Pacing Tips

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, let me give a hearty shout out to all of you doing NaNoWriMo. *POM-POMS*  I’ve never been able to NaNo with the rest of the world, since November is such a crazy month for me, but I have so much respect for all of you in the trenches right now. KEEP IT UP! You’re halfway there!

Even the Dark Side needs motivation

Kenny Louie @ Creative Commons

So, I mentioned that November is insane, right? My son’s birthday falls just before Thanksgiving. This year, we’re throwing his first party. He wanted a Darth Vader theme, and I may have gone a teensy bit overboard. Regardless, his birthday party, combined with his actual birthday, followed by my father-in-law’s birthday, and then Thanksgiving for the family at MY HOUSE THIS YEAR… Well. Let’s just say that it’s all about planning and pacing right now.

Advice that is so often true of writing, too.

And I just happen to have this nifty post on the subject, which originally aired at Lisa Hall-Wilson’s excellent blog. So, in homage to the difficult topic of pacing, and in an effort to maintain my natural hair color through yet another November, here it is, for your viewing pleasure…

I’d like to start this post by stating an opinion that I think pretty much everyone shares: Pacing Sucks. When you get it right, no one really notices. I mean, how many times have you read a 5-star review that went on and on about the awesome pacing? On the other hand, when the pacing’s off, it’s obvious, but not always easy to pinpoint; you’re just left with this vague, ghostly feeling of dissatisfaction. One thing, though, is certain: if the pacing is wrong, it’s definitely going to bother your readers, so I thought I’d share some tips on how to keep the pace smooth and balanced.

1. Current Story vs. Backstory. Every character and every story has backstory. But the relaying of this information almost always slows the pace because it pulls the reader out of the current story and plops them into another one. It’s disorienting. And yet, a certain amount of backstory is necessary to create depth in regards to characters and plot. 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. Here’s a great example from Above, by Leah Bobet:

The only good thing about my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that’s half enough to keep me out of trouble. But tonight it’s not the half I need because here’s Atticus, spindly crab arms folded ‘cross his chest, waiting outside my door. His eyes glow dim-shot amber—not bright, so he’s not mad, just annoyed and looking to be mad.

Bobet could have taken a lengthy paragraph to explain that certain people in this world have curses that are really mutations, that Atticus has crab claws for hands and his eyes glow when he gets angry. But that would’ve slowed the pace and been boring. Instead, Bobet wove this information into the current story—showed Atticus leaning against the door, showed his crustacean claws and his freaky, glowing eyes so the reader knows that he’s a mutant and, to the narrator, at least, this is normal. This is an excellent example of the artful weaving of backstory into the present story.

2. Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue. Action is an accelerant. It keeps the pace from dragging. Granted, there will be places in your story that are inherently passive, where characters have to talk, or someone needs to think things out. The key is to break up these places with movement or activity. Characters should be in motion—smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting— while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments, whether it’s peeling carrots or painting a picture. These bits of action are like an optical illusion, fooling the reader into thinking something’s happening, when really, nothing’s going on. This is one scenario when readers actually prefer to be fooled, so make sure to energize those narrative stretches with action.

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Oliver Kendal @ Creative Commons

3. Conflict vs. Downtime. On the flip side, you can’t have a story that’s all go and no stop. One might think that since action is good, more action is better. Not true. 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 the activity again. Even The Maze Runner, possibly the most active novel I’ve ever read, has its moments of calm. When it comes to conflict and downtime, a definite balance is needed for the reader to feel satisfied.

4. Keep Upping the Stakes. We know that conflict is important—so important that every single scene needs it. But for conflict to be effective, it needs to escalate over the course of the story. To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic, and with stakes that are more desperate. One of my favorite reads of 2013 was Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a historical fiction novel about the deportation of a Lithuanian family during World War II. It starts out ominous enough, with the family being forced from their home. Over the course of the story, they’re moved by cattle car across the continent, relocated to a forced labor camp, and eventually reach their final destination—a camp in the Arctic Circle where they’re expected to survive the elements with whatever resources they can scrounge. Clearly, lots of other conflict is interspersed, but when it comes to the major points, each one should have greater impact than the last.

5. Condense the timeline. When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag. It’s also hard, in a story that covers a long span, to keep things smooth; there will be time jumps of weeks or months or even years between scenes. Too many of these give the story a jerky feel. So when it comes to the timeline, condense it as much as possible to keep the pace steady.

For sure, pacing is tricky, but I’ve found these nuggets to be helpful in maintaining a good balance. What other tips do you have for keeping your story moving at the right pace?

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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22 Responses to Pacing Tips

  1. Pingback: Lessons from the Aether: Skyrim and the Power of Setting | Neither Here nor There....

  2. Karen Clayton says:

    I have always wanted to do NaNo as well, but November is also a crazy month for me. I have just finished up with one son’s birthday in October, school Carnival in October, and Halloween, and then I have another son’s, my mom’s, my father-in-law’s, and my birthday in November. And then comes Thanksgiving. Thus I too never partake in NaNo at least not until January.

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  4. Julie Musil says:

    Pacing is definitely something I have to constantly work on. My friend got some great advice from a professional editor. Something about threes. Like each page should have 1/3 dialogue, 1/3 internal thought, and 1/3 forward motion. Something like that.

    Anyway, back to my NaNo project. CRAZY!

    And happy November to you, with all your events!

  5. What great tips, Becca. I wholeheartedly agree with them. I guess I just try to think of my characters as real folk living real lives. If I think they’re actually characters in a book then the story along with the pacing goeth flat. I agree this was the best post on pacing I’ve seen. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • That’s a great idea, to remember that our characters are real people and they should act like them. I know I sometimes forget that when I’m trying to get certain information across. Great reminder!

  6. Pingback: Lessons from the Aether:Skyrim and the Power of Setting | Neither Here nor There....

  7. :Donna Marie says:

    These are wonderful tips, Becca 🙂 I often wonder how, while writing, I will be able to keep all the tips and guidelines of writing straight! lol I will have a VERY tough time of it, seeing as I’m lucky I remember what I did 5 minutes ago lol Thanks, Becca!

  8. lidy says:

    Great post. I’ve always had issues with pacing but now I’ve learned to drop and sprinkle the back story here and there.

  9. Thanks for this, Becca! Pacing is one of my weak points, but these tips should definitely make it easier. Bookmarking this page for future reference.

  10. I’ve just cut down on the timeline in my own novel. Thanks for the other tips!!

    • This was a trick I learned with my very first novel. It covered an entire year, and everyone kept saying that it felt like it was taking SO LONG. I cut it down to three months, and it was much better.

  11. Never before have I read or received instruction on this subject with such clarity. Thank you.

  12. Heather says:

    This is definitely going to come in SO handy—no one’s ever covered Pacing in that much detail for me before. Thanks for the help!

  13. I agree. It’s not something that’s discussed all that much, but it can be a real bugger. 🙂

  14. Andrea says:

    Thanks for these useful tips! It is so hard to get the pacing right sometimes.

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