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