About a year ago I sat down at a table with a large number of authors, some published, some not. We talked about everything, our writing successes, hopes, and failures. Toward the end of the meal, someone hit on a subject that proved a hot button for many of us.
The topic in question regarded pace, the speed at which the writer allows the story to move forward. Several of the writers felt a great book should read at the pace of a frantic blockbuster movie, one explosive event, followed by another. They thought each event should be bigger than the last, until the final near death event when the hero saves the day, but blows up a city block in the process. I know many writing coaches would agree with my quick-paced friends, however, it occurred to me that I like getting a pause in the action.
For me, these bits of lull time give me a chance to settle in, maybe get to know a few characters. It’s during these slower times that many skilled writers deliver something emotional and/or character-driven about the story, something that makes me care that another explosion is brewing just beyond the current page. It’s the way a writer handles the slower periods that tell me if I’m reading a good book, or a great book. If the writer knows how to make the normal sound interesting, they have a true gift.
For the rest of us a few pacing tricks might help.
1. Consider genre and targeted age range when setting your pace. Younger readers tend to have shorter attention spans, so Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult books need to move fast and have something closer to that thriller level of pacing. Older and/or literary readers have longer attention spans and are willing to give you some time to flesh out the settings and/or the emotional aspects of your story.
2. Don’t used older books as your pacing models. I love classical literature, but it’s a product of a lost age, a time when people didn’t have access to other entertainments. Austen, Dickens, Hugo also wrote when a book cost a huge amount of money. For a family to own even a handful of books was a luxury. These readers wanted a book they could sink their teeth into, packed with details and a large cast of characters so when they reread the book they could count on another pleasurable experience. Today, even readers who gladly read the classics, will not give the same leeway to a lesser writer. Pulling off a long slow novel is the domain of only the most gifted of us.
3. I’ll go even deeper with this thread and say never copy any writer’s pacing. I hear this excuse all the time from fellow writers. Some big name writer will publish a book where nothing of substance happens for hundreds of pages, and thousands of novice writers think they can follow their example. No, you can’t. Just because that writer got lucky and found a way of creating a Best Seller with the pace of two snails mating, does not mean lightning will strike for you. Also, longer books cost more to produce and are harder to sell to publishers. If you really have a story that must fill seven hundred pages, find a way to make it two books.
4. Change the pace with your language choices. We all know varying the length of your words and sentences will help create a more interesting novel, but it also influences the pace. Longer sentences slow the reader down, sometimes to savor the language, sometimes because they get lost or don’t understand the vocabulary. Shorter, simple sentences increase the speed of the reader. One rule of thumb is to write thrilling dramatic parts with more details and longer chapters, but trim the ordinary or lull sections to the bare bones.
5. Don’t overdo the character failure. There’s something depressing about a character that keeps doing the same stupid thing and failing. We all expect the protagonist to struggle, but repeating the same hurdles with the same outcome kills the pace. You need to make sure the challenges are new ones, or that the protagonist tackles the challenge in a new way, which shows character growth. Also, make sure you let the protagonist have some success, if they fail at an emotional problem, maybe let them complete a physical challenge, this will give your reader hope and make them want to keep going.
6. End chapters with something unresolved. This is the most overlooked writing tip and one worthy of it’s own blog post, so see my post next week for more detail. Never hand readers a neatly packaged chapter ending, always leave us hanging. Introduce something dramatic, a new character, or perhaps foreshadow a coming event. Use anything you can think of to get us to start reading the next chapter and you will change the pacing. However, never tease the reader; if you leave the chapter with a cliffhanger make sure you follow up.
Regardless of what type of pace you create as a writer, a speeding-bullet train, or something slower, pace is a challenge for all of us, and perhaps the number one killer of a great storyline.
Up Next from Robin… 8 Ways to End a Chapter With a Cliffhanger