Pacing Potholes: Common Hazards that Slow Forward Motion

Pacing is a difficult thing to master. Like driving a car, there are many things we need to be on top of to keep our story on the road. Are we glancing out the window enough to be aware of the setting around us? Do we have a destination in mind, or is our plot taking the scenic route? Did we remember to bring road munchies for the long trip, like humor, voice, atmosphere, tension, and a steady point of view?

All stories should flow in one direction: forward. Seems easy, doesn’t it? After all, we all know the formula of beginning, middle and end. But trust me, there are many things hazards to be wary of, even for masters of the road. In this post, I’d like to take a look at potential potholes that slow forward motion or stop it altogether.

1. Physical descriptions

Big chunks of description, of either people or places, can put the brakes on your story. Details of the setting should be woven into the story and provide concrete imagery. What the characters notice should be relevant to who they are and what they are feeling. If you do this, you can say a lot with only a few words.

If you’re describing a character, select only a few fingernail details, relevant to what you want the reader to know about them. A head to toe account of what they’re wearing is seldom necessary. What a character does speaks louder than what they look like.

2. Repetitives (Looping)

Repetition is something that occurs on all levels of writing, and something we must always be vigilant for. Whether it’s two lines of description that say the same thing, internal thoughts that rehash current actions, two secondary characters who have the same purpose, or a repeating conflict that occurs over and over, the result is the same–it puts a speed restriction on your pace. If the repetition is minor, your reader will feel a mild sense of déjà vu. If they pick up on a major loop, they may skim ahead or stop reading altogether.

Becca and I often refer to something called RUE. It’s from a book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King and stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. Basically, the concept is to show something once and move on, resisting the urge to clarify or explain it.

Writers struggle with ‘over telling’ because they want to make sure the message gets through to their readers. A common place where this happens is around dialogue or when showing character action and emotion.

“I’m done with the both of you!” Mary screamed, vibrating with rage. She stomped up the stairs and then slammed her bedroom door.

Here, the dialogue, the stomping and the slamming, all show her anger level. The ‘vibrating with rage’ is completely unnecessary, basically telling what has been already been shown.

*Keep your eye out for the small bumps in the road too, like overused words. Strong, specific verbs will stand out if used several times (ones like shun, ricochet, shatter, seeped, wept, etc)as do descriptors, the word said, etc.

3. Internal thoughts

Forward motion occurs on two levels: the physical and emotional. Often the emotional is conveyed internally, through thought. If there is an imbalance between thoughts and actions, it can slow the journey of the story.

Have you ever read a passage of dialogue where every single line is accompanied by thoughts? I think we all have, in fact, we probably all do this in our writing to some degree. I know I do, and it’s something I have to edit out during the rewriting process.

When too many thoughts interrupt a scene, the reader is jerked from internal to external like tug-a-war. Focus shifts from what is happening to what the character thinks, and then back again. Sooner or later, the reader will grow frustrated and likely begin to skim, following only the dialogue. Having a reader skim is counterproductive, because the whole reason for internal thoughts is to draw your audience in closer to your character’s perspective and emotions.

In any scene, actions should flow naturally from one to the next. This is especially true of dialogue. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be any internal thoughts, simply they should be minimized and focused. Often, you can show what someone is thinking or feeling by what they do (action).

4. Back story

Our old pal back story can be like that clunky old rusted-out Ford driving 20 miles under the speed limit. In the wrong place, or at the wrong time, you suddenly find yourself inside a traffic jam.

Now back story sometimes gets a bad rap, because face it, occasionally we need something to haul a load of lumber or dirt. Of course we’re going to use an old pickup, because it makes sense to do so. The trick with back story is to use it sparingly, when the gain outweighs the momentary loss of forward motion.

Sometimes, by moving the story back, you can provide the reader with information about a significant person, item or place that will offer an emotional connection to the main character and shed light on their current actions and motivations. Flashbacks should not be used just to provide more information on something the author believes the reader will find interesting.

To use a flashback properly, the content of it must have direct bearing on the current scene. The trick is to use smooth transitions to get in and out of the flashback as soon as possible so you can continue onward. By having the flashback be brought on by something experienced or seen in the moment, a seamless line can be drawn from current scene, to memory, to the scene again. Always make sure there is an emotional relevance, and be as brief as possible.

Can you think of any other dangers that can foul up the pace (and be sure to use my driving analogies, cause I KNOW you all want to!)

One that probably also deserves to be mentioned is SKIMPING, where we skim on details or speed through scenes in order to get to our destination. Don’t be afraid to add meat to your writing; there’s nothing wrong with description and with taking the time to set the stage.

As with all things, balance is the key. Pace should act as a mirror, slowing or speeding up to reflect the action level of each scene.

Image: Kasman @ Pixabay


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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12 years ago

That sounds like an informative book to use as an example of what not to do in some instances. I’ll keep my eye out for it.

12 years ago

If you grab the book Doubletakes by T. Coraghessan Boyle, which is chock full of short stories by some pretty famous authors, you’ll come across a couple of Raymond Carver stories but actually they’re the same, just edited differently. You want grotesque examples of too much “said”? Holy crap. Now, to me, when used normally (read: not after every freakin’ piece of dialogue) ‘said’ disappears, it becomes to inconspicuous. In The Bath, it’s used, literally and unnecessarily, after every single line of dialogue. Every single one. Not only is it not inconspicuous anymore, it pokes you in the eye every time it pops up. I’m thinking name recognition got that version into the book but I don’t know anyone else that would be able to get away with such ridiculous writing.

Pacing is the bane of my existence right now. Thank whatever god may exist for first drafts, huh?

C.R. Evers
12 years ago

Wow! Great info, and very thorough!

I agree! Both are important!


12 years ago

Another awesome post, Angela!

12 years ago

Aes–this book is the best. I highly recommend it!

PJ, Shari & Luc–Thanks. I apologize for the length of the post…it got a little away from me, lol.

Courtney–I hit the freak-o-meter? Holy Zombies, that’s awesome!!

Bish Denham
12 years ago

As always, your blog brings me wonderful suggestions and information. Thanks!

12 years ago

YES. I am going to direct so many people to this entry. Well freaking said. Yes, I brought out the freaking. That’s how much I love this one.

12 years ago

Excellent post. Really hits the nail on the head.
“Balance”; it sounds so easy …

12 years ago

I’m a skimper, so always have to add lots of meat during revisions.

Great post – thanks! 🙂

PJ Hoover
12 years ago

This post is packed with good info! Thanks! I love the thumbnail description. So important. And it makes such a difference is writing.

12 years ago

I always love when you guys throw in book suggestions– there are so many “How to Wrist” books out there, it’s hard to know which ones are worthwhile.