Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blast From The Past: The Art of Pacing

One of the many great sessions I attended at the 2010 Pikes Peak Writers Conference involved the concept of pacing in your novel.  Pacing doesn't need to be consistently fast, but it means there should be an overall smooth flow to your story. This often means that it's faster in some parts, slower in others, but always moving forward, like a river. It never stops.

Kelley Armstrong, the impressive #1 NYT bestselling author of the Darkest Powers YA trilogy, gave  some quick tips for checking the pacing of your story:
  • Active scenes should far outweigh passive scenes, and you shouldn't have too many passive scenes in a row.
  • Even passive scenes should be accomplishing something and moving the story forward (e.g. not going on and on about the 'colorful wildflowers dotting the meadow' because I really don't care--unless an intergalactic ship filled with space monkeys is landing on them. Then I care.)
  • 'Just do it.' In general, don't have your characters plotting to do something or analyzing how they're going to do something (unless there is inherent conflict in their plotting/analyzing). Just have them do it. 
  • 'Go in late, get out early.' If you find you don't have enough tension throughout a scene, it's sometimes because you started the scene too early and let it drag on too long. Start it later; end it earlier.
  • 'Taking care of business' can usually be left out of your manuscript. This often involves a character getting from Point A to Point B. (e.g. 'Bob put his key in the ignition and started the engine, then strapped on his seatbelt, checked his rearview window and pulled out into traffic to head toward the crime scene.' *yawn* You could just say that 'Bob arrived at the crime scene to find it splattered with Jello and spray starch,' and the reader can infer the basic mechanics of how he got there.
  • Dragging dialogue slows down your pacing. As a rule, you shouldn't have more than two pages of dialogue as that can slow down the pacing even more than narrative can -- this is when you end up with 'talking heads.' 
  • Don't re-hash events in your dialogue that the reader just read about.  (e.g., Bob sighed, "Mary Jo, did I tell you about the horrible day I had at school today?" Reader of book: Um, you told me in Chapter Six -- and I really don't want to hear it again.)
  • Be careful with your technical details. You want to ensure that your details are correct but don't overdo it just to show people how much research you did. A little Google goes a long way.
  • Too many flashbacks slow the pacing. Same with backstory, introspection, and narrative description. Use them sparingly.
  • Don't end your chapters after something has already happened; end them when something is about to happen. This makes the reader want to turn the page.
To sum up the gist of all these tips, when Elmore Leonard was asked how he keeps readers turning the pages, he said, "I don't write the parts that people skip." 

Follow that little rule, and your pacing will be golden. Good luck! Any pacing tips that I missed?


  1. Excellent advice and very timely since I am in the middle of re-writing because my first several drafts were WAY too long.

  2. My drafts tend to be too short but it gives me room to flesh them out. Good luck w/ the re-write!

  3. My drafts tend to be short too. The current version of my WIP is less than 40k. Good luck with the revising!


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