Pacing makes or breaks a story. No matter how good the story is, or how well the author rights, if the pacing is off, the story will die. Go too slow and the reader will put down the book and ne’er return. Go too fast and the reader will get frustrated, confused, and feel cheated. Usually so much so that they won’t read any of your future books.
Pacing is simply how fast or how slow the story moves. Too slow and the reader is bored and stops reading. Too fast, and the reader isn’t given time to enjoy the adrenaline rush and tension. An author’s job is to build the pacing with a balanced ebb and flow much like the waves coming into shore. Too slow and the reader abandons the book. Too fast, and the reader feels cheated.
Pacing is 100% controlled by detail and action. Detail slows. Action speeds up. Too much detail and the pacing drags. Readers will become bored and stop reading. Too much action and the reader will feel cheated out of a story. Too little detail and the story feels rushed. Too little action and the story just drags. Never confuse action for detail.
Example: One romance novel I read got to the ending when the big battle scene comes. I was revved up, ready to go! I was so excited! And then: “I don’t want to bore you with the details.” Cut scene. (The author really wrote that. “I don’t want to bore you with the details.”) WHAT! I screamed, “No! Bore me! Bore me!”
This author called an intense action scene “details” and skipped the blood bath that broke out between two Scottish clans in the middle of the Highland moors. I’m still sitting here waiting for my battle scene.
Pacing is all about the right balance between details and action.
Generally, there are three modes in a story:
- Time passing
- Exchange of information
- Events unfolding
We will review each of these in turn.
Naturally, time passes in a story. Characters will eat, use the bathroom, sleep, and pour themselves a cup of coffee during their time with your reader. In Fantasy novels, characters could be travelling morning, noon, and night for months. In romance novels, characters could be sitting through a social event thinking for hours about their loved one while wishing the event to end. In Harry Potter, Harry sits on the train to Hogwarts for how many hours? How much an author decides to reveal can make those empty hours drag on forever.
The problem with passing time is its slow reading. Painfully slow. “Do we really need to see this?” was wisely asked in Mystery Science Theater 3000 when we watched a man open a folding stool and position his obese buttocks just so on the stool. Really? Do we really need to see this? Details is the culprit. Detail slows story.
I defer to my favorite author, Victor Hugo. M. Hugo wrote no less than 50 pages detailing every last balustrade and flying buttress in the Notre Dame Cathedral all before starting the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It made for some insanely slow, dry reading. In Les Miserables, Hugo spent no less than three pages laying out this gorgeous walled in garden. Why? Because Gavroche leaps the wall. That’s all. All that detail for one brief fleeting moment. The most painful thing I read was the 50-page chapter in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It took me six months to read through that 50-page chapter. What happened in those 50 pages? I don’t remember. I remember it was dry as hell and hard to get through. I remember hating it. I remember very little else about that book. For the record, nothing happened in those 50 pages. It was all just mundane details and information.
Pacing here is all about balance. If the story is slow, limit the details and move on. Never keep a slow scene for the sake of characterization. When time passes or things happening are the things we all do every day (that morning bathroom routine), skip it. Most of the things spelled out for readers can safely be assumed. I know Harry Potter woke every morning and used the bathroom. I know he showered regularly and probably took two to three bathroom breaks during school every day. Thank god, JK Rowling skipped those parts. If you have a scene you’re hanging onto just to build on your character, scrub it. Develop your characters “in the moment” when things are moving along.
What is it: When you need to communicate to readers that time has indeed passed, but nothing relevant to the story has taken place within that time.
Problem: Laying out too much information during an already slow moment in a book can drag that already dull moment out longer making it a painfully dry read. Most readers stop reading and don’t come back.
Common error: Characterization. Many authors fill in dead scenes with the mundane actions to build on “characterization.” Unfortunately, unless the character is REALLY ECCENTRIC (Not even the Doctor from Doctor Who or Howl from Howls Moving Castle received this kind of attention) no character is so interesting that their mundane actions will keep a reader hooked. Build on characterization in other scenes where plot unfolds, action occurs, or information is exchanged.
Fix: Cut scenes. Limit details or skip these moments altogether. Only write what’s relevant to the plot. Ask yourself: “If I cut this scene, will the story/plot suffer? If your story remains unharmed/unchanged, cut it! It’s not important.
Exchange of Information
The hardest thing I’ve ever written was the 6,000-word chapter that provided my characters and my readers with the backstory. It took months to cut this 6,000-word beast down to 2,000. All the research I had done of the 10th century kings of Norway went into this chapter to give readers the “why” to all their questions. For me, it was fascinating. For readers…it was a massive, unnecessary information dump that dragged the story down.
Nothing is more important than bringing a character (and a reader) into the light. Answering those “why’s” that you built up. Unfortunately, if this is note done with care, you’ll lose the reader.
If you’re going to drag your pacing and lose your reader, most likely, it will be over the Exchange of Information. When done poorly, information is usually done with nothing happening. Nothing…is already not happening. Chances are, your characters are sitting down, relaxing, eating, resting, drinking, showering…already dull and mundane. Now you’re going to throw in some information that alters the plot. They find a note, uncover an artifact, are told of some argument a king had with a wench 30 years ago that altered events. For the author, it’s always a “big reveal.” They’ll pause and throw in all the right pauses. Clearly the author understands the weight of the situation, but will the reader? Here’s the problem, if your pacing is off, and it already is at risk of being off during an information exchange, you’ll bore the reader who will check out before you’re “big reveal.” You can’t cut the scene like you can with the passing time scenario. Exchange of Information contains vital information that alters or moves the plot. Pacing is your friend and your enemy here. Get it wrong and you’ve bored the reader who stopped reading your book or your “big reveal” was lost on the reader.
Keep this in mind, when you have information to reveal to your reader, keep things short, simple, and moving. Pacing is already not on your side. Keep the story moving with tension by avoiding unnecessary details. Get to the point and move on. Have that information revealed as quickly as possible: enough to keep the reader engaged, not so quickly that the big reveal is lost, not so slowly that the reader stops reading. Never combine “big reveal” with characterization. Think Star Wars. That “Big Reveal” of “No. I am your father,” was done after Luke lost his hand, after the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, and while Luke was hanging, just barely, on the satellite millions of miles over space. And just before he let go and fell.
Big Reveal Harry Potter: Book #1. Harry gets through to the Mirror of Erised. There stands Quirrel. The “OMG! It’s not Snape!” happens, oh! And he has Voldemort fused to the back of his head. You know that moment. Harry just fought a life-sized chess game and they were nearly eaten by Fluffy.
One more example: In Dolor and Shadow (sorry for using my own book, but it’s a great example), the “Big Reveal” is when Kallan is told by her vile enemy, Rune, that “Ooh! by the way. We’re in Midgard, thousands of miles from home. An entire Dvergar army is on our tale. A crazed king is hunting you. And the only way you have of surviving this is by trusting me, the man who killed your father. Stay here and die, go it alone and die, OR try…TRY to team up with me.” This big reveal comes at a slow moment in the story, but immediately follows a battle where Kallan may be dead. Just when the reader comes down off an adrenaline high, just when the reader is given a moment to rest from the action, then they are giving the plot twist delivered in a heated conversation between enemies…if they don’t kill each other first.
What is it: Balancing important plot reveals and information with pacing so as to not lose the reader.
Problem: Already too slow scenes are used to reveal important information, or information is lost between intense action scenes that drown out the need-to-know information.
Common error: Authors cram important information into an already slow scene.
Fix: Cut the detail and condense on the slow scenes, or cut the scene altogether and relocate your “important information” or “big reveal” to a scene or next to a scene with action.
Action naturally is fast.
James caught the knife, dropped to the floor, and rolled just as Victor dropped his foot down.
Ironically, phrases like, “Suddenly,” or “As quickly as James turned around” or “Within a few breaths,” slows the pacing and do the exact opposite the author is wanting: to convey speed. Action, when poorly written, can be too fast or too slow. Too slow? The manuscript is watered down with modifiers meant to convey speed, or too much detail (AKA imagery) is given to paint the scene. If you need to paint the scene, do it briefly as soon as the scene starts. Preferably, as the character enters the room. If there is dialogue in the action scene, limit it. No one, no one really monologues mid-fight. Really. Save that for screen plays. Bad guys don’t monologue. If your characters do get into a discussion mid-fight, keep them fighting…or talking. Remember Pirates of the Caribbean 3: Worlds End? William and Elizabeth get married right there on deck…mid-fight. Best. Wedding. Ever.
Fights are fast. Escapes are fast. Tension and adrenaline come from speed and fast pacing. You want the reader to hold their breath with each page turn. Here’s another problem. Make them hold their breath too long and your reader will feel mentally fatigued after. They will stop reading if they find the book too stimulating. Let your reader breathe.
A properly paced book will have moments of mystery, action, adventure, and pauses. Let’s return to Mr. Potter. The first book launches into a mystery. Who is the boy who lived? How did he live? Why would a grown wizard attack an infant? What are these letters? What is Harry? Who is trying to talk to him and why? Mystery.
The mystery quickly turns to an adventure. Uncle Vernon buys a gun and sails them through a storm on the lake to a run-down cottage where they hide out. I always wanted to know what this place was and how Vernon came to own/rent it. Then Hagrid appears. We receive our information following that adrenaline rush and our mystery. But the information keeps us engaged. A gun is fired. Magic is used. Dudley gets a pig tail. Exciting stuff despite the slow pacing. Then we’re on to Diagon Alley. Wonder fills us and Harry. We hold our breath hoping Rowling lets us peer into every window. We’re like children condemned to riding in a cart and Harry (Rowling) is driving that cart. If Harry doesn’t look, then we don’t get to see.
The wonder continues to enfold, until we learn of strange things happening. Never a dull moment at Hogwarts, although we’re giving plenty of down time, which is always guaranteed to be interrupted with trolls in the dungeons and illegal dragon eggs and trips into the Forbidden forest. The mystery continues as we noticed some odd things happening and some really horrible things such as a creature drinking unicorn blood and Voldemort’s brief appearance.
A well written book will have a bit of every genre. Mystery, crime, adventure, action, and romance. Only fantasy, science fiction, and horror are optional.
Limit the detail. Provide detail only when it’s needed to paint the scene. Provide detail only on a need-to-know basis. Cut everything else out. During the action scene, take a page out of E.B.White. Drop the reading level down to a 4th grade reading level. Keep sentences short and brief. But pepper the paragraphs with long sentences.
Sentence structure goes a long way with pacing. “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam I Am. I will not eat them in a boat. I will not eat them with a goat. I will not eat green eggs and ham. Leave me! Leave me Sam I Am.” Green Eggs and Ham provides a lot of action, tension, and is well paced, building adrenaline to the very end when finally, FINALLY he tries the green eggs and ham. Readers are worn down just as much as the protagonist. FINE! I’ll try your bloody eggs and ham! And then, relief. Writing is poetry. It truly is. And the words we use to form sentences create a rhythm. Change up the rhythm. During action scenes, use brief, clean sentences. Avoid complex words…and always…get to the point! Never miss important details. You want clean, precise sentences that provide speed and clarity. Avoid modifiers. Action scenes are the time for telling, not showing. Never, NEVER, embellish on emotions during an action scene. And if you do, it had better be as intense an emotion as the action. Like Luke learning just who his father is. The torment is just as intense as the lightsabers.
Be sure you don’t cram action scene after action scene into your book either. Let the reader stop for a rest along with your character. One of my favorite examples of this is in Lord of the Rings.
Right after Gandalf falls…we have a goblin attack and a cave troll. We have a narrow escape. And then, we are given a Balrog! The wizard and the Balrog face off. Another narrow escape, and Gandalf falls. But the author has mercy. We get a brief moment to breathe when the hobbits emerge from the mines. They fall to the ground and cry. Although inappropriate as goblins are right on their tails, we are still granted that moment to breathe.
“Let’s move,” says Aragorn.
“Give them a moment. For pity’s sake.”
“By nightfall these hills will be crawling with orcs! We move.”
The action continues, but briefly. The hobbits enter the woodland realm where things slow down and they can rest properly and mourn their friend. During our rest, when we welcome the slow pacing to catch our breath, we gain some vital information. We see just how evil the ring is, and how much it can corrupt even the best of people. Galadriel.
What is it: Bogging actions scenes with too much detail or giving too little detail as to lose clarity.
Problem: Action scenes that are meant to be fast are watered down with too much detail. Or, in an attempt to create speed, too much detail is omitted.
Common error: Authors try to use imagery and emotion to paint the scene at a time when the scene needs to be told and not shown.
Fix: Use short, clean sentences. Avoid large words and tell. Don’t embellish. Be sure every action is clear and you don’t omit so much detail as to lose clarity. Be sure you give the reader time enough to break after the action scene. Let readers catch their breath with a slow-paced scene following the action. This is a good time to let your characters (and your reader) reflect on what just happened and their feelings about the events.
Dialogue: One final word
I am huge on writing dialogue. Unless you can’t write dialogue, use this as your primary method for delivering information, emotions, and tension. Nothing builds characterization, tension, and pacing better than dialogue. Nothing shows the story more than dialogue. But mundane “small talk” in a book will kill your pacing. **cough** Jane Austen **cough**
Never…NEVER…put small talk in a book. Unless you’re trying to paint a tense/uncomfortable situation, never have your characters discuss weather. Everything you write must have a purpose. It must have a reason for being in the book.
One of my favorite examples is this. If your book were made into a movie, would the scene/character get cut? If so, then cut it. If the scene/character isn’t worth the budget, then it isn’t needed in the plot.
Dialogue has its place. Use it sparingly in action scenes.