verbose in real life, so this rule helps me rein in my natural tendency to write paragraph-long sentences joined by four commas and two semicolons. You have to be efficient, and you truly have to be able to show and not tell. Except, of course, when someone needs to spend two chapters telling a story to the protagonist, as in the example above.

Ellen Booraem

THE UNNAMEABLES, October 2008 / Harcourt Children's Books
THE FILIOLI, Spring 2011 / Dial Books for Young Readers 

Pacing is one of my biggest challenges. I blame my characters, who tend to sit around telling each other things instead of getting off their butts and taking action. The first draft of The Unnameables featured five straight chapters in which people sat in the town archives and read old journals, periodically lifting their heads to tell each other what they were reading. Scintillating stuff—the word play! the cultural insights!—but for some reason my editor found it slow.

Trouble was, those journals were essential to the plot. The solution was a scavenger hunt, with journals hidden elsewhere and my characters having to move around solving clues before they could read them. Once we got out of the archives, we even discovered a brand new dastardly plot by the villain.

As I was writing this post I got an email feed from Fiction Notes, Darcy Pattison’s wonderful web site, suggesting that a change of location is one way to “salvage a scene.” She also suggests examining the scene for hints of action that could stir things up, or combining the critical information in the scene with another more active one. I will instantly apply all three to the book I’m revising now. It has two places where the characters sit around and explain to each other what just happened in the previous chapter… scintillating stuff, but my editor may object.

Fiction notes—
Salvage a scene —

Malinda Lo
ASH, Little, Brown, September 2009

Everything I know about pacing I learned from reading mystery fiction. When I think about pacing, I'm mostly interested in driving the story forward -- creating a page-turner. So my one and only concrete tip is this: End every chapter on a cliffhanger. It doesn't have to be an action-oriented cliffhanger, but it should be something mysterious (see, mysteries!) that make the reader want to turn the page. Everything in that chapter must lead up to that cliffhanger. Another writer, Nicola Griffith, recently blogged about pacing in this way (although I don't think she described it as pacing): You should begin each scene as late as possible and end it as soon as possible. I think this does a lot to make sure things move quickly. Combine that with the cliffhanger, and I'm pretty sure you've got a page-turner.

Kate Coombs
THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS, Farrar Straus and Giroux, August 2006
THE RUNAWAY DRAGON, Farrar Straus and Giroux, September 2009

When people show me their writing, I almost always suggest that they cut the first sentence or paragraph (for a student essay) or even first scene or chapter (for a book). I don't have a standing rule telling me to do this, but I catch myself recommending that particular revision move at least three-fourths of the time. Why? Because starting a piece of writing is like warming up a car. You're getting your thoughts together, trying to find a direction, shaping your main character, tossing in bits and pieces of often unnecessary backstory (to inform yourself!), basically fiddling around. What surprises me is how distinctly so many writers hit their stride: all of a sudden, after all that fussing, a sentence or paragraph goes BAM! as the story noticeably begins. The problem arises when you're so in love with your work that you're unwilling to drop the deadwood. This cut is easier said than done, but I know I can't afford that particular brand of romance. For example, I've restructured the beginning of my work in progress three times already. I kept feeling like the BAM! came about three chapters in, but it took me awhile to admit that the first few chapters were so backstory-ish they didn't make a good beginning!

A more subtle pacing issue is when scenes drag internally, and that tends to be a result of too much exposition, telling instead of showing. Then again, some scenes just need trimming, such as the ones that feel like boring parties. A group of characters stands around talking, and talking, and oh, why won't they stop talking? I've caught myself doing this, of course, and so I make myself go back and cut out the least important part of the conversation.

The weirdest problem I've had with pacing lately is in a book coming out this September, The Runaway Dragon. Not too far into the action, my main character and her friends split into two groups, which means I have parallel subplots for more than half the book. Well, the first subplot wraps up in such an exciting way that it feels like the book should end shortly thereafter. Except that the second subplot hasn't finished doing its thing! When I got my editor's revision notes, one of her concerns was the need for the book to end swiftly after the first subplot hit its climax. I made some key cuts in order to speed things along, and I'd like to think I succeeded. But I found it interesting that, although tightening is pretty much always good revising, this particular problem was partly caused by the way I had chosen to structure the plot. Essentially, I had to compensate using unrelated strategies. The book simply wouldn't accept a given amount of story beyond that one turning point.


So there you have it! Words of wisdom from a few Inkies. If you have any other pacing tips you'd like to share, we would all love to hear from you!
Current Mood: impressed
Devadeva_fagan on July 6th, 2009 09:29 am (UTC)
Thank you all! This is most excellent to read as I look forward to doing some revising of my own in the coming month. I particularly like the advice about paying attention to where you start the scene, and how long you linger in it.
(Anonymous) on July 6th, 2009 10:52 am (UTC)
I'm going to print this out and start highlighting.

anesbetanesbet on July 6th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
Wonderful thoughts, everybody! I love these tips. I also find that muttering [i]pacing pacing pacing pacing[/i] under your breath while you type can help a lot. :)

It's so much more painful to have to cut things when revising that I'd really rather remember to cut the tea-drinking scenes the first time through. Working on this.
hipwritermama on July 7th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC)
What a great resource! Thanks for sharing these helpful tips! I like to read scenes out loud to figure out pacing and overall sentence structure.

amarisglassstirlingbennett on July 7th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Wow, there are a lot of great tips in here. Robin, I am going to refer back to your list often, especially the bit about forcing non-dramatic actions to do double-duty and convey some inner turmoil at the same time.

Thanks, everybody!
jules_dominguez on July 8th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you, fellow Inkies...what a brilliant and v. useful post, especially as I'm outlining my novel GGSS at the moment, and highlighting those areas of dramatic tension as a graph is something I'd not thought of before...
thespectacleblog.wordpress.com on July 8th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
Such a great post. Thanks for all the tips.

I often use the method Kate Milford mentioned: imagining a scene as it would appear in a movie. You really have to right tightly and with an eye for meaningful action when you do this.

I also think it's true that first lines, first paragraphs, first chapters can be cut in a second draft. It moves the story closer to the inciting incident.

Parker P
dawn_metcalf: Smile!dawn_metcalf on July 18th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
This couldn't be more timely! Thank you for posting this!!