Oh, pacing. You are a vague, strange thing. Janice asked me last month if I’d consider writing about pacing, which isn’t easy. The pacing of a book is its music, its melody, its rhythm. To quote the great Frank Zappa, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I can’t offer concrete tips on such an amorphous subject, but below are thoughts on pacing, things to consider when writing and revising your novel.
Thought #1 – Pacing is important.
“Pacing” is the movement of the story you’re telling. A fast-paced book will have short scenes full of quick action. A slow-paced book will have longer scenes and take more time to get to the point. You might be writing a more interior book, lots of thinking, less outward action. There is no one right way to pace a book. A Virginia Woolf novel about the timeless progression of a heart and mind toward greater understanding of the world should rightly be slower paced than a Lee Child Jack Reacher novel that is all about action and plot and less about the human condition. Before you start writing your book, ask yourself if this book should be fast-paced, slow-paced, or an artful mix of both. (Most books are both.)
Thought #2 – Pacing is about action and reaction.
I recently saw the new Hunger Games movie at the theater—Catching Fire. (Movies are great tools for learning about pacing—put on a heart rate monitor while watching a movie and then look at your readout after—high spikes and low spikes—that’s pacing). In one scene, a pack of vicious apes attacks the group of heroes. They fight back and survive in a tense action sequence. After that scene, they gather on the beach, talk, and reflect. Heart rate is high during the fight scene. The heart rate slows during the beach scene when the character talk about what just happened and what they’re going to do next. Action followed by reaction.
For every important action scene—hero and heroine kiss, villain and hero battle, a secret is revealed—there should be a reaction scene where the stunning events are processed and a plan is made. Kiss again or break up? Fight again or surrender? Use the new knowledge for good or evil? Action. Reaction. Then do it again.
Through #3 – Pacing is about content.
The book I’m currently writing, The King, is an erotica novel (sort of). In it, my intrepid hero Kingsley Edge is determined to build the ultimate BDSM club to service the beautiful deviants of New York. That is the A plot—Kingsley builds his kingdom. The B plot involves his relationship between him and his lesbian secretary who he has strong and complicated feelings for. The B plot (as all B plots should) starts a few chapters into the book when the A plot is already in full-swing. Kingsley hires Sam to help him build his Kingdom and soon thereafter discovers that he is deeply attracted to this woman he can’t have. While writing the book, I’m sensitive to scene content. The A plot becomes the focus of the first few chapters and then the B plot takes over for a chapter or two. Action and movement toward the ultimate goal (the kingdom) in one chapter is followed by sexual and romantic content in the next.
Thought #4 – Pacing is about variety.
While revising my first novel, The Siren, my agent pointed out that I had several long scenes in a row of dialogue. She loved the dialogue and hated to cut any of it, but she said it made for awkward pacing. Together we brainstormed and the solution was to cut some of the dialogue and put in its place some narrative passages. Not a lot of narrative, just enough to give readers a break from the back and forth, back and forth of witty banter that can turn a scene into a tennis match.
While revising your book, pay attention to your scene structure. Is it all narrative? All dialogue? Would it work better to sum up a conversation in a few sentences instead of spelling it out so you can move quickly onto the next scene? If you (or your beta readers) skip ahead during a scene, there is probably something wrong with your pacing. (The easiest solution for any skip over scene is to simply cut it out entirely.)
Thought #5 – Pacing is about the question and the answer.
While writing you need to ask questions and—here’s the hard part—don’t answer them. Let me clarify—you should answer the questions you raise. You should resolve the mysteries you introduce. But not immediately.
Early in The King, we discover that a very bad person owns the building Kingsley has fallen in love with and wants to buy for his BDSM club. So now we raise the question of how Kingsley will go about getting this building out of the clutches of the bad guy. That question isn’t answered until the end of the book. Early on, we learn that Sam, his secretary he’s in lust with, has a deep dark secret. Halfway through the book you find out part of that secret, but readers won’t know the whole of it until near the end. That’s pacing—asking questions early in a book to hook your readers into reading until they find out the answers.
Sadistic writers (like me) will raise multiple questions in their books that dig into readers like cat claws in a cashmere sweater. The more claws into a reader the less likely he or she will stop reading partway through a book. Even if the reader doesn’t care how Kingsley gets his dream building, she might stick around because she wants to learn Sam’s dark secret. And if neither of those questions interests her, she might keep reading because of the sexual tension between the characters, which is the classic romance question—will they or won’t they?
Those are some of my thoughts on pacing, things every writer should consider during the drafting and revising process. Mastering the art of pacing can take a lifetime. The best way to learn it is to do it. Go forth and write your brains out, Writing Writers. But remember—pace yourself.