On Pacing


I’ve been working a lot on pacing lately.

No, not the pacing I’ve been doing as I walk back and forth across my office, worrying about the August 28 release of my alter-ego’s first novel, Darkbeast.  That’ll take care of itself, and I’m already doing everything I can to get the word out, all in good time.  (End of self-serving reminder to this long-suffering crowd 🙂 )

The pacing I’ve been working on is about the endings of novels.

I’m actually a little bit surprised.  In my earliest work, I focused on the pacing of beginnings, on getting the reader into my story as quickly as possible and  keeping him/her there with the shrewd sharing of information.

I’ve spent a lot of my career working on middles, learning how to carry the story through those challenging core chapters, the ones where the plot wants to wander, and the characters want to flatten, and the setting has grown familiar and boring, and where I need to apply every last bit of my writerly energy to keep the story zipping along.

But until last week, I never thought I’d have to worry about the pacing of an ending.  Endings are full of riot and tumult — the plot is tumbling toward its by-now-inevitable conclusion.  Characters are changing in the ways that are going to cement their new lives, going forward.  I love the energy and the vibrancy and the creativity of endings.

Except the one that I was writing last week wasn’t doing any of that. 

I had a huge “reveal” that I was saving for the penultimate chapter.  My first-person narrator discovers a truth that should have been obvious all along, but which she’d hidden from herself.  She learns that a loved one isn’t what she thought, and she must make choices that destroy her earlier worldview.

But that reveal took too long to share, in a chapter that was supposed to be full of present-tense sturm und drang, full of a very real physical threat that my narrator needed to confront right then, or be forever silenced.  The reveal put the brakes on the present-tense scene, forced us into a flashback, or at least a narration of what had happened.

The pacing was shredded. 

And the worst part of it is that, the more I thought about it, my big reveal could only result in melodrama.  When my first-person narrator discovered her Deep, Dark Secret, she’d have no choice but to emote, piteously and at length.  And here’s the kicker — the climax of the novel wasn’t even really about that thing that happened in the past.  The past was just an example of how people misunderstand things, how they come to ignore what’s in front of their very noses. 

As an author, I knew that I needed to cut the 2500 words I wrote in a couple of gleeful hours.  I needed to return to the present-tense action, the emotional core of my story.  I needed to keep the narrative flowing, tumbling, leaping forward.

I saved the words I cut.  Maybe I can use them somewhere else.  Even if they never see the light of the day, they’re really very pretty words.  But they just didn’t fit the pace of that story.  The novel will be much better off without them.

How about you?  What part of your stories is most difficult to pace properly?  What tricks do you use to alert yourself to pacing problems, or to solve them in your writing?


15 comments to On Pacing

  • Mindy, I have the most trouble with middles. (looks down at waist) Not that kind of middle … well, yes, that too. Anyway. Middle of books. I call it the Yawn Factor. That part of the book where the tension should be building and the conflict should be getting worse, and sometimes it just dosen’t. I have no advice for people stuck in the middle, except to push through, somehow, and get to the end and then go back and fix it.

    As to endings, I usually have no problem with them, escept them being too pretty sometimes, all tied up with a nice bow. I need a little more Oops Factor. 🙂 BUT. I have a questions. LOTS of questions! What did you do with your Big Reveal? Did it go into the book earlier? Or will you save it for another book? How do you deal with the “it should have been obvious* part? I guess what I’m asking is, if it should have been obvious, Will you make it happen in this book? How do/did you make that decision? Okay, this is sounding like another post entirely. But Inquiring Minds and all that…

  • I’ll reiterate Faith’s questions. I’d love to know how you dealt with this, since it sounds like a Big Deal.

    My pacing issues are almost always in the middle — late middle, really. Two-thirds of the way through. Of course that’s where ALL my problems seem to crop up, so it’s not jsut a pacing issue….

  • sagablessed

    Middles are not an issue, nor are begingings. But my endings seem rushed. Kije snap your fingers over, no matter how I write them. *Le sigh* I shall endure and conquor this dilemma, as I shall not be deterred from the goal.

    David: Thieftaker will be and do fabulously. 🙂 My copy is on its way.

  • sagablessed

    “Like”, not kije…..puppy on keyboard, you know.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    As a newbie who’s pacing is still pretty much all over the place, I’ll just say, Good (if difficult) catch. Are you usually able to catch your pacing problems soon after you’ve written something so you can course correct, or do you usually wait until you’ve got a whole draft and can go back and smooth things out? Having recently finished revamping my first first draft, I’m rather trepidatious to do a full-edit read-through and be confronted with these problems.

  • Openings! Across the board with my novels, it’s the openings that are inevitably too slow. Usually, I’m worried about context for later emotional impact, but I invariably write the openings with pacing that is far slower than it should be.

    As for middles, I tend to hit that 2/3-3/4 point where I’ve tossed all my juggling balls into the air and then realize I have to catch them. Then panic. I don’t know if that actually improves the pacing or destroys it! Haha.

  • Unicorn

    Mindy, thanks for the interesting post. I can’t pace a novel to save my life; like me, the characters spend most of the book dawdling about and wondering what’s going to happen next. The opening of my novel was excruciatingly slow, but I think I’ve improved that in this third draft with a pacy new scene right at the start; I get lost in the middle, especially at that two-thirds to three-quarters point that LScribeHarris mentioned. Endings are better.
    My question is how do you know if a novel’s pace is too fast? Mine are all too slow, but I’m afraid that in an attempt to fix it I go overboard and write the pace too fast.
    Thanks again,

  • marlenedotterer

    I have a hard time seeing pacing. I think my only warning is if I feel bored while writing, but pacing is not always why I’m bored. I find I must rely on my critique group to mention it. Is it possible I have a blind spot here?

  • Endings seem to be okay for me. But the middles definitely get me. The openings, too, because I get attached to an opening and don’t like changing it. But I’ve been getting better at the openings, at least. It just usually takes a a few tries.

  • Faith – As we’ve talked about in prior posts, I found my screenwriting class to be *very* helpful with the pacing in the middle of my novels – watching the way action/adventure flicks handle that Yawn Factor was really illuminating. As for my situation, I’m still working through it. I’ve edited the first third of the book, originally with an eye toward moving the Big Reveal earlier. Ultimately, though, I find myself concluding that the Big Reveal is merely a Big Melodrama Manufacturer. Therefore, I’m structuring my story in different ways, so that the character has *always* known these things, but never realized the impact they can have on herself and others. (I know, that sounds squishy, but I don’t want to give away the plot of the novel, in case it sees the professional publishing light of day. Basically, a character has (now) always been perceived as being evil, but never viewed himself as evil, and the main character realizes how soul damaging it might be to always be perceived one way when one is not…) In other words, I’m still working it out – but this is definitely the novel of mine that has required the most revisions!

    DavidBCoe – Yeah, it is a big deal. It’s been illuminating to me, because the *characters* have remained essentially the same (I usually start novel-building with characters), but the tone and, to some extent, the plot, has changed. And congrats, today, on the THIEFTAKER release!

    sagablessed – Puppies are always a challenge on keyboards! (But thanks for writing back to clarify – I *was* wondering what that word was 🙂 ) With rushed endings, I often find that I’m assuming actions, rather than telling my readers what really happens. I sometimes skip over the mental/emotional gymnastics my characters must complete, speeding up the pacing too much. Maybe that will help?

    Hepseba – I have to say that pacing hasn’t really been a problem for me, until now. So, yeah, I can “usually” catch my problems, I guess… In this case, I knew that what I was writing didn’t feel right — it felt like it was off-balance, physically tilting to one side (if that metaphor makes any sense.) I realized that I needed to unpack the Big Reveal, and that was going to take too much time, just when my story should be rushing toward its inevitable, devastating conclusion. If you know what I mean… 🙂 As for your being uneasy about digging into your own work, all I can say is take a deep breath, brace yourself, and Do It. Otherwise, your work will never move forward! And you just might be astonished by what you learn about yourself and your writing!

    LScribeHarris – Interesting. For me, too-slow openings are a *relatively* easy fix, once I’ve recognized the problem. I’ve been known to slash and burn an entire 1.5 chapters to speed up the pacing at the beginning of a draft. (OK, not often. But once 🙂 ) Your juggling metaphor is actually a great one — to your readers, it will often look like everything is terribly, horribly out of control in the air, until you, the skilled juggler, reach in, ball by ball, and extract order.

    Unicorn – Honestly? In the contemporary genre market? I think that the danger of your work being too fast is slim, and nearly none. Most readers want things to swoosh along; they want to be carried by the genius of your plot and characters and setting. The one exception is doorstop epic fantasy of the type published by DAW – the readers of those novels are more likely to have made a tacit agreement to move slowly and methodically through a world. (My statement here is quite controversial, but I really do believe that most readers want a faster pace than many authors provide!)

    marlenedotterer – We all have blind spots toward parts of our writing. If pacing is a blindspot of yours, then you might study books that you or your critique group or other readers have noted for their pacing, looking at how the plot is structured and how the story flows. (For example, look at ENDER’S GAME, which is generally recognized as a well-paced SF novel.) Then, look at novels noted for their leisurely pacing (for example, any of Carol Berg’s amazingly well-crafted fantasy novels. Take the time to graph out rising action, falling action, dramatic pauses, and then try to determine where your work falls, in comparison to those others. Make sense?

    Laura – It *is* hard when we get attached to certain scenes, or even lines of text. I try to tell myself that *everything* is on the chopping block, if the result will be a better story…

  • quillet

    For me the problem used to be beginnings, until I realized I was beginning *before* the beginning, and needed to cut out most of that meander-y, setting-up-the-scene stuff and just get right to the inciting incident. Now I’m really happy with my beginnings…but my middle tends to sag.
    *looks down at waist, thinks about sit-ups* Ahem! Not that kind of middle. *waves to Faith*

  • rebnatan

    Is there such a thing as as being too relentless in movement forward in a story? If a novel is constantly fast-paced, can it wear out the reader? It would seem to me that pace should be varied; one of the variables in the writer’s formula. What do you think?

  • Razziecat

    I tend to get stuck on the connecting scenes in which not a lot is happening; well, obviously something is happening, but it’s usually characters reacting to the latest setback or whatever, and planning their next move. I don’t want those scenes to drag, but if I jump too quickly into the next action scene, it’s like bad editing in a movie: Jerky jumps from one place to another. I think the characters, as well as the readers, need to catch their breath between events; the trick is not to lose sight of the goal. This is where I tend to drop in a bit of humor, or character interactions that reveal a little more of their background or relationships, but these don’t always work, and then I’m stuck again.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, Mindy, I’ll keep that in mind. Those poor characters will not know what hit them… [evil cackle]

  • quillet – I think that starting at the wrong place is one of the most common mistakes we writers make. One of the mantras I recite to myself as I write is “the readers are smarter than you remember they are.” (Really, I *know* they’re smart. I just forget it, in the heat of writing!)

    rebnatan – Interesting… Earlier, I posted that I think almost *every* story could be faster-paced, but you raise a very valid point. All action, with no pause, is a formula for disaster too. Readers need a chance to catch their figurative breaths, as do characters. Otherwise, the effect can actually end up the opposite of what is intended (e.g., a scene feeling comic, when too much action is piled on…) (See, though, my comment to Razziecat below…)

    Razziecat – Those connecting, reactive scenes are necessary, but it’s easy for them to slow the story waaaaay down. I find that my pacing stays better when I try to accomplish two things in those scenes – reacting to the earlier action *and* forwarding the story, usually through cerebral connection of information. (As an example, characters narrowly escape the bad guys through a rumble-tumble fight in the city streets, only to get to their secret hideaway, where they can talk to each other, compare notes, and realize that the Chief Bad Guy must be Person X…)

    Unicorn – Glad I could help torture your characters! 🙂