Pacing In Your Novel

I’ve been listening to some writers talking lately about pacing. Pacing is the rhythm and beat of the novel. It is a weaving of tension and excitement, with threads of breathlessness, respites, quiet moments. A lot of the talk has been about how you pace your novel. How you figure out when to speed things up and when to slow things down, when to ratchet up tension and when to ease it. And the thing that I was struck by was my answer. Here it is. Ready?

I don’t have a freaking clue.

Seriously. I don’t know how to pace. I just do it. It’s all by feel. It’s like being on a rollercoaster and knowing that you are slowly building up toward a scary fast downward run. It’s going to flip and churn and spin and then . . . slow down again to build again. We’ll go higher and higher with greater and greater tensions and frights, and then finally we’ll speed back into the station in a deadman’s drop.

I don’t actually ride actual rollercoasters.

But you get the idea. Anyhow, when I write, I just feel where the pacing needs to go. As a teacher, I think I ought to have a better sense of how I do it so that I can teach it. And I read about it and sort of pick up on what other people do and how other people might do it, but in the end, the truth is, how I actually make these decisions and how I put the pieces together is a mystery to me. It’s all by touch.

So my question today for you is–how do you pace? How do you make those decisions about pacing?

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    I’m look you, I don’t know what I do, but let me try and figure something out.

    I watch a lot of movies, that’s one thing. It’s not like I pay attention to how the movies are paced, but when you watch enough of them, you start to get a feel for what’s right and what’s not.

    In a less touchy-feely sort of way, I guess I go in waves, climb to climax, then back off; then climb to another, bigger climax, and back off again; repeat until I hit the Big Climax.

    But then I remember movies like Speed that rose at first, then backed off, then rose without break for an hour and twenty minutes, from the moment they got on the bus. And I realize I don’t know what I’m doing.

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    “I’m look you” = “I’m like you”

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Most days, I am very grateful that you don’t have to understand what you’re doing in order to write a good novel.

    It helps, sure. But it’s possible to get it right by subconscious instinct, too. And if I didn’t have that, my journey to the shelf would not be done yet.

  4. 4. Nathanael Green

    From what I’ve heard from other writers, I think some people tend to over-think their novel and the pacing.

    The way I see it, pacing is part of the art of storytelling. And developing a formula for that would give my writing a formulaic feel. So I just write it like I would tell a story and try not to worry about the pacing (notice I said *try* ;-) … until it’s time for revisions, and then I can take a more critical look at it.

    And even then, it’s an intuitive approach. Does it feel right to me, or does it bog down in places or feel too harried here or there? I think it’s just a matter of reading, watching and paying attention to every other story to develop a feel for what types of pacing will work best in your work and in your voice.

  5. 5. Kameron

    Like Nathanael, I agree pacing depends on the story, i.e., different stories require different pacing. Therefore, I don’t think you can come up with a “pacing formula.”

    I do find my outlines help a lot with developing and smoothing the pace of a story. It lets me see plot threads a lot easier, so I get a better idea of when I need to ratchet up the tension or the action (and conversely slow it down).

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    I sometimes think of it as a trip through the mountains. Each book is a different journey taking a different route, and some trips may take more than one book to complete, but there are similarities from trip to trip. Most trips start with an initial climb into the foothills, or perhaps the sudden opening of a valley that you have to drop down into before the true climb begins. Sometimes a long shallow climb leads to a flat place where you can rest. Sometimes it ends in a drop over a cliff. Sometimes you get to rest when you hit the bottom of the current downslope, sometimes you have to plunge into a river or start right up again. The main thing is the steady sequence of up and down rising to higher and higher peaks as you go and then the final breakthrough to the other side of the last mountain. How far down you follow the story on the other side varies on how much closure you need.

  7. 7. Margaret Y.

    It’s also something that is impossible in a first draft. At least for me, it is only until a few drafts later that I can start revising for pace. Until then, I’m revising for story and other stuff.

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Adam: So you’re a pace by touch, too. That makes me feel better somehow.

    Marie: But you understand how weird it is as an academic not to actually know how I do what I do, right? Cause I’m supposed to to teach this and it is really tough to do

    Nathaniel: That notion of the “art of” I think is true. There’s a lot of craft that can be taught, but then there’s a lot that’s in the realm of art that relies on instinct and ‘touch.’

    Kameron: I agree. I don’t know that I’m looking for the formula, so much as to articulate what I *do*. Except that it’s so below my consciousness that I don’t really know what I do.

  9. 9. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kelly: I love that metaphor! I may be borrowing it for my class . . . . Credit duly given of course.

    Margaret: For me it has to be in my first draft. But it’s a feeling of something not quite right that I notice and then poke at bits. Which just goes to show that everybody’s process is different. We all arrive at a similar product (I mean a piece of fiction with characters, a story, and so forth) but we get there via an infinity of routes. Through Kelly’s mountains I think.

  10. 10. Kelly McCullough

    Glad it works for you, and please feel free to pass it along if it’s helpful.

  11. 11. NewGuyDave

    It’s good to know that you can get by on instinct, provided you have that. My critiquers over at OWW seem to think my pacing and storytelling is fine, which is at least one step forward.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Kelly, I loved the metaphor too. Can I post it and refer back to the link?

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    NewGuyDave,

    Of course. In fact, please do. Oh and at some point soon I’m going to expand it out into something resembling a real blog post over at wyrdsmiths.blogspot, at that point I’ll drop a note in here with a pointer.

  13. 13. Simon Haynes

    My editing for pace goes something like this:

    “Is this bit slow, boring, irrelevant, introspective? Cut it.”

    Let’s just say my rollercoasters don’t have many valleys. They start out with a gentle incline for a chapter or two, then head down at an ever increasing pace.

    At least, that’s more or less my goal.

  14. 14. Chryse

    I just try to make things worse and worse for my main characters. I suppose that’s a kind of pacing, but I’ve never given it much thought either.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.

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