Pacing Basics

Nikoda asks (paraphrased): I get confused on pacing. I just can’t wrap my head around the assorted definitions….

Pacing is complicated and I could teach a week or two worth of classes on this. Here are a few tips, though, to point you in the right direction.

Pacing is the rhythm and speed of a story. Some stories slow down, not a lot seems to happen, details and descriptions and complex interactions occur; language can be richly textured.

Or text can be sparse. Lots of action. The story jumps from location to location.

There are plenty of great books that have both types of pacing. There is no one right pacing.

I do think it’s important to know the kind of book you want to write, and what your audience expects. For me, I always try to vary the pacing. Too much action, too fast, too many things happening—it wears (or worse, confuses!) your readers. If your story is always slow you risk fatiguing the reader and losing them.

There are many ways to vary pace. The easiest is on a mechanical level. Shorter, simple sentences, brief paragraphs, and quick dialogue all make for a faster pace. Conversely, longer paragraphs, lengthy speeches and descriptions, fat sections of character self analysis all slow the pace.

The most critical thing to remember is that slow pace doesn’t mean boring, and fast pace doesn’t necessity mean compelling. This is the classic rookie mistake.

You want your slow sections to have tension, to mean something, and draw the reader deeper into your story. For example I’ve recently re-read Salem’s Lot wherein there is a long passage describing the setting sun. Normally a mistake because the story grinds to a halt…but in this case it heightens the drama because you knew when that sun sets a hundred vampire are coming to get the heroes!

Conversely going fast all the time cheats your readers on the details of your world and characters, and you lose the opportunity to make them fall in love with your story.

To really understand the building blocks of pacing you need to understand how to build tension (to make everything–slow and fast–be integral to the narrative). And to build tension, understand it on the most granular level, I’ll refer again to STORY by Robert McKee wherein he talks at great length about this topic.

I hope that helps. Good luck with your writing!
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Writers Don’t Listen

When you ask an author to give feedback on something you’ve written they might shy away. They’ll say “everyone writes differently,” and “you have to find your own way.” Or, they’ll say they don’t have time to read your material. These are all very good reasons…

But it’s not why most authors don’t give feedback.

It’s because they know you won’t listen.

Many times when people ask for feedback what they really want is encouragement. When less-than-glowing feedback is given, the critiqued will defend their work.

The problem is that we know writing fiction is not like solving a math problem. There are no objective answers. So when a person gives us their subjective advice, we know it’s subject to interpretation…and all too often this translates into ignoring the bad news that something needs fixing.

And it’s not just beginning writers.

It’s professionals, too.

Heck, even me.

When I went to the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I thought I knew I was doing. To a large extent, I did…but that didn’t mean I didn’t have light-years of room for improvement.

So when two professional editors critiqued my work and said they were very worried about the extent of my characterization (the lack thereof, specifically), I stopped listening.

What did they know? I had already published a novel! I didn’t need extensive characterization. My characters were developed through their actions.

(Please don’t trip over my hubris and naiveté here)

This was internalized justification for a real weakness of mine. I wished I had listened, and hadn’t taken several years to reach the same conclusion and take steps to fix it. It could have saved some real agony.

This is one of the conundrums of being a writer. You have to step away from your work and be objective.

You at least have to listen when people give you feedback. A good start is to find a trusted reader and train them to give you the feedback you want and need (see my older posts about that here and here).

Ultimately it’s up to you to remain open to the possibility that your writing isn’t perfect yet.

And with a little luck, and humility, we’ll all become better writers.

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