Monday, October 25, 2010

Setting the Pace

If there is one thing that early writers struggle with, it is paaaaaaacccccciiiing, paCing, yeah, pacing. Keeping the readers interest without either blasting them with a firehose, or boring them to death like a dripping faucet takes skill. It's hard, and there's only one way to learn it, practice.

Early writers are usually in such a rush to get to the "good" part of the story, that important setup details are glossed over at warp speed, and the reader doesn't get a chance to understand their significance. When the "good" part of the story is finally reached, there is no impact. The reader has forgotten those important details and the story falls flat.

Those forgotten details were put in for a reason. They were added to heighten tension, or add in layers of emotion . When they don't work, neither does the story.

On the other hand some writers spend so much time painting the most vivid setting and describing every detail of their characters in such detailed minutiae, that the reader simply falls asleep from boredom. If you finally do manage to get through the setup, the author has most likely followed the same pace through the rest of the book, and the reader spends the next 15 minutes wiping off the drool after passing out on the pages.

The best and most interesting books have a balance of action and details. The author maintains a speed limit as the story unfolds, alternatively speeding some sections, and slowing in others, with the intent of keeping an average speed that the reader can follow, and enjoy.

You might think that in this modern age of video games, television, and sound bites, the speed limit has increased so dramatically that you no longer have to worry about it. It has, but it is still not infinite. Even today's writers have to maintain a reasonable pace.

I tend to be in the first category. My stories include supersonic bullets and speed of light computer bytes, flying in every direction, but I do recognize the need to stop once in a while and let the reader rest. I purposefully stop the action once in a while, to let the reader process the significance of what just happened. I let the reader anticipate what's going to happen before it does.

When the reader anticipates what's going to happen next it builds emotion. Depending on the situation, it might create a feeling of dread, maybe excitement, or if I'm feeling feisty maybe even an amorous anticipation. The point is, it builds an emotional connection, and that boys and girls is what writing good stories is all about.

There are a number of techniques to stop the action, or speed it up. As I said most of the time I need to slow things down, so I try to do this through bits of humor.

Humor works for me for a couple of reasons. First, I'm fairly cynical so I can usually come up with a self deprecating quip, or an ironic observation that releases the tension and slows things down.

Secondly I like the fact that humor contrasts sharply with tense action. The effect of injecting bits of humor is that I can make the following action scenes seem even more tense than they might otherwise feel. The action speeds things along, while the humor slows them up. Using a combination of the two, I can maintain an even pace.

Writing is a balance. You need strong characters, an interesting plot, and a vivid setting, but it has to be delivered at the right pace.

How about you? How do you handle pacing? Do you need to speed or slow? What techniques do you use?


  1. Pacing, hmmm. I try not to think too much about it when I'm actually writing, but I do think a lot about it when I'm writing my initial outline. That helps a lot because I can see the entire story more at a glance. I'm not groping in the dark.

    Great post. Pacing is a huge thing I think many new writers overlook, yes. These days I try to keep that "good part of the novel" so far off in the distance that when I DO get there I'm just as surprised and excited as the reader will hopefully be. :)

  2. The good part of the novel is when you start at the end and look back to the beginning, so the pacing all builds steadily to that moment. There are a few pauses along the way for breath-catching, but not many.

  3. @michelle, I agree. I don't worry about pacing until I start to edit. Writing the first draft is all about getting the story on paper.

    I would be careful about putting the "good part of the novel" too far out. Relying on long attention spans doesn't seem to work in this day and age.

    @nevets, absolutely correct. Start as close to the end as possible, and work your way back.

    That almost argues for putting the "good part of your novel" at the beginning doesn't it?

  4. I meant far out for ME, not the reader. :)

  5. Well, in one sense I darn well hope there's not a bad part of the novel when it's all said and done. lol

    But, I think what I try to do is best described as starting out already in the good part, but writing it in such a way as the reader doesn't know just how much of the good part it really is until they look back after finishing.

  6. @michelle - understand, yes, I do the same

    @nevets - ha ha, I wouldn't say that there is a good part and a bad part, but a good part, the middle part that has to be there to describe lots of stuff, and the thrilling conclusion. Your hope is to have enough good part at the beginning to hook the reader so that they make it through all the stuff in the middle, and reach the climactic conclusion.

    Looking from that point of view it almost sounds deceitful, but the fact is that a novel is a big time commitment and getting a reader to stick with you for that long requires either something special, or coercion. I guess blackmail might work too, but I don't know how I'd do that :)

    I did mention that I can be cynical, right?


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