Last weekend I moderated a writing panel at a science fiction conference. The theme of the panel was pacing your novel. We had a great conversation about what we writers think about as we deal with this issue in our work. Every panelist had something valuable to offer. I’ve collected some of our thoughts, tips, and tricks of the trade to share with you here.
Pacing with a macro view.
Generally speaking, we can view pacing in our novel from two perspectives – the big picture perspective focused on flow and overall reading experience, and the pacing of each individual scene. When we look from a macro view, we’re mostly concerned with balance and flow. Are we exhausting our readers with too much intensity or too many action scenes in a row? Conversely, are they snoozing and flipping through pages to get to more of the good stuff? When we look at pacing from a macro perspective, these questions can help us bring balance to our manuscript.
Pacing with a micro view.
Once we’re satisfied with the balance and flow of our manuscript, we can focus on the effectiveness each scene. Each scene should contribute to plot movement or character development, but different types of scenes will feel different depending on what we’re trying to achieve. We may want to build suspense, create a deep emotional investment, or induce nail-biting with a particular scene. Some techniques overlap and some differ for each. Here are some links with more detailed tips on developing particular scenes with attention to pacing. Kick Your Scene into Action, How to Add Emotion to Your Fiction, Building Suspense.
Attention to pacing happens during later drafts.
I’m often asked to offer my one best piece of writing advice, to which I respond that the right advice will resonate at the right time, and what we need to hear as brand new writers is often different than the mentoring we need with a few novels under our belts. But, when put on the spot, I come back to this little gem. Finish something. Without a completed first draft, we have nothing to work with. Attention to things like pacing happens mostly during edits. We can finesse the pacing of our novel once we have a draft to work with.
A quiet moment can be filled with intensity.
It’s a mistake to think throwing in an action scene is the only way to speed the pace or add intensity. Quiet moments, filled with angst, tension, or even tenderness can be powerfully intense. Think about the purpose of each of your scenes and how you can maximize its impact. A well-written, emotionally charged moment can feel as active as a car chase.
Structural choices impact pace.
We can use sentence structure, dialogue, or chapter lengths to impact pacing. But we still want to be sure our story is cohesive. For example, if we are writing a stark horror novel, short, intense chapters with clipped wording may be stylistically effective. Within this structure, when we need space to draw something out, we need to be sure the shift isn’t negatively impacting the reader experience and pulling them out of the story. The structural choices we make to influence pacing still need to fit with the overall tone of our novel.
What’s the reader’s experience?
Once we’ve finished a novel draft, we’re often too close to recognize the pitfalls and weak spots. Beta readers, critique partners, or editors become invaluable at this point. Our intention may not be what our reader experiences, and we want to know this before we pitch or publish. Asking beta readers targeted questions can help identify problems with pacing. Here are some things to ask readers: Are there places where you turned the page in boredom? Did you have to put the manuscript down at any point because you felt frustrated or stressed out?
Beware the info dump.
Nothing can slow the roll of your manuscript faster than info dumping. We science fiction and fantasy writers can get carried away exploring the weird and wonderful worlds we’ve built. We want to share it all with the reader! But, I promise, they aren’t as excited about the flora and fauna of an alien landscape as much as they’re interested in the interpersonal relationships, character arcs, and plot movement. You, the writer, should know the details of your world, the rules of your tech or magic, and perhaps the history of your character back six generations, but you only need to give the reader what they need, when they need it. Consider delivering important intel at the last possible moment before reader frustration or confusion sets in.
Next week, I’ll focus on other troublesome spots in our manuscripts, and offer some tips on how to work through them.