Turn the Dial to 11: Pacing

One of the first things people blab about when they read books is pacing.  “It was a quick read,” or, “It drug on forever!”  How quickly folks flip through pages is important.  You might argue, “Not all readers care about pace.”  I’m fine with that argument.  I will counter with this question: If pacing doesn’t matter, then why does almost every book on writing address how to increase/maintain pace, and why does almost every review talk about it?

No Sleep.jpgRegardless of what we tell ourselves, (most) readers appear to to care about pacing.  Do we need non-stop head explosions and fiery metal raining down from the sky on every page?  Probably not.  But we do need to find methods to allow pacing to enhance our conflicts, character interactions, and story in general.

The more books you read on writing, the more advice you will see that encourages you to give readers a breather.  The whole book can’t be face slapping chaos after all.  However, you aren’t going to find much on methods of slowing pace down.  Why?  Because most writers create low-paced worlds.  Those flowery descriptions, prolonged scene settings, and grand narratives cut tempo down to a crawl.

With that in mind, here are a few tricks and tips that will act like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of your story.

Shorter sentences and more paragraph breaks.  I’ve talked about sentence length before here, so I won’t go into this deeply.  Short sentences are our short swords.  We hack and slash and rip with them.   Short sentences, paired with paragraph breaks, speed the story along.

stein on writing.jpgSkip a scene entirely.  This can create massive confusion, but if executed properly it moves the pace of a book along nicely.  Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, talks about a method he used in his own work.  “In my novel The Magician, there is one scene in which four rough teenagers meet with an older girl for beer and sex.  That chapter ends with the girl saying, ‘Okay, who’s first?’ The next chapter goes to a different location with other characters.  The scene that the reader anticipates never happens” (p. 196).

Stein goes on to write about how he never actually showed what happened in that scene.  He also said the book reached several million readers and he never once had someone complain about it.  Yes, you might be slaying some darlings by cutting scenes to increase pace; but hey, we talked about resurrecting them before here.

No Breaks.jpgStart with action and end with action.  Nothing keeps the mob appeased like building little cliffhangers right into the chapters.  This is a tool the experts say to use in moderation because you’ll leave the reader gasping for air.  Or you can use it for every chapter and see what happens!  Heck, there is probably a group of “lowbrow” action junkies (like me) who love that kind of pacing.

The only issue I see with this is when the writer doesn’t take the time to anchor the setting coming into the next chapter.  Often times it’s because the writer is riding the action as they write.  They find a slick cutoff stop, close the chapter, and jump right into writing the next one.  Because the transition is instant for them, they assume the reader will also jump straight into the next chapter as well.  We’ve talked about how this is a problem and anchoring the reader is important here.

tunnel.jpgJump scenes, cut scenes, and dissolves.  You film lovers will know what I’m talking about here.  For you non-film folks, these are the transitions used in film to show changes in scene or passages in time.  The character boards the train, sits down, opens a book, and the screen fades to black.  When the screen comes back into view, they are in the new location.  Or instead of being in a new location, they wake up with a gun pressed to their temple!  Gadzooks!  The fade to black is the dissolve.  Cut scenes and jump scenes are essentially the same, minus the slow fade.

If your characters have to transit long distances, we don’t necessarily care to hold their hands and go with them.  If the journey is part of the story, go for it.  But if the journey is just a tool to transit the characters from one conflict to another, then use the jump scene.  You can teleport characters however you want, again, you just need to take a sentence or two and re-anchor the reader in the scene.

Slice and dice away extra adjectives and adverbs.  [Insert Rant Here] -> I’ve heard some ham-handed advice about using programs to search and destroy all adverbs in a manuscript.  While I like the idea of searching and destroying things; adverbs aren’t the end of the world.  It’s impossible to write without using adverbs.  They are a part of speech like everything else.  Do some writers use them too much, sure they do.  But eradicating them from a manuscript (which is largely impossible) is like sawing off a leg because you stubbed your toe <- [End Rant Here].

Adverb Contention.jpg

My point is you should strive to eliminate extra words from your sentences.  Adjectives and adverbs are usually ripe for the plucking when it’s time to trim the fat.  This is normally because in the heat of writing we use them to push our story along.

The more concise the sentences are, the quicker they deliver the blows to the readers.  Yes, long sentences can be used to lull the reader into a devious trap.  I’m not talking about using sentences for effect here.  I’m talking about getting rid of all those extra words that are doing nothing.  Less is more.

Last tip.  Don’t halt conflict for prolonged description.  This always causes a single tear to roll down my cheek.  If you are blowing my mind with some heavy action, don’t stop the pain-train to describe unrelated information.

Chop Off Head.jpg

I think of the slow motion sword drop.  Someone is about to hacked into two pieces.  In mid-swing, the writer decides to slow the blade down to a crawl and explain every feature of the sword.  Come on!  Give me those descriptive beats after the battle when the character is cleaning the gore off of the blade and sharpening it or something.

That’s it for today.  These are just a tiny assortment of all the tools available to push the tempo of a story.  Do you have any suggestions, tips, or methods you use in your writing?  I’d love to hear about them.  I will likely talk about pacing more in the future and your tips might just help write the post (teamwork!).  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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33 responses

  1. When first I read the title to this article I thought I just about left a comment like Ok…I’ll be back…and then went and wrote an insanely action packed frag fest of death and destruction! It was going to be metal ripping to shreds, people flying and dying, explosions left and right, the world just ripped asunder and the reader completely wiped from existence simply from observing the action it was so powerful!

    Then I read the article and slowed down. It is amazing. Just reading a simple title set off the action junkie in me! Even now I feel watching metal destroy metal, civilization on the edge of an endless destruction! Mech on Mech action, people on people action, (this could be construed in multiple ways) the heavens themselves opening up and coming down towards earth, the ground ripping to shreds and BOOM! LOTS OF BOOM! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    I digress, you helped me realize it is alright to have all that, but slowing things down is as important as speeding them up pacing wise. I know much of the above made no sense, but it wasn’t supposed to. Obviously if I’m writing, I’ll slow down enough to form cohesive sentences. Xp

    My point in the long run being, I agree, DAMN IT ALL TO HELL! See if that switch has a setting higher than 11!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Okay, so I might have a bit of a problem. I am exactly what you would call an action junkie! I fall into a problem slowing down when writing action. To me, it should hit you in the gut! I like watching metal raining down from the sky. I want to feel like I’m there!

    When someone gets walloped in the face, I want to feel the impact and their bones crunching!

    I loved this article! Inspiring, and also taught me a bit about slowing things down (not something I will promise as I’m going to be writing something in the near future on my 2nd blog that is going to be a more cohesive version of the insanity above!) It’s been eating at me to write it for days, I’ve just had trouble putting things into cohesive format because I feel so alive and such a rush every time I start to write it! ^_^

    Cheers! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I see all the insanity in your comment I think to myself, “This was a good post Corey.” I’m with you on the action front. For sure. I can sink into just about anything when I read, but sometimes I just want to read about explosions, chaos, and metal destruction while I wear a Viking helmet and belly laugh. Probably why I read 80s pulp science fiction when I was a kid!

      Thanks for the rousing comment and for reading! You got me a little fired up too.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The last Ace Combat game I played was…Zero? I think PS2 maybe? The main guys handle was Pixy hahaha. It was a stellar game. One of the first, and best, I had played of that type. Happy hunting and watch out for those clouds…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I remember Zero. That was a good one. My favorite Ace Combat game of all time was Ace Combat 5 for PS2. I absolutely loved the story and the game itself. Another Ace Combat I played that lacked a bit story wise but definitely made up for it in the action department was Ace Combat Assault Horizon.

        I was playing Assault Horizon Legacy on my 3ds not too long ago, but Assault Horizon was just straight out of my action happy dreams! Xp

        Liked by 1 person

  2. When I think of pacing, I think of music. There are some awesome notes out there, but even the coolest note played forever eventually becomes noise (That last is part of a quote from Joss Whedon). People need peaks and valleys. Personal preference leaning toward one or the other exists, but no one can handle constant action any more than they can handle constant description. The magic is in how one weaves them together. So when I write, I try to vary the tempo. I like my readers feeling like they’re on a mid-length run. Start out at a nice job. Work their way into a sprint. Jog to cool off. If I do that, I’m fairly happy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree with you on pacing. I lean toward a faster pace, but I still need a breather (valley).

      This post was more about how to inject speed into prose so I said to heck with talking about balance. Honesty I can’t think of too many books where I was like, “Holy crap that pace was too intense!” I can think of plenty where I was felt the opposite though. This was the reason I tackled the subject in this manner.

      Thanks for sharing you thoughts and for reading! Good luck with the jet lag. Speaking of which, I need to slumber.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I try my best to not skim; I really do. Obviously I can’t skim while I’m editing, but even in my personal reading I try to read it all. Try is the operative word here.

      If I’m bleary eyed on the couch after a long day of writing, dading, and editing – backstory and exposition at length will do me in. I’ll be found the next day on the couch with a book crumpled up on the floor next to me.

      Thanks for stopping in and reading today.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Another great post. Every time you write a post about something I look at writing I’ve done in the past and can see where I’ve done exactly what you talk about. Slowing down in the middle of the action? Seen that a few times.

    I also can be a bit of a locomotive, taking time to get to the pace I want. Any advice on getting a quicker 0-60?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! I think if anyone should be giving advice on speeding a story along it would be you. What day are you on? Here it is, day 125 of non-stop short story writing! That’s pretty bloody impressive.

      Your writing and the “how to” books seem to agree on methods of speeding pace. So let’s snag three points and use examples from your own writing to reinforce them.

      1. Start story with a strong bit of dialogue.

      ‘Captain! Sail off the starboard! Looks like a three master!’ Came the cry from the tops. Otis Carter held the spyglass to his eye before calling down, ‘Captain! Looks like she’s riding low!’ (Day 32: Life Among the Pirates)

      My two cents: I’m a sucker for 1st person and because of this opening with dialogue works for me. Whether that is the opening of a book or the opening of a chapter. Even outside of 1st, opening a chapter with dialogue is a neat trick to enhance speed. Falls into the category of show versus tell.

      2. Start story with action.

      I can feel them chasing me. (Day 62: Being Chased by a Killer)

      My two cents: Starting with action is fun. Like I mentioned in the article, you can leave them breathless like this. If you hammer them chapter after chapter of non-stop action they might get worn down. But starting a chapter thick in action is a great way to jump start the pace and set it high.

      3. Strike the reader hard and fast with visceral elements.

      “I opened my eyes, blearily. The Duke of York may have had ten thousand men, but at least half of his company were marching up and down through the crevasses of my brain. Every single one of them was fueled by tequila and bad decisions. I stared at the crack in the curtains, sunlight stabbing through into my vulnerable eyes.” (Day 116: Waking Up Elsewhere)

      My two cents: Writers should be using visceral elements as much as possible. This will allow the reader to sink into the skin of your characters. Opening a chapter with visceral elements quickly cements the reader in the scene and allows you to move quickly forward with the story.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and ask a solid question. I was happy to be able to answer your question using examples of your stellar shorts. I will be sure to swing by and read your latest work!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. One of the things I feel that doesn’t get talked about enough when discussing pacing are “lists” (i.e. Keep it sharp, quick and to the point). I always feel like throwing a list of character descriptions or actions together is a good way to either speed of or slow down a bit, mid-chapter. Good read, by the way. I just finished another revision in my novel where I was looking precisely for these kinds of things. Readers do need the occasional breather. That’s for sure! Otherwise they’ll be suffocated and then we’ll all have one less reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good luck with your revisions! People complain about revisions, but I always say, “Hey, the book is written at least!” Of course, I don’t mind editing and revision as much as other people.

      When you talk about a list of character descriptions or actions: are you talking about an external list you add into the work as beats or action tags? Or are you talking about just being sure to take the time to address these attributes in the writing itself? I know it’s kind of an off-the-wall clarification, but I like to understand different writer’s processes. The more methods I can understand the more I have to offer others.

      Thanks for leaving some thoughts and for reading! Again, best of luck in revision.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Totally not off the wall! I’m not a screen writer or anything like that so talking “beats” or “action tags” or even “external lists” I’m at a bit of a loss as to what exactly YOU mean! How’s that for irony? Anyway, what I meant was more in the writing itself and, more particularly, with exposition. A lot of times I feel bad writing gets bogged down doing things like making each action a separate sentence instead of combing some verbs to speed things along (and maybe make thing a bit more interesting). Description works a bit different, but I always think it’s a good strategy to have in your bag of tools to be able to list a few descriptors for your characters or environments as they are introduced. Sometimes I read authors just to see what sort of lists they come up with to sort of compound the sensations we can get as readers.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t stress the rules too much in the creation process. We don’t need those analytical niceties getting in the way of good old fashioned creation. That’s what revision is for after all.

      I’m glad the posts are helping you think about writing. That’s my goal. Even if what I write is goofy, if it gets those gears moving it’s a mission accomplished on my end. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post (and well-paced)! Pacing is something I worry about a lot, because I don’t have a very good nose for it when I’m reading (some of my favorite books are apparently badly paced! Who knew?).
    One thing I’m worrying about as I transfer from short fiction to novel-writing for NaNo is that since I’m used to writing stories where I cut every single extraneous word my writing has become quite compact, so when I have more space I might either finish the story below the word count (which just means the story wasn’t meaty enough for a novel to begin with) or I’ll go all flowery and fill the space but bore the reader!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make a great point here: pacing is largely in the eye of the beholder. I think each author finds their own niche in the way of pacing. We come to expect certain speeds from different authors.

      As for your new pursuits, I wouldn’t stress it. Each type of writing you do will teach you different insights. It’s interesting and enjoyable to see how someone who was a poet tackles a novel. There is a difference in their writing because of their background and acquired skills. It doesn’t make their words better or worse, it makes them unique in their style and approach. I imagine you will develop your own tricks and borrow from your past skills as well.

      Best of luck to you and thanks for taking the time to read today.

      Like

  6. Such a useful post! Thank you!

    The part about Sol Stein’s The Magician got me thinking–what scene to cut must depend a lot on your genre. I mean, if I were reading some delicious smutty novel, I’d be kinda upset about that scene not showing up! On the other hand, I wouldn’t require many explosions or car chases to keep me reading.

    On the other hand, even in a smutty novel, I want the smut to somehow develop the characters and forward the plot. (Show the relationship between the characters deepening, or show some stress in the relationship or whatever.)

    So what to include and what to cut–I’m still learning this skill. Lots of food for thought, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sol Stein is my editing hero (I’m not worthy…I’m not worthy!). In addition to being an amazing author, he was also the editor for some of the biggest authors of his day (George Orwell, James Baldwin, Simone Weil, Leslie Fiedler). He was in the military (like me) and worked as a contract editor before striking out on his own (like me). Eventually, he succeeded as an author and started his own publishing house (I’m gonna do that too by god!).

      Stein hero-worship aside, I was hesitant to put the bit about skipping scenes into the blog post. That is a very tricky thing to do and really requires the author/editor to be looking at the book with eagle eyes. To be able to slash scenes from the book it needs to have some sort of emotional benefit. Sometimes the readers imagination is far more powerful than any word we can conjure. But for those imagination gears to turn, we needed to have built a powerful prelude to the missing scene.

      Like you said, it’s dangerous to deprive the reader of a scene. I would hazard to say it’s foolhardy to cut a scene purely for pacing purposes. However, if you are (1) increasing the pace, (2) getting the reader to tap into their imagination, and (3) not creating a plot hole, then there is no reason to not cut the scene (I’m parentheses happy today). If this is done well, they won’t even notice it; if done poorly, they will let us know in review.

      Awesome comment! Thanks for taking the time to read and leave these thoughts. I’m with you on learning new skills. I try to find something new every day.

      Liked by 2 people

    • When I read this my brain immediately conjured up the image of a bird feeding babies in the nest…regurgitated worms and what not. Hah!

      That’s awful imagery aside, I’m going to say if it helps you write, it’s a green! Most of my blog material is non-fiction after all 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and reading this weekend.

      Like

  7. Very good info. As a reader I hate to see page after page of long paragraphs. I probably tend to over use short paragraphs and sentences, but if I feel it’s necessary, then I don’t hesitate to hit the ‘enter’ button. That’s usually how I set pacing by feeling. I reread passages several times to make sure it feels right too. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you found some enjoyment in my ramblings! I appreciate you taking the time to read and leave some thoughts.

      I also reread dialogue, often aloud, and more often with all the extra frills ripped out. Sometimes it’s helpful to see what the characters are saying minus all the descriptive attribution beats. If the dialogue can carry the emotions without he extra frills, sometimes pulling those extra beats out strengthens the flow and feeling. Not always, but sometimes.

      Regardless, thanks for sharing your process with us. Best of luck to you in your writing!

      Speaking of writing , I just swung by your page and saw Gold River. I’ll take some time later to give some passages a read. It looks like a fun read to me.

      Liked by 1 person

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