Pacing: The Overlooked Skill in Writing

Pacing is like that secret ingredient in the beef stew–you can’t identify it, but you know when it is missing. I came across a couple of recent blog posts that discussed in detail some pacing problems and solutions.

In a December 12 post on the blog, Adventures in YA Publishing, Jake Kerr defined pacing and then delved into some common problems writers encounter. “Pacing means how quickly the reader perceives things as happening in a story. This is different from rhythm, which is more about how the reader perceives something as ‘sounding’ as they read it. Pacing is more often discussed at the narrative level–the pace of a chapter and a novel as a whole.”

Among the pacing problems Kerr identifies is starting a book too slowly. This problem, Kerr wrote, occurs because the writer introduces the narrative tension too late. The obvious solution is to introduce the conflict earlier. Perhaps there is a scene already written where the conflict is introduced. Look for that first sign of conflict and think about starting with that scene.

Another pacing problem centers on slow sections of the book. “This section of the book is soooo slow,’ was how Kerr put it. He challenged writers to ask themselves: is this creating tension and extending it? “Extending tension doesn’t generally work. What’s a better solution? Delaying tension, which leads to: ‘This book is paced too fast.”

I see this all the time. If a little fast pacing is good, then continuous fast pacing must be better, right? Well, not really. As Kerr put it, “This is really what pacing is all about: taking all the pieces of a novel and putting them into a narrative that builds tension, releases it, and builds it again, with every piece either adding to the tension or releasing it.”

Kerr makes an important point here. The reader needs a breather from a fast pace, just like a runner who exerts himself needs to slow down and regulate his breathing. A reader needs time and space to process major events in a story, I’ve found it helps to follow a rapid-paced chapter with a major reveal with a slower chapter that provides some reflection and time for the reader to grasp the import of what has happened.

Kerr found another problem is confusing pace with plot. He urged writers to chart out what needs to be shown and what can be told, and craft scenes in such a way that keeps the story moving forward.

“Finally, pacing does not mean that every novel should be a roller coaster ride,” he wrote. “A successful novel can be a slow build of rising tension with incremental forward movement. It can also start with an explosive scene and then unfold as the after effects are revealed. Where the tension in the narrative exists really doesn’t matter: Pacing is all about shepherding the reader along in a way where they enjoy the ride.”

In a blog post on Writers Helping Writers, Becca Puglisi shared some useful” tips on common pacing issues:

Current story vs. Backstory: “To keep the pace moving, only share what’s necessary for the reader to know at that moment. Dole out the history in small pieces within the context of the current story, and avoid narrative stretches that interrupt what’s going on.”

Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue: When the story gets too passive, put the characters in motion. “Characters should be in motion–smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting–while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments…”

Conflict vs. Downtime: “Readers need time to catch their breath, to recover from highly emotional or stressful scenes. A good pace is one that ebbs and flows–high action, a bit of recovery, then back to activity again.”

Keep Upping the Stakes: “To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic and with stakes that are more desperate.”

Condense the timeline: “When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag.”

I thank Kerr and Puglisi for these tips on pacing. Writers must always be mindful of pacing. It is the secret ingredient to a tasty novel.

What are your most common pacing problems and how do you overcome them?

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