Pacing: Some Thoughts from Me and a Few Others
I haven’t talked a lot about it here, because, well…it’s hard. Pacing feels a lot like voice to me: I can recognize (and love) strong pacing when I see it, and I sure as heck know when the pacing is off. But how to achieve the strong and avoid the weak? That gets a little trickier to figure out and to explain.
So I thought I’d take a little stab at it myself, and then share some links from other writers giving their take on it.
Anyway,pacing sounds simple, right. Action, action, action…think. Action, action, action…think. Well, sure, at some level, you can make a basic equation out of it, and I think-in today’s fiction–action is going to be a bigger part of the equation. But the simple formula doesn’t account for the magic that happens when someone gets it right. Or the clunkiness when they don’t. (And please note I’m not talking only about high-suspense, gun-fighting novels. Every book has its own pace–oh, dear, that’s another whole topic!–and within that pace, every book will have scenes or more action and less.)
Maybe the magic happens when we get out of the formula and into the scene. Into the narrator’s head. I’m thinking that maybe point of view and pacing are intertwined–so that when you’re as close to the narrative character as you need to be, then you can see the scene as they see it and share it, from that close perspective, with the reader. So you know when they’re feeling tense, and you know when they feel like they can take a breather. You know when they’re in conflict mode, ready to take on the world, and you know when they need to retreat into their quiet place and let the world go by for a bit. Of course, this doesn’t take into account distant third point of view, or even that old standby–omniscient point of view. And of course, it doesn’t tell you how to get there!
As an editor, as a reader, I can see pacing that’s rushed or that’s too slow. Prose that feels too fast, to me, often steps too far away from the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, too close the author’s outside point of view. The dialogue in a rushed scene often comes in a quick back-and-forth, with no space or time being given to dialogue beats. It only takes a few words to give us physical response or a panicked thought. And those few words can make the story, the pacing, feel layered and full. Without taking us out of the drama.
Pacing that feels too slow can do the reverse–cause us to spend too much time in the narrator’s thoughts/internal reactions. It can read as though the character herself, not just the reader, is stepping out of the action to think about it, to analyze the problems they’re facing, to look too far ahead into future possibilities. Slow pacing takes us further into response than the character has time for–often, the narration starts to feel like it’s coming from the author, not the narrator. Really slow pacing shows up, I think, when the author lets himself and the characters get pulled out of the in-the-moment scene. Yes, you need a bit of that background story, but you don’t need it at a time when the conflict and tension are running high, when they should be running high. Save it for later, for that moment of retreat and shelter, when everybody-especially the character–has time for a little peace.
I think pacing may be one of those elements that we can really help by reading a passage or a scene or a whole manuscript out loud. When I critique, I’m obviously further outside the story than the author has been while they were writing it. Reading out loud seems, to me, to be a way of taking ourselves closer to that outside point–closer to wearing our own editor hat, than just staying under the writer’s chapeau. Try it with your manuscript and see what you hear–and what you don’t!
All right–those are some of my thoughts. Pretty rambly and not necessarily helpful. Let’s see what a few other people have to say.
- Some good tips from Heidi M. Thomas at The Blood Red Pencil.
- Here’s a vlog on pacing in the YA novel that Sara Zarr did for WriteOnCon.
- Excellent, specific advice from Holly Lisle.
Any thoughts of your own? Happy pacing!