I’m not aware of a single author who doesn’t stress about pacing in their novel. It’s difficult to master, yet it’s one of the most crucial elements of a great novel.
What exactly is pacing?
Pacing is how fast or slow the storyline moves throughout your book. Depending on your genre and your storyline, your pace can be slightly slower or more upbeat.
Perfect pacing keeps your readers engaged and ensures they keep turning the pages. If it drags on and on and on, readers will get bored. This is mainly due to lack of action, or perhaps you included too many details the reader really doesn’t need to know. The end result here is your readers becoming bored or losing interest, and we don’t want that!
On the other hand, you don’t want to go too fast. Doing this usually comes from trying to hard to get to the end and finish your manuscript. This results in missing transitional language between scenes or even important scenes that should have been included. Moving too fast can also cause frustration for the reader because they don’t have time to become immersed in the story.
Whether our pacing is too fast or too slow, the risk lies in the possibility that the reader could end up doing the unthinkable with your book…slap it with a big, bold DNF, set it aside, or worse yet, toss it in the yard sale bin!
DNF (did not finish) is a writer’s worst nightmare come true!
So, how can we maintain perfect pacing?
Think Goldilocks! Not to fast, not too slow, but just right!
Setting the perfect pace can be tricky, but I’m going to give you some key pointers that should help you strike a balance and keep your readers engaged.
Consider Your Genre!
Your book’s genre WILL determine the pacing!
So, which genres would require a slower (but not too slow) pacing? Typically, mysteries and suspense are about the only genres that can get away with what we call “slow burn” pacing.
But you still have to balance the slower development with grabby chapter endings and continuous activity, as well as the constant unveiling of clues to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
Here are some tricks you can use to speed up pacing, even when writing suspense:
- End your chapters on mini-cliffhangers
- Keep the “action” level up
- Sprinkle hints and clues throughout the narrative.
- Throw in red herrings (no more then a few) to keep readers guessing.
Now, if you’re writing thrillers, your pacing can and should be much faster than slow burning suspense. Thrillers always feature a clock (real or imagined) that is quickly ticking down to the proverbial witching hour, and the protagonist knows that if the clock “strikes midnight,” the damsel will die, and the killer will escape his grasp forever.
The simple fact that time is always on the protagonist’s heels in and of itself is enough to increase the pacing and keep readers on the edge of their seats. They’re constantly flipping the page to find out if the protagonist will make it in time (even though, deep down, we know they will).
Other than those genres I just spoke of, almost every other type of story requires Goldilocks pacing, and there’s not much wiggle room when it comes to this. So, let’s now talk about how to avoid going too far one way or the other when it comes to pacing.
Pacing Do's and Don'ts
One of the biggest, most common reasons pacing feels too slow in some books is that dreaded mistake we know as “info dumping.” Below are some common ways authors wind up info dumping:
- A character’s entire backstory told all at once
- Describing an entire setting in one, long paragraph (or more)
- Giving the reader every detail of a character’s appearance
To avoid this, make sure you always keep my favorite word in mind and “SPRINKLE” details about backstory, setting, and other descriptions throughout the chapter or even the entire story.
Similar to info dumping, over describing happens when the author gives WAY more detail than is needed when it comes to describing a person, place, or thing. Here are some common examples of over describing something:
The red-haired waitress sauntered slowly over to our round, wooden table in the crowded, loud restaurant. Her uniform was staunchly pressed, blue, and a bit too short in the hem, and her white nametag read: SALLY in bold, blue letters. Sally’s makeup was thick with overapplied blush, bright green eyeshadow, sharp, black eyeliner, and thick, false eyelashes. Her lipstick was a deep, blood red. She pulled out a blue, ballpoint pen, clicked the end, and…
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything all that wrong with the above section, right? It’s written beautifully and correctly, so we assume it’s just fine. But it’s not. And here’s why.
We DON’T need to know the name of a tertiary (background) character, unless they play a role in the plot. Beyond that, we definitely don’t need to know every detail about her physical appearance, the description of the table, or the color of her pen. It’s just too much information that weighs down the narrative and slows the pacing big time.
Instead, I would recommend rewriting this scene as follows:
The waitress took her time walking toward us, but when she finally stopped next to our booth, she pulled a pen out of her pocket, and stood ready to take our order.
See how much faster that version went? And notice how the ONLY things missing are all those superfluous details. And guess what? The point is still the same, we’ve lost noting in translation, and the story will move along much faster in this version.
To sum it up, try, even in your first draft, to use less description and leave out details that are not important for the reader to know. But it’s okay if you don’t catch them all the first time around.
When editing, though, if you come across details, and you’re unsure if they belong, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the reader need to know this?
- Is it crucial to the plot?
- If I take this out, will the scene lose any meaning?
Doing this will help ensure you’re never over describing things that just really don’t matter in the long run.
All too often, authors revert to our high school days when our English teachers actually taught us to use adverbs, write with the biggest verbs and adjectives possible, and try to emulate Jane Austen. This is not the author’s fault because it has been engrained in our psyche for decades. And I wish I could somehow change the education system to avoid this, but I digress…
Instead of trying to sound like William Faulkner when writing what is almost always contemporary fiction, be wary of “five-dollar” words when writing your book. And avoid “flowery” language, even if it feels natural or right to try to be as verbose as possible…just don’t.
Here are some examples of how you can exchange flowery language with more concise, clear wording, which will not only make the story easier to read but will keep your pacing just right:
Remember, there are no book awards that I’m aware of an author can get for using the biggest, prettiest words possible. The only thing using such big, flowery words accomplishes is boosting the author’s ego.
And even though it may make you feel proud that you know how to use these pretty, big words, readers frankly don’t care. In fact, all this accomplishes is making the reader stumble over these words, which causes frustration and an inability to digest what’s really going on in the story.
The average American reader has a reading level no higher than 8th grade!
Sad but true.
This one’s a bit easier to explain. Use contractions. Contractions are your friend, and they’ll help with your pacing. They let the narrative flow like a babbling brook, while a complete lack of any contractions whatsoever will flow like lava.
Avoiding any use at all of contractions makes your narrative choppy and staccato, and it stands out like a sore thumb. Don’t believe me? Check out this example below:
See how the lack of contractions slows the pacing significantly? And how much smoother and faster it is to read when contractions are used instead?
I can hear your objections right now.
“But Christina, what if I’m writing historical fiction?”
Don’t worry your pretty little head. There are some exceptions to this guideline.
While it’s true that lack of contractions slows pacing, when writing historical or heavy literary fiction, you can do without contractions…some of the time. You just have to find a nice balance between using them and not. Going too far one way or the other won’t work, so try to vary your usage of contractions throughout your narrative.
Now, when it comes to dialogue, things change a bit. You know I’ve talked many times before about giving each character their own, unique, distinctive voice, right? Well, this is when NOT using contractions CAN actually work. Let me explain.
If you have written a character who is much more formal, stuffy, or of an older generation than the protagonist, you absolutely can have that character speak without contractions. Here’s an example of how it would make sense:
Professor Higdon looked down his nose and through his thick-rimmed glasses. “What, exactly, is this?” He picked up my term paper and shook it before me. “I did not ask you to write about politics, young man. I do, indeed, recall saying you could not write about politics. I cannot allow this to…”
Now, let’s have the protagonist respond.
“Yeah, I get it,” Dean said with a shrug. “I didn’t think it was that big a deal. But I can’t write like you. You’re, like, a genius.”
Now, imagine if I had taken out the contractions for Dean’s dialogue! Not only would it sound silly, but Dean’s voice would sound just like Prof. Higdon. Worst of all, the pacing would have been slowed significantly, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid.
To wrap it up, keep these pointers in mind when writing your first draft, and especially when doing your own self-edit before sending it to your editor.
- Avoid info dumping, and instead, sprinkle hints throughout narrative.
- Don’t over describe things and only include necessary details.
- Avoid flowery language and use concise words instead.
- Use contractions whenever possible, and leave out only with certain dialogue.
If you keep these pointers in mind, you’ll save yourself tons of time, your editor will thank you, and your readers will be much less likely to DNF your book!
As always, be sure to tune into our podcast, Write Your Best Book, tomorrow, when you can listen in to my discussion with Author Amy Impellizeri and our more in-depth discussion on pacing. You can find our podcast on Spotify, Google Play, and Apple Podcasts or on our website’s Podcast Page. I’ve made it easier for you to subscribe if you’re an Apple user. Simply Click the button below to find and subscribe to our podcast!
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