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Monday, January 19

Balancing World Building and Pacing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Q: The feedback I've received is that I skimp a little too much on World Building - I trust the reader a little too much. My pacing is also a little too quick. I've read a lot about world building and pacing, but how do you know how much is too much or too little and too fast or too slow? Beta readers are one good way, but as an author, is there another way?

A: When you're looking at world building and pacing, it helps to think about the different facets of world building itself. The first thing that likely comes to mind when you hear "world building" is setting, which slides right into description. Description tends to be slow paced, so it's easy to make the conclusion that world building = slow paced.

But that's just one aspect of it.

World building is also seen in how the characters interact with the world, and that can be very fast paced. Showing a character dealing with problems in a dramatized scene with dialog, action, and internalization typically moves the story and the pace right along. World building through action = fast paced.

If you take both sides into consideration, it makes sense that to slow down the pacing the focus would be more on description of the world, and to speed up the pacing, the world would be experienced through action and dialog.

Since this question specifically asks about a too-fast pace, let's focus on how to slow the pacing down and solve the problem of too little world building.

Describe the world more.

Seems too easy, right? But this solves both issues, since adding more description about the world and the setting will slow the pace down and flesh out the world more. A slower pace give readers a chance to catch their breaths, reflect on what's going on, and immerse themselves in the world. However, you don't want to bore them or make them slog through a lot of pointless description either. So "describe the world more" is only part of the answer.

(Here's more on painting a scene vs dramatizing a scene)

Try adding details that do more than just describe the world

POV is the key here, so think about how your POV character sees this world and what matters at that moment in the scene. If it's a tense scene, you might add details that work with that tension but also show the world--for example, what world building detail in that scene is helping to make the character tense or concerned? If the scene is sad, what's described might reinforce that sadness--the tragic aspects of the world or the things that are making the character sad. Look for things you can describe or show that bring the world you've created to life as well as enhance whatever else is going on in that scene. Think about:
  • What might work with the tone or mood created?
  • What would help foreshadow a later scene?
  • What might need more information to understand that aspect or rule of this world?
  • What details might help clarify the character's motives?

(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)

Where to Add World Building

There's no formula for this, but it's common to set the scene when said scene opens. Unless you need to pick up with a lot of dialog or continue what happened in the previous scene, take the time to describe where the new scene takes place. A paragraph might be enough to ground readers in this scene's location and fix the world firmly in their heads. Then as the scene unfolds, continue to add details as they become relevant. Look for opportunities to add world building details, such as:
  • Places where the character physically interacts with the world
  • Moments where the character judges or conveys an opinion about something in that world
  • Moments when the character is trying to figure out something about the world
  • Places where the readers needs to know more about the world to understand a plot point

(Here's more on choosing the right words to describe your setting)

Controlling the Pacing

A "well-paced novel" means something different to everyone, and a lot of it depends on the genre and type of story. Readers expect thrillers to be fast paced, literary novels to be slow paced, and everything in between to be paced fast enough to keep the story moving and slow enough for them to absorb that story.

If you're getting comments that the story is too fast paced, odds are the plot isn't giving readers enough time to absorb the story. Things are coming at them too quickly and it's spilling out of their heads--like overfilling a glass of water. There's only so much a brain can handle.

(Here's more on fixing pacing problems)

In general, pacing works like an ever-rising wave. It rises, then slacks off, then rises again, but it usually never drops as low as the previous wave (Similar to stakes, actually). That way, the pacing increases as it nears the end of the story, with the climax being the most fast-paced section of the novel. The speed of that pacing is relevant to the novel, so a high-octane thriller will have a different definition of "fast" for the climax than a bittersweet character journey of self discovery.

You might try mapping out your pacing to see how those waves work in your story. Look at the scenes and ask, "is this scene faster or slower paced than the previous scene?" If there are few to no waves, that's a red flag that there's not enough contrast between the scenes to allow readers that needed break.

If that's the case, then look for places where you want readers to reflect on what just happened, or moments of high emotion. Keep the wave concept in mind as you adjust your pacing, maintaining that sense of tension building and falling away, only to rise back stronger.

Pacing and world building actually go well together because of the varied options of how you convey that world to your readers. Both rely heavily on the speed in which information is given to the reader.

Do you have any additional world building or pacing tips to share with this writer?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. World building amounts differ from genre to genre and even in subgenres. If your beta readers don't read extensively in what you write, they may give you the wrong feedback on this issue.

    1. Very true, and a good thing to consider when looking over your feedback.

  2. The tips provvided in this article are very helpful. I'll have to bookmark this. Thanks so much!

  3. Very helpful Janice. And I browsed around your site and found a lot of valuable information. Thanks for sharing your expertised and knowledge. I look forward to reading more posts here.

  4. Thanks for taking this one on Janice! I know it is complicated, but you explained it very well. I appreciate the help. I think I have a better idea of how to fix this.

    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad it was helpful. It was fun to see how the two are actually very connected. Good luck on your revisions!