Narrative pacing is the novelist’s biggest challenge.
Pacing sounds like the easiest thing in the world: speed up, slow down. You know, like an accelerator.
Au contraire, my dear writers. Pacing is hard. Let’s start with the fact that as readers we take it for granted. We know when an essay or story or book pulls us along, when we can’t put it down. We know when it drags and we set it aside. But even in literature classes, we don’t analyze pacing the way we do characters or themes or syntax, unless it really falls flat, as in the second half of Twain’s Huck Finn. Yet it’s one of the most crucial considerations for the writer.
Pacing is often mischaracterized as having to do only with plot or excitement. It’s actually about tension, which has as much or more to do with character and emotion as with plot. Pacing also has to do with arcs and how we move forward and back within time, sustaining disbelief, interest, and empathy. And it has a whole lot to do with summary and scene and with set-up and backstory as well as withholding and the way we set up endings.
I learned about pacing while revising my first novel for publication. “It feels like you’re racing to get to the end,” my editor said. And I was. I was excited to see that there was an end, that it was all coming together in a satisfying way, and I couldn’t wait to get there.
Pacing is like driving into a curve - you slow down as you’re approaching the important parts, where the action, the characters, the ideas will turn. You accomplish this through finely wrought details, engaging description, and syntax – longer sentences with multiple clauses. But that’s only the beginning.
“Pacing and progression are the most cumulative, most far-reaching elements of writing and thus demand the greatest long-term concentration,” says literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel. You have to be able to see whether the big building blocks of your project are working right, and often you’re simply too close to the project to be able to judge this for yourself. A reliable reader can identify problems with pacing, and your own ability to spot problems will increase with some time away from the manuscript. You have to be able to pick out the major milestones in the narrative, Maass points out. “When one goes by, things ought to feel different.”
With regard to pacing, Maass warns of two major traps: set-up and backstory. “So fatal is the business of ‘setting up’ something in a novel that I believe the very idea should be banned,” he says. Backstory must be held for the right moment, when the readers care deeply. Another bit of helpful advice from Maass: the scene after a
high point is a good place for subplot action, because it provides a change of page.
“A manuscript must give us a satisfying sense of progressions – but not too easily,” says literary agent Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages. “It must make us work - but not too hard. It must keep us turning pages – but not leave us feeling it is too much of a breeze.” Lukeman likens pacing to the central nervous system of a book. It’s difficult, he notes, because in order to fully assess the pacing of a project, you have to maintain the whole book in your head at once; in fact, you might find you have to re-read it all in one sitting.
Where you find it’s moving too slowly, Lukeman suggests there may be not enough at stake, or you may be using scene where summary would be more appropriate. Where it’s moving too fast, ask yourself – as my editor asked me with that first novel – what’s the rush?
Try This: Noah Lukeman suggests taking one page from your manuscript and expanding it into a full-fledged story. Or try the reverse – condensing a full story into one page without reducing it to mere summary. Either approach will force you to consider matters of pacing.
Check This Out: For everyone who wants to stay out of the rejection pile (and who doesn’t?), there’s Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. No gimmicks here - simply straightforward explanations, solutions, examples, and exercises in the areas that cause problems for writers.