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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Tips to Understand and Control Your Novel’s Pacing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In some ways, pacing is more critical to a novel than plot.

My husband isn't a kidlit reader, and when he read my novel The Shifter for the first time, he said,

"Wow, you do stuff in three pages that would take an adult book three chapters."

An exaggeration, but there's truth in there. MG/YA is typically faster paced than adult work, because kids won't put up with something that drags. If you can't grab and hold their attention, you're a goner.

Pacing is one way to keep that attention.

A well-paced novel keeps readers engaged—and reading.


This is one reason why “bad books” still make the bestseller lists. A good story matched with solid pacing pulls readers through the novel even if the writing is so-so. There’s always something to learn or discover and rarely—if ever—and urge to skim.

A badly paced novel lacks that sense of discovery and often goes long stretches where nothing happens to engage readers. It’s too slow and starts to bore them, it’s too fast and doesn’t give them time to absorb what’s being read, or it’s inconsistent and has barely enough well-paced scenes to keep readers interested (which typically leads to poor reviews).

What exactly is pacing? It's the speed of your prose.


Different types of sentences read at different speeds. So do certain events. The adage, "time flies when you're having fun" really does apply, as things we're into fly by, and things we're not as invested in bog us down. Just like your favorite class in school was too short, but your least favorite was three times as long.

You control your pacing by how you organize information for the reader.


Dialogue tends to read quickly because it’s multiple short sentences in a row and less information to retain. Descriptive passages tend to read more slowly, because there use longer sentences and require more focus.

But it isn't that simple, because fast-paced dialogue that’s basically two people saying hello and exchanging small talk is boring and slows the story, even if the dialogue itself reads quickly. Gripping description that sets the mood and clearly shows something about to happen can grab a reader, even if it takes longer to read.

It's how you put it all together that determines the pace.

Use shorter sentences to pick up the pace. They're quick and easy to read. They give information fast, so we don't have to remember much per sentence. They can also get the heart pumping, as they simulate something happening quickly. That's why action scenes are often filled with short punchy sentences.

Use longer sentences to slow the pace down. It takes longer to read a sentence with multiple clauses and information in it, because we have to parse what we’ve read and carefully consider what it said. This is doubly true if a paragraph contains several long and complex sentences, because they typically build off one another and the entire paragraph is one large thought building to a point. Quite often, the language itself is written in a way that draws attention to the style, expecting readers to savor the words themselves as well as what those words say.

Did you notice the difference in pacing between those two paragraphs? Odds are you read through the first pretty quickly. The second probably took a little more time. You may have even had to re-read a line or two.

That’s pacing.

(Here’s more on Move Along: Fixing Pacing Problems)

How much information readers need to absorb also influences pacing.


That's why dialogue reads so quickly. We read it, understand it, and move on. We're trained to absorb verbal information since that’s how we communicate on a daily basis. It’s the same with action scenes, as the information offered is visual and direct. Someone acts, something happens. There's not a lot of room for interpretation, so it's also easy to absorb.

Description is the opposite. Throw a lot of details at readers, and they're forced to slow down. They start building images in their minds with the first detail, but as more details are added, they have to reevaluate what they “see” and understand. They might even mentally hold onto details until they have an image solid in their heads. It only takes a second or two, but it slows the mind down and they notice slow spots even if they don't know why.

(Here’s more on Balancing World Building and Pacing)



Does that mean you always want a fast pace?


Nope. Breakneck prose is often exhausting to read. So much is flung at you so fast it becomes a blur and difficult to retain anything you read. Even if there is less information to remember, it went by too quickly to really absorb it.

As with most things, balance and moderation work best.
  • Keep things moving, but after a particularly fast scene, let the pace slow down so readers have a chance to reflect and absorb what just happened.
  • Cycle through fast and slow scenes like waves, getting a little higher every time as you build momentum and increase stakes.
  • Pay attention to where the text-heavy or text-light passages are—a series of large paragraphs in a row could indicate a pacing slow down, and too many short paragraphs could indicate things are too fast.

The right pace is determined by how much information readers needs to absorb. If the details are easy to remember and don’t require a lot of thought, a lot more can happen without losing them. If readers need time to understand what they’re reading, a slowdown might be the right call.

But don't think slow paced means boring.


There are other ways to maintain a strong narrative drive, even in a slower scene. Try tapping into the emotional state of your characters. If they're worried about something, that can keep readers worried and wondering, too. Secrets or mysteries dangled like carrots can also keep readers engaged during a slower scene.

Slower-paced scenes are good places to play up the who and why, while faster-paced action scenes usually focus on the what and how.

(Here’s more on The Science of Pacing: 3 Tips on Pacing Your Novel)

And remember…different genres use different paces.


There is no one-size-fits-all for pacing. A thriller requires a much faster pace than a literary novel, so make sure you understand what the right pace is for the genre you write in.

Fast or slow, use the right pace for the job.


Your novel won’t have just one pace. It will rise and fall as the novel builds, often mirroring the emotional state you want your readers to feel. You’ll slow down when you want them to feel emotional or reflective, but pick up when you want them breathless and excited. The key is to move fast enough to engage them, but slowly enough to ensure they can keep up with the story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and consider how your novel is paced. Is it pulling readers through the story or making them slog through it? Does it match your genre?

Do you prefer a fast or slow pace? Have you noticed the pacing styles for the different genres you read?

*Originally published March 2012. Last updated February 2021.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

5 Tips on Writing a Short Story

By Rachelle Shaw

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series


JH: Short stories give us opportunities to explore new ideas without committing to months and month of work. Rachelle Shaw shares answers a few short story questions, and shares five tips on how to write them.


Whether you’re new to writing or already have several books under your belt, short stories are a fabulous go-to, especially for the time-crunched writer. They allow you to get your words in while providing additional insight into your writing style, the minds of your characters, and underlying themes. They can be tricky to get right—requiring practice and polishing—but with patience and the right tools, shorts can become a cornerstone to upping your writing game.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Fantasy Short Story Opening

Critique by Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Zero

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it grab attention?

2. Would you want to read on?

3. Do the characters have personalities?

4. Does it work?

Market/Genre: Urban Fantasy Short Story

Note: This is a revised piece of a previous submission. Here’s the original for those who’d like to see how the author reworked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Friday, February 19, 2021

Story Structure: How The Act One Problem Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The act one problem is where many first drafts fizzle out. Here’s why.

We tend to think of the beginning of a novel as the first chapter or opening scene, but it’s really the first twenty-five percent of the novel. The “beginning” is everything that happens before the first major plot point the protagonist can’t walk away from.

The inciting event might officially start the novel, but it’s a call to action the protagonist can refuse (and often does). And once they do, things spiral out of control and get worse until getting involved in the plot is no longer an option.

The protagonist must act, because the problem is now too big to ignore. It demands attention, and it’s made it very clear it’s not going away unless somebody does something.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series 


JH: Wonderfully rich characters typically leads to a wonderfully rich novel. Bonnie Randall shares tips on how to reveal the depth and richness of your characters. 

A character is infinitely more than just who the author says they are. Like their living, breathing counterparts, fictional characters often reveal themselves in incidental ways. 

Here are five quick ways to help readers make powerful inferences about your characters:

1. Weave In Subtle Tells


My mom used to say you could see everything you needed to know about a man just by looking at his shoes, a crazy philosophy that actually holds water. Preferences and choices reveal much about who we are, where we come from, what we value…and what we don’t. Our clothes, music, art, vehicles, etc, are often as revealing as our actions and words. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

4 Mistakes that Doom the First Page of Your Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your novel’s first page is the last chance you get to hook your reader.

Writing your first page might be one of the scariest moments in writing a novel. So much is riding on it, and that’s a lot of pressure to deal with while you’re trying to craft the perfect opening line, or find the right voice for the story.

First off, relax.

Yes, the first page is important, but you don’t have to get it right on a first draft, or any draft until the final draft. You have plenty of time to craft a first page that will wow readers, agents, and editors. Many writers don’t even know what the right first page is until they’re written the end of the book.

But don’t ignore it either, because first pages really are as critical as everyone says. No matter how awesome the idea for a novel sounds, if you read that first page and it’s a total dud—you don’t read on. And if a reader is peeking into your novel to see if it hooks them, and it doesn’t, bye-bye sale.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

How to Fan Your Short Story Idea Sparks into a Bright Fire

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series


JH: When you've trained yourself to think "big" when creating story ideas, it can be hard to think "short." Rayne Hall shares tips and questions on how to turns your idea sparks into stories.


How often have you thought, "I want to write a story about this”—and then waited for the muse to come? You may have visited an intriguing place, listened to a friend's marital vows, chuckled about a social media post, or heard about an astonishing true-life event. These ideas are like sparks, hot, bright and fascinating—but how do you get from idea to story, from a mere spark to a bright flame?

Staring at the spark, waiting for the muse to come and fan it into a fire, rarely works. The sparks die, and all that's left is a cold crumb of ember. To build a fire, you need tinder (crumpled newspaper, birch bark, cotton wool balls) which ignites when touched by a spark. Without tinder, you won't get a flame, and without a flame, you can't light the kindling which sets the logs on fire.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Why Rescuing Your Protagonist Might Be a Terrible Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s fun to get your protagonist into trouble, but before you do, consider how they might get out of it.

I enjoy putting my protagonists in terrible danger, and throwing them into situations they can’t easily get out of. Which is both a lot of fun, and a whole pile of frustration, because sometimes I don’t know how to get them out of that trouble. I’m one of those writers who likes to write into a corner and force myself to come up with more unpredictable solutions, which make for better scenes.

Except when it makes for a worse scene.

Back when I was working on my Healing Wars trilogy, I faced this situation multiple times. My protagonist, Nya, gets captures a lot. So I had to get her out of that jam a lot.

The first idea that always popped into my head was to have another character come to her rescue, but I discarded it almost immediately every time.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a YA Suspense First Page

Critique by Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through February 20.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this opening working?

2. Is there enough emotion?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Suspense

Note: This is a revision of a previous submission. Here’s the original if you’d like to see how the author revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Friday, February 12, 2021

Story Structure: How the Inciting Event Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening scene isn’t the real start of your story. The inciting event is.

The inciting event is one of my two favorite turning points in a novel (the other is the midpoint). It’s that moment at the top of a roller coaster just before it tips forward and races into a spiral. It’s when all the fun and excitement you’d been anticipating while waiting in line is about happen.

Sure, the first line, the first page, and the first chapter get most the attention, but they’re only the first things readers see, not where the story begins. First pages are the setup for the real story, and the bridge that connects the opening scene to the inciting event.

And that’s when things really take off.