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Think about a book that kept you reading into the wee small hours. You kept turning the pages and yet you didn’t want it to end. That’s the power of pacing.

Pacing is about the speed at which a story seems to take place — not how fast a person reads, but the speed and rhythm at which events in a novel occur and unfold.  Some stories grab you by the throat and whizz you from drama to drama, leaving you gasping and wrung-out by the end. Some books seem to take forever to get through. But good pacing is all about balance.

Pacing is a tool. A writer needs to know how to increase and tighten the pace of her story, but also to slow it down when required. But before we get into any pacing techniques, you need to have two vital elements in place.

1) Establish the care factor. 

For a reader to be feverishly turning the pages far into the night, they need to care about the character.

Obvious, you might think — but you’d be surprised how many people spend a lot of time and effort planning fabulous plot twists and turns, brilliant fight scenes and adventures, and yet the character these things happen to leave us cold. Maybe they’re unlikable, maybe they’re bland, maybe a bit cardboard. But unless the reader really cares about them, it won’t matter what excitement or tortures you put them through via the plot.

So before you send your characters on their adventures, make sure you establish an emotional connection between them and your readers. Readers need to be fearful for the character, or worrying about them, or barracking for them (rooting for them if you’re American).

1) Understand the power of questions:

An action/adventure story is pretty easy to pace but what if there isn’t any car chase, kidnap or dramatic rescue — what if it’s just two people falling in love?

The answer is to raise compelling questions in the reader’s mind from the beginning, and keep raising new ones all through the book, as the situation changes. Story questions exist at all levels — from the big overarching whole story question, to questions that are raised and answered within a few chapters, or a scene, or even a page or two.

As you write, list the story questions you’re prompting the readers to ask — and then set up your story to make the answers really worth while hunting down. Nobody goes hunting for the obvious. So how can these questions intrigue, hook and engage your reader? And how can the answers surprise them and keep them on their reading toes? And how can you make the readers care more about your character?

Here’s an opening that raises questions from the start:

Out of money, out of luck, alone and frightened, the girl known as Evening Star did the only thing she could think of to stay at the saloon’s poker table. 
She bet herself.  

[From Only You, Elizabeth Lowell]

So many questions — Why is she is broke and alone? What’s she frightened of? Why is she “known as” Evening Star? It’s clearly not her real name. Why does she need to stay at the poker table? She’s obviously desperate? Why? And the biggest question of all — what’s going to happen next?

Here’s another example.  No drama here, it’s a rom-com. But look at the questions it raises.

   Mae Sullivan frowned up at the grimy old office building and shifted from one spike-heeled foot to the other, trying to keep her weight off her blisters. From the looks of the neighborhood, her chances of getting mugged were only slightly outweighed by the chances of the building falling on her. Only a loser would work in a place like this.
   She’d found her sucker: Mitchell Peatwick, Private Investigator.

[From What the Lady Wants, Jennifer Crusie]

Compelling questions keep your reader reading. Give them consequences, complications, risks, danger — and new questions. And the further into the story, the more compelling and urgent those questions need to become.

So how do we create good pacing?

A good book has a rhythm, some parts move quickly, others less so. You need to master both aspects. Best-selling author, Lee Child, said: “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.” Easy, right?

When slower pacing works.

Giving readers a break. After a period of fast-paced intensity, you need to give the reader a break. If you maintain the intensity too long, the reader gets tired, and maybe even loses interest. Or puts the book down — and might not pick it up again. Pacing needs to be varied.

Emotional scenes Slower pacing is also appropriate for more emotional scenes, love scenes, scenes in which you want the reader to sink into some lusciousness. 

Introspection also slows the pace, where a character is thinking about what has just happened, or worrying about what might happen or deciding what to do.

Description. In some books the setting is vital, and in this case, description is part of the experience of the story, but beware, a lot of readers will skip long tracts of description, not matter how poetic and lovely. 

Dramatic moments This might sound contradictory, but slower pacing can also be appropriate for very intense situations — a car accident, or a fight, perhaps. Write as if you’re in slow-motion, intensely in the moment. It’s what Lee Child is talking about with “write the fast parts slow.”

When slower pacing is a problem.

Sometimes narrative can slow the pace of the story, but not add anything to it.  If you need to feed the reader some information, experiment with other, better ways to provide it. 

Scene transitions that take you from point A to point B, for instance — a description of how a character gets from Melbourne to Perth, the long hot car trip, or the flight and the people they meet — none of which is relevant to the plot. For faster pace, skip the description. End the scene in Melbourne, start the next one in Perth.

Flashbacks always slow down the pace, because they drops the forward momentum of a real-time story to go into the past. Flashbacks can be well-written, but they are risky. Try to find a better way to show what happened in the past.

Introspection scenes that are too long or too frequent or go over the same territory again can really make a story drag. How much do you really need? Can you weave it in to more action-based scenes?

Backstory details that aren’t relevant to the story. Slide in the minimum necessary backstory where necessary, and don’t deliver it in chunks. Cut out anything that’s not relevant to the story at that moment.

Techniques to increase pacing:

Cut, cut cut. To increase the pace the single best piece of advice I can give is to cut. Prune back the unecessary bits, try for lean, taut, exciting writing. Bestseller Elmore Leonard recommends simply ‘cutting out everything, but the good parts.’ Again, easy, right?

Jump to another scene
Can you cut off a scene at a crucial point and jump to another scene? A ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ kind of move. The reader is left wondering what will happen, then they get caught up in the new scene and then, wham! Back into the crisis point where you left them. But don’t use this too often or readers will get impatient and feel the story is too choppy.

Spare, tight writing with no wasted words. Short paragraphs and crisp, pithy sentences increase tension. Leave out any irrelevant details. Focus on the action. Then if you think it’s too spare, weave in as much other detail as you need without slowing the pace.

Action. Make your characters take action. Characters who spend a lot of book time talking about their problems and thinking about their situation can be boring. Taking action doesn’t necessarily mean physically dangerous action — though that’s always good — it can also mean making a difficult decision and then doing something to follow through, confronting someone, revealing something, trying something different. Make them take risks, and deal with the consequences. Keep your readers worrying.

Dialogue. Try for crisp, snappy dialogue. Avoid the banal. Yes, in real life we talk about the weather and the delayed train and exchange all kinds of meaningless chit chat. Keep it out of your writing. Try cutting your dialogue back and see how much more crisp and effective it becomes.

Dialogue tags. For snappy pacing, prune back on lengthy dialogue tags and the descriptions of where and how people are sitting, and what they’re doing, wearing, looking at, or thinking while they’re talking. A good fast-paced dialogue exchange is like a ping pong match. Or a shootout.

Description — rather than long descriptive paragraph(s), try for the crisp snapshot, the one telling detail that will be more effective than half a dozen sentences.

Summaries.  Avoid summarizing wherever possible, but if you must, find the best, snappiest way to do it.

Purposeful scenes. For tight pacing, make every scene relevant to and part of the continuous thread of the action — unless you’re giving the reader a respite from tension. Too often, writers lose readers when they head off into a scene that bears no obvious relation to the central story question, or the current worry.

Scene endings and beginnings. Try to end a scene a little earlier, leaving it on a knife edge (or a cliff) and jump into the next one a little quicker, without setting up the situation for the reader. Just plunge the reader into it. 

Delayed gratification. Sometimes a scene will end on a cliffhanger, and you turn the page, and you’re over in a different place with a different character and you want to scream because you want to know what’s happened — now! But the scene you’re in now also is gripping and contains questions you want answered and it sucks you in, and now you’re worrying about this character. And then wham — you’re back in the other character’s world on another knife edge. And so on. That’s great pacing.

Foreshadowing. Like raising questions, foreshadowing can increase tension, when readers put clues together and start making guesses of the “Oh-oh I think X is going to happen” and they read on. Foreshadowing is the promise of conflict to come.

Avoid repetition. Look back over your manuscript and cut anything you’ve already said. Or if you need to remind readers, do it as briefly as you can.

Minor characters. Watch out for minor characters who take over the action, or distract from the central story. Most of us love our minor characters, but if they don’t add anything to the central story, or distract from the action, ditch them.

What if you’re not sure how well-paced your story is?
We often think a story will read slower that it does — that’s because we’ve lived with those characters and that story for a long time. Try asking a beta-reader. Get them to mark the places where they got distracted, or lost interest, or skipped parts. Then apply some of my suggestions to see how you can tighten your manuscript.

Getting the pacing right is tricky. It’s part art form, part technical know-how, and part instinct. Study the authors who do it best. Good luck.

© Anne Gracie