When I read through an early draft, problems with the pacing usually jump out at me first. I might notice that an action scene drags, or a romantic scene zips by without any real connection between the characters.
If your own draft feels flat, you may need to work on your pacing. When a writer gets the pacing right, readers connect with the characters and keep turning pages.
Narrative pace refers to the rate at which a story unfolds. The pace will change over the course of a novel, slowing and speeding up at different places. Generally, a writer wants to keep the pace moving to keep the reader engaged. The last thing a writer wants is a bored reader! However, a relentlessly fast pace can hinder the connection between the characters and exhaust the reader.
This post offers no simple formula or easy fix. Finding the perfect pace for your story takes careful analysis of each scene. However, my own struggles with pacing have helped me compile the following tips that I hope will help you improve the pacing of your own novel:
- Identify your core “story.” Your first draft probably contains tangents, side trips, and other extras that distract from the tale you are trying to tell. (I’m not talking about subplots; I’m talking about excess baggage that doesn’t serve your story.) Your main character is on some kind of journey; a transformation takes place over the course of the novel and your character moves from one state of being to another. This journey is what your story is all about. Identifying the core of your story will help you to cut away anything that distracts the reader as they follow your character on his or her journey.
- Enter a scene as late in the action as possible. This is a rule I borrowed from screenwriting. Start a scene where the “story” takes off in that scene. If your character meets someone important on the way to work, start with the meeting, not the walk out the door, down the steps, and onto the sidewalk.
- Compress transitions. If your character receives a phone call that motivates him to leave the safe house, travel by subway, and meet the antagonist at the docks, don’t be afraid to cut quickly from point A to point B. The story’s pace won’t lag if you bridge the phone call to the meeting with the villain as tightly as possible. As an example, consider the following excerpt from The Hunger Games. This passage comes immediately after Peeta has told Caesar Flickerman on national TV that he’s in love with Katniss. At this point, Katniss is on the side of the stage, watching.
After the anthem, the tributes file back into the Training Center lobby and onto the elevators. I make sure to veer into a car that does not contain Peeta. The crowd slows our entourages of stylists and mentors and chaperones, so we have only each other for company. No one speaks. My elevator stops to deposit four tributes before I am alone and then find the doors opening on the twelfth floor. Peeta has only just stepped from his car when I slam my palms into his chest. He loses his balance and crashes into an ugly urn filled with fake flowers. The urn tips and shatters into hundreds of tiny pieces. Peeta lands in the shards, and blood immediately flows from his hands.
“What was that for?” he says, aghast.
This passage is a perfect example of a compressed transition that keeps the focus on the story. What matters here is the interaction between Katniss and Peeta. Suzanne Collins doesn’t wander away from that story by telling us details of the trip from the stage back to the Training Center or even the ride up in the elevator with the other tributes. Instead she keeps everything tight, and takes us from the stage to the twelfth floor of the Training Center and Katniss’s confrontation with Peeta in just one paragraph.
- Keep in mind that some scenes will require a slower pace. If you rush rush rush through everything, your reader won’t be able to get to know your characters and may not feel the connections they form with each other. It’s important to linger over the scenes where bonds are formed or epiphanies happen. It’s equally as important to give your reader a chance to catch her breath.
- Even when the action is fast, you may need to slow down the speed at which the story is told, in order to provide sensory details that make the action real for the reader. Though this may seem counter-intuitive (shouldn’t action scenes go fast?) here’s an explanation of why a writer may want to slow the pace during the most tense scenes, from an article in Publisher’s Weekly by best-selling thriller author Chelsea Cain:
I read a study recently. Some professor wanted to look into the experience that time slows in life or death situations and he tied some graduate students to Bungee cords and pushed them off a ledge, and studied the results. His conclusion? In normal circumstances our brain culls details. In tense situations our mind stops culling – it notices everything – because you don’t know what detail is going to save your life. This is what creates the experience of time slowing—lots of details. The next time you’re writing a tension filled scene – maybe there’s a serial killer in it, maybe your character is asking someone out to prom – remember to stop culling. Notice everything. The acne on her forehead. The buttons on her shirt. It all becomes important. It’s the ordinary moments that fly by.
What are your thoughts on narrative pace? Do you find it easy to fix or does it frustrate you as it does me? Please share your thoughts in the comments!