Basics of Writing, part X: Pacing Your Novel Musically


How many of you have ever seen the movie The Fugitive? My wife and I first saw it in the theater many years back, and it quickly became one of our favorites.  The opening sequence is particularly stunning — the way the screenwriters (Jeb Stuart and David Twohy) and director (Andrew Davis) managed to fill in the back story and set a breakneck pace for the movie in the span of just minutes.  I remember watching the scene with the train wreck — breathless, my pulse pounding — and commenting to my wife “They’re not even done with the credits yet!”  If you’ve never seen it, you should — amazing stuff.  The movie never flags; the pace is unrelenting, and the result is exhilarating.

That said, I would argue that while this storytelling approach works terrifically well for a movie, it is less effective in a novel.  Pacing a movie and pacing a book are utterly different, something that Hollywood doesn’t always seem to understand.  This, to my mind, is why the most recent Harry Potter movies feel more like the SportsCenter highlight versions of the books.  Peter Jackson managed to make the pacing of the Lord of the Rings movies (the extended versions in particular) similar to the pacing of the books, but he needed to make each movie nearly four hours long in order to do it.

Pacing a novel is nearly as difficult to write or talk about as it is to do properly.  Every author is different; every novel unique.  Trying to apply the pacing of one work to another would be like trying to impose the rhythm and cadence of one song on another.  It might work every now and then, but most of the time you’re going to wind up with songs that just sound wrong.  (I will be using musical analogies a lot in this post, because I think they’re especially helpful when thinking about pacing.  For more on the similarities between music and writing, you might want to check out this post that I wrote several years ago.)

Generally speaking, we want our books to be fast-paced enough to keep our readers turning the pages, but not so unceasingly action-packed that the story feels like an assault on the senses.  (Some would argue with this — there are authors out there who write their books as one long action sequence.  Some of them sell very well — better than I do.  This is one of those “no-right-way-to-do-this” moments.  It’s highly subjective.  As it happens, I don’t like to read books that are paced like that, and I don’t want to write my novels that way.  If that’s how you like your novels, that’s great, but you might not find this post so helpful.)  As I indicated a moment ago, I like to think of my novels in musical terms.  A novel, I believe, should be like a symphony, or, to put it in more modern terms, like a complete album.  A short story can be more like a song (or a single movement in a classical piece), with one level of pacing and energy throughout.  But when I work on a novel, I like to think in terms of dynamics and tonality, cadence and key.  I have a few albums that include ten or twelve songs that all sound the same.  I rarely listen to them.  I want the music on any given album to vary from song to song — ballads and up beat tunes; some in major keys, some in minor; some with fairly standard beats, others more syncopated.

In my view, a novel needs to have a similar level of variety.  I will open with a fast-paced scene — a murder perhaps, or a fight; something that introduces a major plot point and/or a key character, but that also grabs hold of my reader and makes her want to dive into the book.  But I will often follow that up with a scene that is a little slower.  It might have humor, or romance, or some descriptive passages necessary to convey information about my world and some of my other characters.  From there, I will go to some other action scene, although not necessarily the same kind of action I used in chapter 1.  Maybe this will be a sex scene, or a tense conversation that hints at violence to come without actually resorting to it now.

Let me pause here to stress a key point:  I’m not saying that I use my search for narrative dynamics as an excuse to pad my word count with scenes that go nowhere and accomplish nothing.  As I have several times before, let me remind you of Vernor’s Law, which basically tells us that all the scenes we right ought to accomplish at least two of these three things:  develop character, further plot, fill in background.  I do my best to make certain that every chapter I write has a purpose.  I want something to be happening in my books all the time.  What I’m saying is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that every scene has a knife fight, a car chase, and a dragon hunt.  After a while, again in my opinion, action for action’s sake becomes as boring as a book in which nothing happens at all.  My books have quiet chapters in which the “something happening” is more emotional, more character driven.  I also have chapters that, quite frankly, kick butt.  A novel should have both.  How much of each?  That’s a hard question to answer, because every book is different.  But when I’m writing, I start to get a feel for when I’ve gone too long without an action sequence.  Just as I start to notice when the album I’m listening to has had four ballads in a row, and desperately needs something to make me tap my foot and bob my head, I realize that my book is getting bogged down in too many conversations and moments of introspection.  As Faith would say, time to kill someone!

I would also argue that pacing goes beyond simple changes in dynamics and variations of action levels.  Pacing can happen at the micro level, from sentence to sentence.  You don’t want all your sentences to sound the same.  That would be boring.  This paragraph is getting boring.  That’s because all the sentences sound the same.  When I finally vary the cadence of my phrasing, when I change structure and wording to make one sentence sound different from the ones around it, the change comes as something of a relief.  Doesn’t it?  When we write action scenes, our sentences often become shorter, snappier, more declarative.  When we’re writing slower sections, ones that depend on description of setting or emotions, our sentences will slow down as well.  They’ll become more complex, more flowing.  This variation in cadence is another way to maintain reader interest.

Sometimes we can propel our narrative forward simply by leaving our readers in different states of mind at the end of our chapters.  Again, let me use a musical analogy.  Listen to a symphony and you will find that there are times when Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven will allow their tonal variations to resolve, and other times when they won’t.  For those of you who are not musically inclined, think of it this way:  there are times when you’re listening to a piece of music, and you can anticipate what the last note of a musical phrase is going to sound like.  That’s because the music has resolved to the root note of whatever key it’s in.  That resolution is very satisfying when we’re listening.  It brings a sense of completion.  Now, composers can heighten the tension in their music by delaying that resolution, by not giving you that anticipated final note, or by taking the listener to a different note, one that is unexpected, perhaps even one that sounds “wrong.”

Authors can do the same thing.  Sometimes giving readers a sense of resolution in the middle of a story can further narrative or character development.  Those small victories that a character earns along the way can make future failures or defeats even more devastating.  Sometimes they just give our readers cause to smile along the way — a welcome change of pace when we’re dumping a ton of crap on our lead character.  Many times, though, we want to put off that sense of resolution.  We want to end a chapter with our readers still waiting for that note they want to hear.  Sometimes we want to give them an unexpected note, even a sour one.  Doing so ratchets up the tension and, again, keeps our readers turning the page to see what happens next.  That is a part of pacing, too.  Building narrative tension in this way can often help us through those sections of a book that might not have quite as much true action as other parts do.

No two books I’ve written have the same pacing — each novel develops at its own speed, with its own rhythm and cadence.  We can affect pacing with sentence structure, with the content of our chapters, and with the rate at which we mete out resolution to the various subplots that make up our narrative.  Naturally, there is much more that can be said on this topic, but this is already a longer post than I had intended to write, so let’s stop here and discuss some of these issues.  What strategies do you use to pace your novels?  What issues give you the most trouble?

David B. Coe

17 comments to Basics of Writing, part X: Pacing Your Novel Musically

  • D,
    as we discovered at ConCarolinas, you and I have slightly different ideas about which harry Potter movies are the most successful, but even that illustrates your point. I like the films which deviate most fromt he books because their new rhythm, to me, suits the cinematic form better. Like you, I’m wary of novels that read like screen plays in terms of action, and much prefer what you are advocating here, a story with movements in the musical sense, with phrasing, though you give the idea clarity here in ways I hadn’t thought through. Thanks.

  • Not only do I vary the forms of conflict to create pacing, but I try to give the characters and reader a breather a periodically to reset their emotions. Those slight dips in pacing, even between action and internal conflict, are what makes the climb to those intense moments all the more powerful. If a story raises the pace consistently without any dips it becomes monotonous and the reader can’t reset their emotions and they lose out on moments that should have real impact.

    I hope that makes sense. I need more tea.


  • David, I needed this 2 weeks ago to explain why I was so tired! Sigh… The universe needs to work on its timing.

    I was 140-ish pages in on the next Jane Yellowrock novel when I came to a screeching halt. All action, all fighting, no softer anything. All she had done was fight and chase and kill stuff/people/bad-guys. I was exhausted with it all, and can only imagine what a reader might have felt — maybe a bit like listening to the drum solo Wipeout for hours.

    I went back and found a place in the middle to address some backstory hints and character info, and am now writing a 20+ page scene to slow the dang thing down. In the *True* rewrites, I’ll add in slower paras from the beginning that lead up to the new scene I’m adding, and then draw from it afterward with slower paras that lead away. But until now, I couldn’t have explained to anyone else what I was doing or what the mscpt needed.

    Not being musically trained at all, but understanding the concept you are talking about, I feel like I’m adding some darker, minor harmonies to my piece, something that wells up and spreads out and gives it dynamics that were missing. Thanks for explaining what I was doing so I can put it into words.
    And Happy Monday Y’all!

  • Sometimes, I will purposely look at something I’m writing as a piece of music for the very reasons you discuss in this post — pacing. I’ll write down the major plot points and think of it in terms of music genre — this part is punk, this part is blues, this part is classical. It’s just another way of getting a little distance from the work, so I can find the faults that need fixing.

    And yet, I can’t listen to music while I write. Drives my crazy.

  • Being a musician, I love the idea of well-written books imitating well-written music. If you take the symphonic idea further, you can parallel the use of the motif. The motif is the phrase that becomes a running theme throughout the symphony. It may be played with, twisted, and turned upside down but it is still present in each of the symphony’s movements. So too must our novels have a motif “or theme” tha tmust run through your novel in some form in order to provide a coherent unified tale.

    I could write a book about this, so I will stop. But thanks David for the connection.

  • I just love it when someone explains a concept in a new way that triggers a better understanding. Thank you, David! I’m printing out this post. Also a very nice complemetary addition with motif, Mark.

  • A.J., yes, I remember the CC discussion about the Potter movies, and even accounting for the things I was saying just to shake up the discussion a bit, I agree with your point. What holds together best in movie form has almost nothing to do with what holds together best in book form. Thanks for the comment.

    NGD, it makes perfect sense, and is well-said. As it is, even a well-paced novel often describes a sequence of events that is way, way more intense and frenetic than what most of us experience in real life. Take out those dips you describe, and you’ve got something that is not only overwhelming, but also, in my view, totally unrealistic.

    Faith, sorry to have been a couple of weeks late with this. 🙂 Glad you found the post illuminating, and thanks for the insights into your process with the current Jane WIP.

    Stuart, I like that approach to analyzing your WIP. For all my talk of looking at my writing from a musical perspective, I’ve never done that. Great idea.

    Mark, what a fabulous insight. That is a great addition to this discussion. Thank you. The idea of motif is one that I often think about as an afterthought, but building it into this way of considering my work will force me to bring it to the fore. I’m grateful to you.

    EK, thanks. Glad the post was helpful.

  • Unicorn

    What issues with pacing give me the most trouble? ALL of them. I can’t pace a book to save my life. I think it’s something that I struggle with the most out of all my writing problems. I get so longwinded. I yak on about nothing, for ages and ages, which is why I sit with short stories of 20 000 words and 160 000 word doorstoppers meant to be YA novels. I lose the plot, chase off after minor plot points, forget about action sequences, the pace drags, and the word count explodes. *headdesk* Most infuriating. I write such slooow stories.
    So, with my first-draft WIP, I imposed a new rule on myself: Write a fast story. I try to make lots happen in a relatively short time and thankfully this new stratagem suits my reckless, happy-go-lucky, adventurous hero. There are probably going to be lots of holes in it, but I can deal with those in revision – for now I really have to get this whole “give the reader a break, slow the pace down” thing out of my head.
    Thanks for the excellent post, David, it really cleared things up. I’m much energised. Now back to cutting huge chunks of rubbish out of my novel in revision and not writing huge chunks of rubbish in my WIP.

  • David, Thanks for this; you make it all so clear, even if someone (like myself) isn’t musically inclined. I have to say, one of my biggest pet peeves is reading work that never varies. It all sounds the same. It never varies much. If at all. It just repeats the same sentence pattern. It does so over and over. How can any one write like this? It’s bad enough in a short story. It’s inconceivable in a novel. Maybe that’s why I’m not much of a fan of Hemmingway. He wrote like this all the time. I have to stop now. Or else I might have to kill myself.

  • Unicorn, have we mentioned that none of this easy? Seriously, pacing issues are among the most difficult to resolve because a) there is no easy formula for doing any of this, and b) it changes with every book. It does sound like your problem isn’t too much continuous action, but rather not enough action sequences to move the narrative along. I’m not going to say that one problem is easier to deal with than another — they’re both hard. But your task is to insert more fun stuff, so that can’t be all bad, right? Thanks for the kind comments and best of luck with the revising and the writing.

    Ed, I happen to be a Hemingway fan, but I do know what you mean. His stylistic quirks at their worst do get pretty damned annoying. In certain books it works: THE SUN ALSO RISES, OLD MAN AND THE SEA, and my favorite, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, are, I think, brilliant. Others bother me more. But I’m glad the music analogy worked for you, and as always, I appreciate the comments.

  • It’s ironic that Hemingway is the first name that pops up when talking about this kind of thing, because I too am a fan of The Sun Also Rises and Old Man And The Sea, along with a select group of his short stories, particularly The Snows Of Kilimanjaro. However, I’m a much broader fan of writers like Steinbeck and F. Scott, whose prose styles were more varied than Hemingway’s.

  • The music analogy is great, David. It’s so true &#8212 different parts of the story call for different songs. Together they make a soundtrack, and each book’s sountrack is different. 😀

    I don’t know if I can call it a strategy so much as a technique, but it is music-related. To me, every sentence I write feels like it should have a certain number of beats like the rhythm of a song, and too many or too few makes it feel “off”.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the reply, David. It can’t be that hard to fix, can it? I just need to put more fun stuff in… I have a mental block against too much action, for some reason. Battles, battles, battles! Think about battles! Everything in moderation, of course. 🙂 But I think I’m getting on top of it now. Thanks again.

  • Ed, yes, I would add Faulkner to that list. But I know just what you’re saying. Makes me wonder if Hemingway would have trouble getting published in today’s world.

    Laura, I like the idea of thinking in terms of a soundtrack. As for your strategy/technique, that makes sense to me, as long as sentences vary in their rhythms and beats. The thing that bothers me most as a reader is sameness. If there is variety, that tends to aid the flow. At least it does for me.

    Unicorn, you’re welcome. And no, I really don’t think it will be that hard. Not easy, but not impossible either. And as you say, it’s the fun stuff you’re adding in. Hope it goes well.

  • wookiee

    I think it would be very interesting to graph the pace and crescendos of various famous symphonies against those of successful books. I’m certain you’re right and there would be similarity. Unfortunately mapping a book seems like it would require multiple reads and meticulous notes.

  • Wookiee, I love that idea, though I agree with you that it would nearly impossible to do. I expect that you’re right though — there would be distinct similarities.

  • Tim True

    All, sorry for joining this discussion so late, but I just discovered this blog. Hopefully it won’t be the case that no one reads this; and that it will be the case that this discussion continues. Really, all I want to say is something about musical form, having earned a degree myself (once upon a time) in music theory and composition. Musical forms made sense to me as a student. So, seemingly always struggling to write the ever-prevalent college essay, I had the thought one day to base a particular essay I was writing on the musical sonata-allegro form, a form very common in first movements of many symphonies and concertos. This form is characterized by three sections: the exposition, where the piece’s main themes, or motifs, are introduced; the development, wherein the motifs are manipulated and explored until the piece has modulated to a different key; and the recapitualtion, a sort of resolved return to the original motifs and key. So I viewed the essay’s introduction as an exposition; its argument as a development; and its conclusion as a recapitulation. I never told the professor the method to the madness, but I remember being very pleased with the final product, and receiving an A. Point is, music can offer much to writing of all kinds.