Creative Intersections: Pacing and Plotting


This week I return to my series of posts on Creative intersections.  Thus far, I have discussed point of view and worldbuilding, plot and character development, and worldbuilding and plot.  Today, I am going to address plotting once again, and combine it with a discussion of pacing.

In my opinion, pacing is one of the most difficult elements of storytelling to master.  We all have read books that seem to drag at certain times or that become so frenetic that they are almost impossible to read.  And yet, I would never suggest that you try to make your pace consistent throughout an entire novel; to my mind, novels, like great pieces of music, have mixed dynamics.  There are slower passages and fast ones, periods where everything is loud and exciting, and periods of calm, during which your readers have a chance to catch their collective breath.  The key is, how do we balance all these different moods and how do we keep our stories moving and building so that the ending is exciting and satisfying?

I have been hammering away at the old “pantser” versus “planner” thing in recent weeks.  I think I’ve mentioned in every post I’ve written this year the fact that I outline, and I’m about to go into it again.  I am not proselytizing.  Really, I’m not.  But outlining is something I do that helps nearly every aspect of my writing, and after getting away from it for some time, I am outlining again and am more committed to that aspect of my process than ever.  It is particularly important when it comes to pacing a novel.  Why?  Well, the process itself explains it best. 

When I outline a book, I tend to do it chapter by chapter.  My outlines are rough — no more than a sentence or two to describe the key plot points that will occur in each chapter.  But if I know that my 100,000 word book is going to be, say, 25 chapters long, then I know (approximately) how long my chapters need to be (4,000 words or so each) and I can keep track of the progress I am making in my plotting as I write the book.  My outlines read as almost a list of key plot points, and so if I find that I am 12 chapters into the actual writing of my novel, but I am only at the plot points that I describe in my outline under the heading “chapter 8,” I know that a) my action is happening too slowly, and b) my book is on pace to be much longer than I had planned.

On the other hand, if I am writing chapter 12, but I am already on the plot points planned for chapter 15, I know that either I need to slow down the action a bit, or I was off in my estimation of how long it would take to develop my story.  In either case, whether going too slowly, or too quickly, the problem is correctable.  In fact, with City of Shades, the third Thieftaker book, which I am writing now, I found myself in this second scenario.  I was starting chapter 13, but had already gotten to chapter 14 in my outline.  But I realized that my plotting had failed to account for a couple of story elements that needed to be explored.  And so when I wrote chapters 13, 14, and 15, they were pretty much unplanned.  But since I knew both where I had been and where I was going, fitting them into the story proved incredibly easy.  Now, I am on chapter 16, and the outline and my manuscript are back in sync.

Now these are the mechanics of matching pacing to plot.  But what about the art of making that combination work?  As I mentioned before, I do not like to write my books at a single pace.  Life doesn’t work that way, and, in my opinion, neither should fiction.  Our plots usually consist of many threads, some of them naturally faster, more action-packed than others.  In the Thieftaker books, including City of Shades, Ethan has a central mystery to solve.  That is often the source of the most excitement and the greatest amount of action.  It also tends to be the darkest aspect of the plot.  Ethan also has an ongoing rivalry with Sephira Pryce, Boston’s premiere thieftaker.  This rivalry also supplies plenty of action and excitement.  But it can also provide a certain amount of humor. Ethan’s interaction with Sephira can be menacing and violent at times, but it also includes its share of quips and ironies.  Beyond those two threads, Ethan also has a romance with Kannice Lester, and colorful friendships with Diver Jervis, Rev. Trevor Pell., Tarijanna Windcatcher, and Henry Dall.  These interactions tend to have more humor and warmth, and, in the case of Ethan’s relationship with Kannice, lots of romantic interludes and even a bit of s-e-x.

Elements of just about all of these relationships enter into every Thieftaker book.  And they are interwoven — again, I refer back to the image of the braid that I introduced in the post I did on character and plot.  Yes, the end of my books are weighted heavily toward action.  But even in those final chapters, Ethan has moments with Kannice — the reader needs to be reminded of the stakes, of what Ethan is fighting for and what he risks.  He has moments with Pell, or Janna, or Diver, for the same reason and also because rather than make any section of a book unrelentingly dark, I want to throw in moments that will make my readers laugh or will tug at their heartstrings.  The word we use for all of this is “pacing” but really the word is not quite appropriate.  When I think of pacing, I think of running, of setting a pace and sticking to it.  I would argue that what we do in writing a novel is more akin to composing.  We blend dynamics, we vary tempo, we modulate between major and minor keys.  In short, we create literary symphonies that touch on many notes, but build to a final movement that is powerful and fast-paced, that will end on passages that leave our readers breathless, their pulses racing.  Furthermore, I believe there should be echoes of those final passages throughout the book, and the final pages should bring together all the tonal and melodic themes that have run through the entire piece.

So, when I seek to combine my pacing and my plotting, I rely on an outline to give my book structure and to ensure that my writing lines up with my planning.  But I also rely on a something that is less easy to name.  Some of it is instinct, some of it is simply the product of experience, of understanding when to up the tension and when to give my readers a respite.  This is one of the reasons why I utterly reject the notion that people who outline do not write organically.  Being an organic writer, again in my opinion, has nothing to do with pantsing versus planning, and everything to do with creating in the moment, with allowing characters and plotlines to adapt and change as the writing process unfolds.  That is why I outline loosely:  because I want to retain that organic element of storytelling even as I impose some structure on my process. 

Whether or not you use an outline, you should think about your plot threads and how they can overlap and blend to give your story those musical elements I outline above.  Because if you can get yourself to think musically, to view your narrative in terms of tempo and rhythm, modulation and dynamics, you may well find that your pacing concerns take care of themselves.

David B. Coe

20 comments to Creative Intersections: Pacing and Plotting

  • Wow. Just wow. What a beautifully written and helpful post! I love the idea of thinking of pacing as music. This also reminds me of something I’ve told students before when teaching presentation skills–while you definitely want to avoid a monotone, you also want to avoid “monopace.” Slow down or even pause when speaking to emphasize a key point, speed up to show excitement and emotion–don’t speak at the exact same pace all the way through the presentation. And once again I have a big “duh” moment as I realize how what I teach for other skills can be applied to my writing!

    Also, I’m now convinced I need to do more outlining.

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “Creative Intersections: Pacing and Plotting.” It’s about the steps I take to blend my plot points and my narrative into a story that flows at […]

  • Ken

    Brilliant post David. I’ve never thought of making the comparison between writing and music and that comparison makes perfect sense to me. You’ve also given me yet another use for outlining. I like that idea of taking the finished outline and looking at it in terms of pacing so you can see how the faster paced and slower paced moments match up.

  • David, thank you for explaining the difference between “organic writing” and pantsing. This is exactly what I do and for the longest time I felt like I didn’t fit into a proper category (other than one I came up with myself, “puzzling”) and this makes so much more sense.

  • Julia

    Thank you, David. This is very helpful. I particularly appreciate the discussion of how your outline helps you keep track of pacing and the speed with which the plot is unfolding. As someone who has written two previous manuscripts with no idea of what comes next, I’ve become irked at the way my lack of planning leads me to stressed-out flailing about near the end-stages of a novel, when I try to assess whether there is, in fact, a satisfying conclusion that can be made out of what I have.

    Thus resolved, however, I’ve been struggling to outline my new WIP. I realize that part of the problem is that I rely on inspiration that emerges out of the actual writing to advance the plot and to drive the pace of a particular chapter. I wish I could figure out the question I’m try to ask here, but I think it’s along the lines of: do you have any suggestions about how to lay this out *in advance* of the actual writing? Feel free to ignore the question if this has veered off topic…

  • David, This was just lovely. And these lines: >>This is one of the reasons why I utterly reject the notion that people who outline do not write organically. Being an organic writer, again in my opinion, has nothing to do with pantsing versus planning, and everything to do with creating in the moment, with allowing characters and plotlines to adapt and change as the writing process unfolds.<< were wonderful.

  • SiSi, thanks very much for the kind comment. So glad that you enjoyed this post, and the musical imagery. I can see where these would be crucial teaching skills as well. Something I hadn’t considered before. And yes, outlining really does make this process easier.

    Ken, thank you. The outline can really be an incredibly valuable tool, not only for letting us know where our stories are going, but also how we’re best off trying to get there.

    Laura, glad to help. A few years ago at a con, I had someone try to tell me that I didn’t write organically because I used an outline. It was not even someone on the panel — it was some guy in the audience. I almost dove across the table to smack him. So, yeah, you write organically, and it has nothing to do with flying by the seat of your pants . . .

    Julia, I think the best answer I can give you is this: It’s an outline, not a contract. You’re not bound by it, and in fact I usually redo my outline after 10 chapters, again after about 15, and sometimes again for the final 5 chapters or so. My story changes, and sometimes those outlines I start with become obsolete. But having a place to start and a path to follow, at least for a while, makes straying later much easier and less scary. Does that make sense? Does it help?

    Faith, thank you.

    So what’s with the slow traffic today, people? Did I get too artsy for y’all?

  • Blame the time change. Losing that hour has wrought mild havoc everywhere. 🙂

  • quillet

    As Sisi said: Wow. Just wow. A wonderful post, David, thank you. And very helpful! I read it this morning, and immediately dove into my WIP and spent the day looking at my plot and pacing with this in mind. Which is why I haven’t commented earlier. Consider it a compliment! 🙂

    I do outline, and I vehemently agree with you that it ~is~ an organic process. I think it’s not unlike sketching the outline of a picture and then using shading and/or colour to fill it in and bring it to life as you go. Sometimes you change things, erasing them or covering them up. Sometimes you treat that sketch as a study for a later, larger painting. The whole process, though, is creative and yes, definitely organic. (Er, that’s me getting all artsy now. It’s contagious, ’cause I liked that music analogy so much!)

  • Razziecat

    “Because if you can get yourself to think musically, to view your narrative in terms of tempo and rhythm, modulation and dynamics…”

    As much as I love music, I never took any music lessons as a child, and I don’t have the instinctive understanding of it that musicians and singers have 🙁 . What I take from this post is more along the lines of validation that I don’t have to follow my outline religiously, and that it’s okay to outline loosely even if you are an “organic” writer. I seem to lose my creative “oomph” if I put too much detail into my outline, but without one my story tends to wander a bit (okay, a lot). I’m learning to think of an outline as more of a flexible framework that can be moved about to accomodate the shifting shape of the narrative and the unexpected twists and turns, and yet has signposts that can guide me back to the right path when I wander too far afield. 🙂

  • What they said! 😀 I’ve been trying to braid a symphony while orchestrating an outline…

  • Julia

    David, yes it helps! I think I need to think about outlining *playfully* and *provisionally* so that I can keep that organic sensibility that you’re describing. Also I need to sit down and think about how I think my story is going to unfold.

  • Vyton

    David, I like the musical analogy a lot. Especially if you think along the lines of a score for a ballet. This helps me a lot. In terms of outlining or not, I do some of both. It depends on my grasp of the story. On one story, I started out pantsing and converted to an outline about half way through. As you folks are always telling us, there is no one right way to do this. It’s what works for you. Although your system may be different. Thanks.

  • Laura, true. Though I’m actually on vacation this week, which makes the time change easier. Thanks!

    Quillet, thanks very much. Glad to know the post sent you to your keyboard! Always a good thing. And of course as soon as you talk about drawing, I find myself in Razz’s position, because I’m not visually artistic. But thanks for that imagery.

    Razz, I know that for those who aren’t musical, this isn’t the most helpful analogy. Sorry for that. I’m like you. Too much detail in my outline actually makes my writing less effective. There is a balance to be found — as with all things creative — and I think I’ve finally found it with this book I’m working on now. Thanks for the comment.

    Lyn, I love it! Thanks.

    Julia, good. Glad to hear it.

    Vyton, the “no right way” thing really is the most important advice we give here, because it is true of pretty much every aspect of the creative process. Glad you like the analogy. Thanks.

  • TwilightHero

    Late to the party, alas. Just wanted to say that, as a musician – self-taught pianist – I love the musical analogy of pacing. I also fully agree with you and others here that outlining is an organic process. Though the outline is a guideline, once I actually write the scene/chapter, I’ll embellish some things, minimize others, maybe think of better ways for plot points to occur…quillet said it best – love that sketching analogy too. (Though I’m not much of an artist :P) Great post, David.

  • I tend to use “organic” to describe the flying by the seat just because I dislike the term “pantsing.” Sounds like some sort of goofy hazing ritual or what bullies do to nerds in the halls (and no, that wasn’t me in the audience). 😉 No matter how you slice it though, no matter what it’s called, you’re right either way. All of us, all of us, are flying by the seat of our pants at times, working organically at times. No matter how sketchy or elaborate your outline or synopsis, it’s still just bones; it’s nowhere near finished.

    And the analogy could also fit cooking. Building a good chicken soup may start with bones and water, but you still have to add all the other components once you’ve simmered those bones enough and created a cohesive starting point, the stock. You still have to flesh out the story. Those parts aren’t done. A few sentences per chapter does not a book make. Otherwise, this job really would be easy. 😉 Sure, Ted enters the room and all hell breaks loose, but how does it? Why? What room? What happened to make it so? What are the details? When’s that soup gonna get done? I’m hungry! And yeah, you could drink that stock just the way it is, but would it really be all that satisfying? Unless you really like chicken stock.

    I used to just open a doc and work, but as some others have also mentioned here, my work rambled aimlessly (much like this comment…) and I never finished anything because I didn’t know where I was going. The first novel I finished, I feel happened because I ended up hammering out a few page synopsis for it first. Bare bones and water. Just enough so that I knew where I was going. And, there were a couple places that I moved because as I wrote, I realized they made more sense in other places. There was even a couple points where I realized I needed to fill in some other bits I hadn’t considered when I was simmering the stock and wrote whole sections that weren’t in my brainstorming session/synopsis/outline. Now I think of the bare bones outline as somewhat loose, amorphous. Things can be moved around, dropped in, changed, all depending on what’s happening while I’m writing (hmm…much like I treat recipes anymore…). Just because I wrote the synopsis or outline doesn’t mean it’s now set in stone…err, paper…err…digital ones and zeroes? Anyway, it’s still organic, still malleable, still subject to change as I fill in the blanks.

    As always, this is what worked best for me and I was happy to find it after too many years of wandering the wastes.

    Oh, and even if you’re a pantser, it may be helpful at times to pop open a doc and jot down some points, brainstorm a problem, if you’re stuck and don’t exactly know where to go. Might be a good option for working through those pesky sticking points without committing to a full outline. I sometimes do that as well to get past the, “where the heck do I go from here?” issues when they arise.

    And for yet another analogy. A spider plotting out a number of points to hang the beauty of its web on. 😉

    Just 2 creds from the peanut gallery. 😉

  • Good advice. Especially the idea that you don’t have to get married to your outline. Also, it cracks me up when unsuccessful hopefuls criticize award winning authors.

    David, do you know about how many words are in ‘The Children of Amarid’? I’m curious, because it’s very well paced and I would like to analyze it a little closer (without counting the words, myself).

  • Cindy

    I think of organic and farmers markets. 🙂
    Here is a question. Has anyone ever used a grat to chart pacing?

  • Twilight, thanks. Glad to know that the analogy worked for a musician (I dabble, but hardly think of myself as a musician . . .) And yeah, I like the sketching analogy too.

    And Daniel, I love the cooking analogy. Writing lends itself to a host of these things, I think. Probably because we’re all so good with analogies and metaphors.

    Deep, Children of Amarid, is, I think, too slow in spots. But thank you for the kind words. It’s a long book — about 210,000 words. As a first novel it wouldn’t get published today. They’d make me cut it by 60,000 words . . .

    Cindy, I think lots of people use graphs or note cards or timelines to chart their pacing. Whatever works, you know?

  • Thanks. I did not realize that it was so lengthy. (A testament to its pacing.)

    In my opinion, a well paced story can overcome many obstacles, but a great story with bad pacing will probably be terrible.

    I once attended a film festival where each film was exactly 6 minutes long. The worst ones made us all feel like they had been playing for an hour; it’s pretty bad when fatigue sets in after 3 minutes.