Pacing

One of the most important components of an absorbing book, I think, is the pacing. There needs to be a balance of faster or more upbeat sections and slower or more relaxed ones, and ideally they should be evenly distributed throughout the story. The slow spots provide depth to the story (and allow the reader to metaphorically catch their breath), while the fast ones drive the plot forward. Too many slow scenes and the story drags, too many fast ones and it feels shallow and leaves the reader mentally winded.

It’s kind of a tough art, but there are lots of tools out there to help you if you find you struggle with pacing. One of the ones I most frequently see referenced or shared is the "beat sheet" from Blake Snyder’s writing-help book Save The Cat. This blog post by Jami Gold has a helpful discussion on it. Although the book (and his use of the beat sheet) is intended for screenwriters, it’s also very useful for novel-writers. Liz at Liz Writes Books has adapted Snyder’s sheet and created an Excel version of it for novelists, which you can download from this page (she also has a short discussion about it at that link, too).

I’ve been lucky in that pacing seems to be something I’m reasonably good at (I just have my weaknesses in other areas, instead ;) ). For me it ends up being a partly subconscious thing, a gut feeling about whether the next scene needs to be fast or slow as I’m drafting. I don’t usually think about whether I’ve had too many fast or slow scenes in a row, or where I am in the manuscript.

Interestingly, though, I was thinking back over my completed manuscripts and the pacing seems to follow roughly the same predictable pattern in each:

Around 4000 words (usually end of first chapter) – Inciting incident that triggers or introduces the main story conflict.
Around 15000 words (roughly fifth-way point) – Minor action/tension scene.
Third-way point – First major action/tension scene.
Halfway point – Big emotional action/tension scene, usually the turning point of the MC’s character arc. Biggest non-climax scene.
Two-thirds point – Second (and last non-climactic) major action/tension scene.
Three-quarters point – Trigger incident that starts ball rolling toward climax.
Seven-eights point – Climax.
And then the denouement, obviously.

And in between all these fast scenes I spread out the slower scenes (many of which may also have action and/or tension, but not to the degree that these point scenes do).

My current WIP, Stars, is being written with a dual POV, which is the first time I’ve done that. And it’s really messing with my sense of pacing. I think I’m still managing alright, but I guess we’ll see when I finally send it off to my CPs in a couple months.

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10 responses to “Pacing

  1. Interesting. I saw your comment at Sraha Lapolla and came to say Hello to a fellow YA writer from Ontario. In my two YA novels the pacing is mostly fast. I’m afraid to lose young readers with slow scences. Many of them don’t have the attention span for slow scences. I think that esepcially the first pages have to move fast with some of action to draw the young reader into the story. Best wishes with the novel that you now query.

    • Thanks for coming by, Giora! Fun to “meet” another Ontarian.
      I think overall the pacing is generally faster in YA than it is in adult, but even so, I think sometimes we underestimate teens/youth and their attention spans. There are a lot of YA books out there that aren’t all fast-paced (and note that when I use this term I mean action/tension/drama/intrigue), but that teens still love. Some bestselling YA authors that come to mind that I would consider as writing primarily slower-paced books are Maggie Stiefvater, John Green, Stephanie Perkins, Gayle Forman… And lots of others have long stretches of slower sections.

  2. I can’t say pacing comes particularly naturally to me, especially when I’m trying to get in my back story and set up my world. Unfortunately (or, actually, fortunately b/c I think they’re fun), that stuff is necessary. So it’s just time to keep refining until I get that good mix you’re talking about.

    • I agree, getting that backstory and worldbuilding in without bogging things down can be a challenge. I guess it’s probably something you get a bit better at with practice, just like anything, and I expect some books are easier than others. Thank goodness for revisions. :)

  3. Around 18,000 words into my WIP (mainstream/fantasy) novel, and I’m almost certain the pacing is too fast. My dilemma is: do I add slower scenes, or remove faster, potentially crucial scenes? I suppose that’s why god invented rewrites! Just for reference, I’ve been following Larry Brooks’s 4-act model (based on the 3 act screenplay model).

    • I know the 3-act screenplay/stage model, but wasn’t aware of Larry Brooks’ 4-act one. Just had a look at it (based on this blog post/spreadsheet) and it looks pretty similar to my own plot structure, albeit divided/organized on the planning-page differently. Interestingly, I’ve never really paid attention to the three-act thing, and I guess I fell into the four-act one sort of subconsciously.

      When you say the pacing in your novel seems too fast, do you mean you have one action/tension scene after another, or do you mean you’re getting to your plot points sooner in your word count than you feel you should be? If the former, yeah, perhaps you may need to insert some introspection or character-discovery scenes. But if the latter, it may just be you have a shorter book than you think you do. Which is okay.

      Definitely, though – either way, leave it for now and you’ll discover when you’re done what you need to do with rewrites. :)

      • afamiliarletter

        It’s the former! And I’ve been looking at his scene execution advice/stuff and I’ve realized I can do so much more thinking about scenes than I’ve been doing so far. It feels liberating to learn little tidbits that set your thinking in a whole nother direction. Like going beyond “goal-conflict-motivation-disaster.”
        My fingers they itch for the rewrites, but no my pretties you’ll get your turn. :P

      • Btw, thanks for the link! awesome charts.

        • An interesting exercise is to take a book where you thought the pacing was spot-on (doesn’t have to be one you enjoyed, just one you thought the pacing worked) and break it down scene by scene. Slowing down to consider exactly what happens in each scene can be illuminating. Sometimes in books we think of as fast-paced there are actually many fairly slow scenes spread throughout, where it’s just two characters talking to work out a problem, or someone discovering a new bit of information.

          Glad you’re finding the advice stuff inspiring! It can be fun to have a flash on some way to strengthen the story. Good luck with it. :)

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