Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pace Yourself! Some Thoughts, Various and Sundry, on Pacing Your Novel

By Tiffany Reisz, Sadistic Writer, @TiffanyReisz

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.

Tiffany Reisz is the award-winning, internationally-bestselling author of The Original Sinners series. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky and spends her days figuring out new ways to torture her readers with her sadistic books about deviant characters having all the fun. She also loves kittehs. Tweet her @tiffanyreisz about writing, sadism, or kittehs.


  1. The better the pacing, the harder it becomes to put the book down, yes?

  2. This article does a good job of explaining pacing.

    Q: Is there an amount of word space or solid time frame in which pacing should occur/ concur or is it something that you can just look it back over and decide for yourself if you have moribund the reader into a dead end?

    Thank you Tiffany Reisz for the article and your reply when you have the chance.

    1. I'm not sure, Harry. Pacing is such an amorphous concept that there's really no concrete word count, space, etc. This is why it's good to have multiple beta readers who will be honest with you and tell you where they skimmed in your book. That's usually a pacing issue--a scene that's gone on too long, a gratuitous action scene in a book full of actions scenes, etc.

      And yes, first commenter, a well-paced novel will be a more enjoyable read than a poorly-paced novel. It'll be a page-turner instead of a sleep-inducer.

      Happy Writing!

    2. Harry, Tiffany is right about that, but I've found (me being the crazy one who studies this stuff as I write) that I have a common "wave size" to a scene. DISCLAIMER: I'm in no way saying this is a rule or guide or something anyone should even do, just something I've noticed and use myself. Pacing doesn't have word counts like that. However...

      This is what I've noticed about my own work: I'll have a scene with setup--problem--build up--release that form "waves" (like Tiffany talked about, the highs and lows, back and forth) and those often run around 500-800 words for a first or rough draft. I string those waves together for a chapter. The waves all build off each other to keep the pacing (and plot) moving.

      When I get a wave that runs long or short, that's often an indication that something is off. Not always, but it's happened enough that I've noticed it. The wave sizes vary of course (as they should) and different books will have different wave sizes sometimes, but I use it as a very basic guide during a first draft. After that I trust my own judgement and the eyes of my beta readers.

      This works for me, so I have no idea if it would work for you or not. But if you're like me and you enjoy guides to keep you on track when you write, it might be worth checking to see if you have a certain rhythm to your writing that breaks down in a similar way or not. If the chapters you love and feel are strongly paced all fall within a certain size or combination of waves, that might indicate your natural rhythm and you can use that as a rough guide.

      Again, this is not a rule :) Please don't try to force a scene or chapter to fit a certain word count. But you did ask, and I think I know what you meant by it since I kind of do that myself in a weird way. I think it's more of a structure issue than pacing to be honest, but it works the same way.

    3. Hi Janice
      Really interesting to hear that. In writing my short stories for my blog, I try and stick to a word count of around 1000 words per blog, that has to feature a complete scene, or one of the waves you mentioned. Having said that, I also try to end on a cliffhanger, of one sort of another.
      It's a great challenge, and like you, I'm beginning to find that if the blog comes in at 1500, or 2000 words, there's always plenty I can trim.

    4. Then maybe 1000 words is your natural wave size. Could be interesting to see if that translates to your novel projects as well or if it's just the right size for the blog stories.

  3. Hi Tiffany
    Thanks for the post, lots of food for thought.
    I particularly liked your thoughts on dialogue. The temptation can be to keep people talking. It's great for getting stuff across to the reader (for want of a better phrase) in an interesting way, and it's fun to write! But as you say, it can really drag if you do it too much.
    I think I need to work on the later things you talked about, regarding the questions that get answered much later. I've managed it with some books, but less so with others, and it's definitely something i'd like to get better at.

  4. Thanks for writing about this. I clicked on the link via Twitter, curious how anyone could really sum up how to properly pace a novel in a blog post. And, I am really impressed. I think you provided some great information for writers that's easily applicable and really valuable (I'm a dialogue hoarder myself).

  5. Whoa, did Janice say Wave size! I can totally shred on that gnarly advice shoot the curl to turn pages!