Monday, February 06, 2023

Move Along: Fixing Pacing Problems

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

A badly paced novel can ruin an otherwise strong story.

Pacing problems fall into two categories: too slow or too fast. While this makes it easy to diagnose the trouble, it takes a bit more to solve the actual problem. Too slow can be an editing issue, a stakes issue, or even a structure issue. Too fast can be a plotting problem, a characterization problem, or yes, a structure problem.

If your pacing isn’t where you want it to be, first identify what the problem is.

Is your pacing too slow? 

While any number of things can contribute to a slow pace, "too much of something" is usually the culprit. Maybe it has too many long sentences, or it's heavy exposition, or characters give too many speeches. A reader has to slug through "a lot of something" to get to the actual story.

The more unnecessary words you add the slower your pace will be. 

The usual suspects for a too-wordy scene or manuscript:

Heavy Description: Look for long descriptive passages, especially if the scene is supposed to be fast-paced or have a lot of action. Description slows the pace down, especially in large blocks. Trim it back or spread it out to help pick up the pace.

Empty Dialogue: While dialogue is typically fast-paced, people talking about nothing drags the story down. Look for lines that add nothing to the story, such as greetings and good-byes, single questions that are there solely to keep someone talking:
“You won’t believe what Bob said.”  
“What? Tell me!”  
“He said…” 
 “What? Tell me?” can easily go. 

Internalization: Long mental deliberations have their place, but when they read like an awkward pause between lines of dialogue it’s time to quit thinking so much. It's especially bad when it interrupts the natural flow of conversation and even makes readers forget what the last line of dialogue was, or what the speaker is responding to. 
She grinned. "Well, we certainly can't have that, can we?" 
[Protagonist muses over this for two paragraphs] "No, we certainly can't."
Also, if the dialogue and response are supposed to sound snappy and come right after each other, don’t put a lot of internalization (or anything else) between them.

Stage Direction: Describing every movement a character makes takes longer to read than it does for them to actual do it. Skip the obvious actions or the things that don’t add anything to the scene.
She unlocked the door and stepped inside, then nudged the door closed with her hip. Sighing, she crossed the room, pulling off her jacket and hat and hanging them on the rack in the foyer before kicking off her shoes.
Also be especially wary of places where a character speaks, moves, speaks, moves, speaks all in the same paragraph.
She unlocked the door and stepped inside, Howard right behind her. "I told her she couldn't go if she didn't finish her homework." She nudged the door closed with her hip. "She threw a fit, obviously," she said as she crossed the room, pulling off her jacket and hat and hanging them on the rack in the foyer. "But the girl's got to learn some responsibility." She kicked off her shoes.
This just drags the pace down and makes it difficult for readers to follow.
(Here's more with Tips to Understand and Control Your Novel’s Pacing)

The usual suspects in a "too boring" scene or manuscript:

I’m using boring as a general term here, but this refers to scenes that drag, but they’re well-written and we like them. We know could be better, but we’re not sure how to do that. You might do a...
Goal Check: Most times if a well-written scene drags, there’s a goal issue. The protagonist isn’t being proactive, they don’t want anything and readers are just watching them go about their day in some fashion. 

Try adding a strong goal to drive the scene and make them actively trying to accomplish something.

Stakes Check: Next biggest offender here is a lack of stakes. The protagonist is acting, they have a goal, but readers just don’t care if they achieve it or not. 

Try making the consequences of the goal matter more on a personal level. Give readers something to worry about as the scene unfolds.

Character Check: Sometimes a character isn’t “in” the scene even when they are. The reader feels detached, like they’re watching from a distance. This usually happens where there’s little internalization or personal input from the POV character. We see them act, but don’t really know why or why it matters so we can’t connect to them. Often, the motivation for the action isn't coming through. 

Try adding more internal thoughts and emotional reactions so readers understand the character's motivation and why they're doing what they're doing.
(Here's more with The Science of Pacing: 3 Tips on Pacing Your Novel)

Sometimes structure is the issue, and how we break up our story affects how it reads. Problem areas:

Bad Scene or Chapter Enders: Chapters typically end with something unresolved or a question left hanging. If the chapter just stops with nothing to entice the reader to read on, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. 

Try ending your scene or chapter at a high point in the tension. Look for lines where something is left unresolved, and places where the reader wants to know what happens next.

Not Enough Scene Breaks: A lack of scene breaks can indicate that there might be unnecessary transition description bogging the story down. For example, traveling to get somewhere, or filler between scenes that change location. 

Look for summaries between things happening. Chances are you can cut those and break the scene. If nothing interesting happens between events, there’s no need to show it.

Is your pacing too fast? 

Dialogue is fast-paced, as is action, but if you skimp on the rest of what makes a story interesting, you end up with a breathless ride that goes by too quickly for your reader to enjoy.

A too-fast pace often comes with a lot of action being throw at the reader. 

So much is going on it’s hard to absorb it all as it goes by. You might check on:

Complicated Complications: Having plans go wrong is a good thing, but if every little thing that can go wrong does go wrong, they all start merging together. Do you really need all those problems? Can any be combined or eliminated? 

Try breaking down the steps of your scenes and seeing how many things your protagonist has to do (and overcome) to reach the end. If the number looks high, trim a few out.

No Breathers: If your protagonist never gets a chance to catch their breath, the reader won’t either. Look for places where you can let the protagonist pause and reflect on what’s just happened to them. Good spots include right after a problem is discovered, when one is resolved, when they learn something new, etc. Reflection gives you a chance to remind readers why all this matters.

Large Crowds: A sudden influx of characters (and the names that comes with them) can trigger “you can skim over this part” to a reader. It’s clear that they’re not supposed to remember all those people, so the scene takes on less importance and flies by. 

Try naming only those who need to be remembered and limiting the number of people in the scene.
An all-action plot might be missing the depth to bring its characters to life and really flesh out the world they live in. Try looking at:

Flat Characters: You know those action movies where you can’t remember the hero’s name? Skimping on characterization is the book equivalent. 

Take the time to let readers get to know the characters so they’ll care about what happens to them. Glimpses into their personality are great ways to slow down when things are going full tilt.

White Rooms: A lack of setting makes everything feel like it’s happening in a blank room. Are you describing the setting enough? Are there enough details for the reader to put everything in context? 

Setting can also be used to up tension and heighten conflict, so a little description goes a long way to slowing a too-fast pace.

Weak Motivations: Is your protagonist just going through the motions and acting out plot for the sake of plot? If they’re just a body there for things to happen to, the action has no point and becomes background noise. 

Try showing why you chose this protagonist to handle these problems. Let readers get to know them so they understand why they’re going through all this trouble. Those moments of internalization or discussion help transition from scene to scene at a more manageable pace.
(Here's more with Give Me a Beat: Rhythm in Dialogue)

Short sentences, shorts chapters, short scenes. They all pick up the pace, but when used too much, it can be overwhelming.

Choppy Sentences: Short sentences are fast. We read them quickly, and the staccato nature adds to the tension of the scene. But too much starts to read like a strobe light showing freeze-frame images in a row, not a story unfolding. 

Trying mixing it up, adding longer sentences as well as the short quick ones, and pay attention to the rhythm of the text. Use the length of the sentences to raise and lower the pacing where you need it. 

Scenes for Chapters: There is no average size for a chapter, but too many short ones in a row can start to feel choppy. It’s the nature of chapters, since they end on that “oh no!” moment of some type. A cliffhanger every few pages never allows for the tension to build. 

Try seeing how you might combine your small chapters together for a better (and slower) flow. Perhaps turn them into scenes and ease up a little on the enders for a slower transition.

Talking Heads: Dialogue is also fast paced, but a lot of talking without any exposition makes it hard for the reader to keep up. 

Check on large sections of dialogue and make sure you have some breaks in there to remind readers who’s speaking, and provide context for what’s happening.
(Here's more with Getting the Best Response From Your Characters) 

A few more thoughts on controlling your novel's pacing. 

Pacing is all about the speed in which you convey information to the reader to achieve the best impact. Techniques aid you in controlling your pacing, but they aren’t rules set in stone. 

Fast-paced techniques (such as short sentences and lots of dialogue) can bore readers if what’s going on in those sentences doesn’t make them want to read on. Same as slow-paced techniques (description and exposition) can be riveting if the reader is dying to know what happens in those scenes.

There is also no rule for chapter length. If you write long chapters with the right amount of scene breaks and the reader is eagerly pulled through them without getting bored, you’ve done your job. 

Someone else might write short chapters that flow together seamlessly and never feel choppy. If the pace works, don’t feel the need to comply with arbitrary structures. Keep the reader turning the pages, however works for you.

What do you do to control your pacing? Are there any “rules” that you struggle with?

*Originally published July 2011. Last updated February 2023.

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. Thank you so much for this! Bookmarking...

  2. This helps where I fall right now - finished a draft several weeks ago and diving in with revising soon. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this post! It's very helpful. I just finished reading The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and the last chapter was about pacing and progression. One of the things he mentioned was that it's hard to find pacing problems yourself, so you should take a few weeks off from your novel and read it all in one sitting. I'm glad I found this post because I'm about to start revising my novel and I'm pretty sure it will have pacing problems. Thanks again!

  4. Fantastic post, Janice! I think you hit all the points in good detail and provided us all all great checklist.

    Thanks for choosing pacing for your post today!

  5. Awesome. My pacing seems to go too fast. This is great!

  6. I've heard that teaching pacing is like teaching grace to dancers--it is hard to do. You did a beautiful job. Thanks so much :)

  7. Thanks for including too-slow and too-fast. I used to cut all sorts of things that needed to be in chapters because I didn't want to be condemned as "slow." I love how you mentioned context -- events and characters are more interesting in context, and sometimes adding in that description or that bit of internalization is what makes the plot feel fast (in a good way). Great post.

  8. I love learning from you. I often wonder how can I do this as suggested when it doesn't fit right? You break it down to where it makes sense.

    Thank you,

  9. Wow, fantastic info here. Will bookmark and pore over it again, cuz there's just SO much here. Important stuff! Thanks a ton. :)

  10. A lot of great info here, as you know, I struggle with most of these issues… especially POV and goals/motivation.

    It’s a work in progress, with great advice like this, I’ll get there!!

  11. Lydia: Most welcome!

    Barbara: Good luck on the revisions ;)

    Brittany: Letting it sit for a awhile before you start revising is a smart thing to do. You see so much more that way.

    J.A. Thanks for the topic idea :)Hope you figured out what to do with your manuscript.

    E. Arroyo: Glad it helped!

    Angie: Great analogy. It is tough to explain and I'm happy to hear it worked :)

    MK: Thanks! What's going on is always more important that the pieces that make up the scene. You can break every rule and have something that grabs readers, and if it works, it works.

    Orlando: Aw, thanks! That's my goal for this blog, actually. To try and explain how in ways that make it easy to apply.

    Carol: Most welcome!

    Jeff: You will indeed. I have faith in those who are out here on the web doing what they can to improve. You guys prove you're willing to do what it takes to get published.

  12. A huge Thank You! This post filled my brain with all kinds of possibilities for my wip - my first novel.You have a talent for writing clear instructions!

  13. Janice, this is a terrific and helpful post, as always!

  14. Gail: Thanks so much! And I love hearing I sparked ideas :) Makes me smile. Good luck on that first novel!

    Vicky: Thanks!

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Deleted my comments because I realized it was silly for me ti infodump questions about my writing.

  17. Very good, I am so stuck on details of scene/chapters.

  18. Always a good discussion. Thanks, Janice.

    There's one side of this that you didn't try to cover: what counts as "too" slow or fast? Because of course that's hugely subjective. Three ideas that work for me are:

    Read it aloud. If going one spoken word at a time makes a sequence feel rushed or clogged, maybe it is.

    Compare. Do the books you like take a moment like this faster, or slower?

    Style. Compare it to your *own* habit about how to pace a moment like this, and ask yourself if that's the pace you want to use each time and make the most of it. Maybe a paragraph really does seem short, or maybe it's the length you want and you should keep practicing your ability to do the moment justice in so few words.

    1. Thanks, a great addition to the post. That's so subjective it would have needed its own post (grin). But that's a good topic to tackle.

  19. Great article - one of my friends is struggling to make her novel "long enough" after this I'm thinking it's because of pacing - going to point her in this direction :)

    1. Thanks! Here's another article I did that might help her. It's on what to do when your novel is too short.