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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  1. Thanks for all the help and information in this blog. I found it had some really good pointers.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Great post and great description and illustration in your paragraphs. ;) I caught it while I was reading. This is something that I need to be reminded of, especially during rewrites.:p

  3. That is a clever comment. Where did you find it?

  4. BJ Kerry, most welcome, glad you find it helpful :)

    Amelia, thanks! Revision is a good time to really dig into pacing since you know how the story unfolds.

    C0, which comment? I wrote the post, so it's all me.

  5. I prefer fact pacing when it comes to genre fiction. There's nothing worse than wading through page after page of exposition just to describe the world. In SF I want action interspersed with world building.

    I like literary works that meander, more streaming consciousness style. Then I'm not reading for plot but more for atmosphere and character so a slower pace is sometimes even better.

    In my writing, I'm still working on pacing. Sometimes I rush through things and sometimes I get overly descriptive, so it's still a balancing act for me.

  6. Xan, I love that you do indeed enjoy different pacing based on what you're reading. A great example of how not every book has to be one way.

  7. I've heard that teaching pacing is like teaching grace--some people just have it naturally.

    This is great info. It helps people make conscious choices and know why they work.

  8. Great post! Pacing is something I always try to work at. Another related issue is pacing of plot--some subplots slow the pace down, but others can provide necessary layering. It's a hard balance.

  9. Where's the 'Like' button? LOL. Seriously, another great post, Janice, especially the point about tapping into emotional states and dangling secrets or mysteries. Brilliant!

  10. Pacing is a challenge for me, but thankfully my beta readers can highlight where I'm moving too fast or too slow. Thanks for the great advice!

  11. Angela, I can believe that. Anything that takes an ear to hear is something that's hard to teach as well as learn. Much harder to develop an ear for it, but I think it can be done. Just takes lots of reading :)

    Writer Librarian, so true. That's probably more of a goal-hook issue though. But an interesting scene that drags on too long is a pacing problem.

    Dario, I have no like button? Oh no, I mist fix that. How the heck *do* I fix that? But yeah, it's those "I wanna know!" things that really keep you reading.

    Julie, good betas! I love when mine point out stuff like that. So very helpful.

  12. I wonder if faster pace is the reason why YA is quite popular with adults right now.

  13. I read a lot of YA and have grown used to the fast pace, and love it. On the more wordy "adult" books I often skim and sigh with relief when finishing them (which is a good lesson in itself).

    This is a very helpful post, reminding us of some key points to having good flow.

    Thanks so much - again!!

  14. As always, awesome advice. I've been thinking about pacing this week because the piece I'm starting is more literary and therefore a little slower. So different from the fast-paced stuff I'm used to writing.

  15. Another fine post, Janice.

    Pacing is a challenge for me at times, but on the upside, it's easier to tell when pacing's slow than the more subtle (or not so subtle) tense shifts I make sometimes.

    It can be really hard to get the right emotions and action beats without unconditionally shifting tense, and just one word can do that, and trips readers up, even if they don't get it's because of a tense shift due to an out of tense pronoun or something.

    This proves invaluable to my process since I recently figured this out. Now there will be one draft in my revision process where the only thing I look for is awkward and unintentional tense shifts, and ask one my trusted readers to only focus on when I lapse out of the intended tense or POV, because that will make the other editing WAY less nightmarish.

    While I understand your husband's initial reactions about pacing, thanks for making the point that slower-paced beats and scenes in a story has its place.

    For the same reason, people who are overly anal about axing adverbs, and not being so specific that you leave no room for the imagination.

    I think we sometimes forget that just like writers all write different, readers are just as if not more diverse in what and how they read.

    A few writers I know find some of my favorite books too slowly paced for them, but these were definitive authors for me, and still are, so sometimes it's hard to discern if what bugs us about pacing is personally subjective versus universally problematic for any reader. Don't you agree, Janice? Anyone else?

    Take Care,

  16. Jo-Ann, it's one reason for me. Busier days mean less time, and I can sit down for an evening and zip through a YA novel. I get right into them. I can easily see that being an appeal to others.

    Patti, I have that same issue with some adult novels. They feel a lot slower to me, and I have to remind myself to stop and just smell the literary roses.

    Annalisa, pacing is still valuable in literary work, but yes, it's a lot slower. One fantastic literary novel with wonderful pacing I've read is The Thirteenth Tale. (I think it's by Diane Setterfield). A quiet story, not a lot of action, but I couldn't put it down (once past the first few chapters. It started slow for me, but I suspect that's the market). It keep the story moving through hooking the reader, not through traditional "action scene" type plot.

    Traci, thanks!

    Taurean, totally. We all have preferences, and all are valid. Pacing is all about the speed the of text, and that can be fast or slow. Both have their places, and both have their fans.

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