Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Perils of Pacing

By Jana DeLeon

JH: "How They Do It" continues with thoughts and tips about pacing from author Jana DeLeon. Jana writes the popular Ghost-in-Law series, and her new Harlequin Intrigue, The Secret of Cypriere Bayou, releases this week, and it's good to have her back on The Other Side of the Story.

Have you ever read a book and found yourself growing bored with reading, but not necessarily with the overall concept of the book or the characters? If so, you've probably experienced the perils of pacing. In the past, authors could spend pages describing leaves blowing on the sidewalk to set the tone and stage for the scene. Now, you better be a NYT author or writing a literary work or you're not getting away with that. The reality is, we're living in an on-demand society that is used to receiving instant gratification for almost everything. Want to see a movie - download it on your TV or computer. Want a book - download it to your computer or e-reader. And the list of life simplification goes on and on.

What on-demand has done is shortened our patience. We want it now, and readers are no exception. That's why pacing has become one of the most important pieces of structuring your book. Now, there are a ton of things you can do to fix pacing problems like eliminate unnecessary scenes, combine secondary multiple characters into one, pare down description to only what is necessary for the reader to visualize the scene - even the use of stronger verbs rather than an adverb/verb combination is an effective way to improve pacing. But in this post, I'm going to focus on pacing in the opening scene because if you've got pacing wrong there, an editor or agent may not read beyond it.

When reading for friends/contests, I see two very common mistakes in the first scene that absolutely kill the pacing. The first mistake is failure to begin the book at the right place. Writers often think that the reader needs to know who the hero/heroine is before they can identify with their situation. That's not true. Readers only want to be drawn into the story, so make sure you start your opening scene right where the story begins - the point of change for the hero/heroine. And it never hurts to have a killer opening sentence. A killer opening sentence can suck a reader right into a book, and make them anxious to meet your hero/heroine and learn their story.

Take this opening sentence, for example, from one of my all-time favorite books, GODS IN ALABAMA by Joshilyn Jackson. You'll be interested to know that Jackson writes what is often referred to as literary gothic women's fiction, so she could get away with a bit slower pacing than say a romantic suspense novel, but this opening sentence drew me write in and I consumed the book in a single sitting:

"There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarter-backs, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus."
If you're from the south or ever visited, you are hooked. In a single sentence, Jackson has immediately set the tone and stage for her book. One sentence!

The second most common mistake I see is loading the first scene with backstory. Even if it is relevant to the story, backstory is certain death to an opening scene. Not only are you weighing down the scene and overloading the reader with a ton of information they don't need to jump into the story, you're missing a golden opportunity to tease the reader and have them begging for more.

Consider the following two opening sentences:
"Miranda never expected to see her husband more often after the divorce or she might have considered killing him instead."
"Miranda opened the front door to collect the mail and looked across the street. Her ex-husband was standing on his front porch, also collecting his mail. He must have heard her door open, because he raised his hand to wave. Why in the world had he bought a house across the street from her? After an affair with his secretary, Miranda thought he'd be long gone in a bachelor's pad in the city."
Two sentences that give you the same information - Miranda is unhappy that she sees her ex-husband often. But the first sentence puts you directly in Miranda's head and also gives you some insight into her sarcastic feelings about the situation. The first sentence also creates more questions in the reader's mind: Why does she see him more now? Why are they divorced?

The second sentence answers all the questions so that none are left for the reader to discover and doesn't do so in a way that shows you the internal workings of Miranda.

These two seemingly small items can make a huge impact on the opening of your book. So before you send it to an agent or editor, make sure you're reviewed every word to ensure you've made the most opportunity of pacing to pull the reader in.

Happy writing!

About The Secret of Cypriere Bayou
For Olivia Markham, laMalediction is the ideal setting in which to complete her work. But something is sending a chill up the usually fearless author’s spine. There are the unearthly noises, the sliding panels, the hidden passageways…and John Landry, the sexy caretaker who seems less than welcoming.

John has work of his own to do and he doesn’t need the distraction of a mysterious beauty claiming the old mansion is cursed. But he can’t ignore the fact that someone is doing everything to scare Olivia away – permanently. Working together to uncover laMalediction’s alarming secrets and root out the evil stalking them, John finds Olivia impossible to resist, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before something unexpected – and undeniable – happens between them.


  1. Good points! Thank you for sharing this. :)

  2. And thanks Jana for coming by today! Good to have you back.

  3. Great post. Gives a person a lot to think about.

  4. Thanks for the good insight and practical advice in this post. I think recognizing pacing issues in our own work can be tough. As you're reading your manuscripts, what clues suggest that you need to make pacing adjustments?

  5. Gigi: Naturally I can't speak for Jana, but for my own work, as I'm reading through it, whenever I get the urge to skim or feel myself glazing over the text, I know I need to tighten. I basically start to bore myself. Another tip is when I lose sight of what the scene goal is. When that happens, I'm usually wandering off track and slowing things down. On the other side, when I'm too fast-paced, I tend to read over something and then forget details. It's too fast for me to retain everything.

  6. Yep, Janice nailed it - when you're boring yourself, you will surely bore the reader. Think "white space, white space, white space." Readers are impatient and will skip long sections of description for dialogue, so make sure when you launch into narrative that it's so compelling, the reader can skip it. Deep point of view is the best way to accomplish that.

    If you're a YA reader, I highly recommend THE HANDS OF FOREST AND TEETH to see a great example of a book with a ton of narrative but that is never boring.

    Thanks for having me, Janice!

  7. Both the points are worth pondering.

    I think I practically need to work on using effective verbs instead of adverb/verb combination.

    thanks for everything.

    with warm regards

  8. I thought I'd mention a third problem. Not common, but if you do it, it's very hard to fix. With all the talk about "start with action," or "start with the story happening," it's possible to start TOO LATE into the story. That leaves a nightmare of problems that interfer with the pacing and even getting subplots into the story.

  9. Jana: A lack of white space, great tip! And the reverse would be true as well.

    Linda: So true, though you can probably fix a lot of that by just starting over in the right place. Still takes work, but less overall.

  10. Thank you! I *think* I've got it right in my opening. But the end... Whew. Everything seems to be happening too fast! I took your advice and added a couple of more'reflection' scenes that still move the plot forward and sprinkle a few more breadcrumbs. I'll have to see what my Beta thinks about it!

    I like the rule: First sentences should leave your reader asking WHY. If we answer that, then there is no reason for our reader to keep the book open!

  11. Gods in Alabama=<3

    I reconfigured and tightened my opening after receiving a form rejection (wrote about it on my blog--What I Learned from a Form Rejection) and it really made all the difference in getting my book published. It's something that can't be overstated.

    Great post!