Correcting Problems with Pacing

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!


24 Responses to Correcting Problems with Pacing

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 13 2012 at 6:35 am #

    I’m kind of suffering with pace issues now. My story is turning from a paranormal into a paranormal mystery, and mystery has a pace that’s very different from paranormal, or fantasy, where I started. I don’t know what to reveal, or when. I’ve been reading more mysteries than I normally do, so I have some idea of what it should feel like, but the pacing isn’t something built-in.

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 9:11 am #

      Hi Marc! You bring up an interesting point. I think it’s great that you’re following the story as it morphs from paranormal to mystery, and I think you’re doing exactly what you should do – reading mysteries. Good luck with your story! :0

  2. Dale S. Rogers Aug 13 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Thanks for the good advice. I need to work on some of those things. For awhile I had the opposite problem: Jumping from one scene to another the way tv does sometimes. One of my CP’s corrected me on this, so I guess I need to find that balance–enough
    transition, but not too much.

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Hey Dale! It’s funny how you make the comparison to TV. I think TV and film have a strong influence on the way writers see things unfold in their heads. Good luck with your pacing; I hope some of these tips help! 🙂

  3. Chihuahua Zero Aug 13 2012 at 11:01 am #

    There’s one writer at the forum I’m at who’s having pacing problems. Specifically, with filler between scenes. I’ll be linking it over there.

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks for sharing this! I hope this post helps your writer friend.

  4. Alex Mendez Aug 13 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m reading over a draft of a WIP right now, in order to get back into it after being away from it awhile, and the pacing issues are taking the forefront at the moment. I suspect part of the issue may be that in workshops I’ve been largely trained to write short stories, and these have completely different pacing from novel-length works. I wonder if others have this issue too?

    As for learning from screenwriting, I also find this immensely helpful. In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, there are many action scenes shown in slow-motion with a voiceover, and these allow the viewer to relish all those little details that as writers we are able to put on the page, and it’s much more interesting than watching a fight begin and end in five seconds.

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 12:33 pm #

      Hey Alex! I love those Sherlock Holmes movies, and what a great example for writers on slowing down the details in action scenes. 🙂 As for your thoughts about short story pacing versus novel pacing, I hadn’t considered that before, but since I, too, have had my share of short story workshops and now find novel pacing challenging, I suspect you might be onto something! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Kat Zhang Aug 13 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Fantastic post, Julie! Pacing is so, so important to a story, but such a hard thing to pin down just right. 🙂

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 12:37 pm #

      Hey Kat! I agree that pacing is a hard thing to pin down. There are no simple fixes for it, but when a writer takes the time to get it right, she gives such a great gift to the reader. 🙂

  6. Linda Aug 13 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Excellent post. I have always had trouble with pacing, but your post has shed some new light that just might help me find my way. Thanks. 🙂

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      Hey Linda! I’m glad you found the post helpful. Challenges with pace can be frustrating, but working them out can transform a story. Good luck! 🙂

  7. JQ Trotter Aug 13 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    Great post. Pace… is always a problem for me. I don’t even worry about it when I’m writing my first drafts, I just try to get the story down, and then figure out how to deal with pace later. It takes a while to figure it out, and like you said there’s really no easy formula or fix for it, but after a couple of revisions it’s easier to see what needs to be done to get the pace rolling right.

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 7:31 pm #

      You are so right, JQ! First drafts are for getting the story down. I might think about pace a bit during that initial draft but only to the extent of realizing I’m writing some fluff that will need to be excised later. During those later drafts pace can be examined more closely. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  8. Rowenna Aug 13 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    Great post! I love the points about cutting out the “A to B” kind of junk. It’s like how, if someone asks about your day, they don’t need to hear about your commute. Unless something happened on your commute. Usually, nothing does. So cut out the commute. 😛 Plus, making “how I got here” a short reflective explanation can give you time to explore how a character feels or reveal some other info (if it’s even necessary to talk about it).

    • Julie Aug 13 2012 at 8:30 pm #

      Thanks Rowenna! I’m glad you liked this. I loved your analogy about telling someone about your day. If you mention the commute, it’s probably only because it’s important to the overall story of your day. But sometimes it’s difficult to cut that all out when writing, especially (at least for me) with first person narrative. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Jon Aug 14 2012 at 11:53 am #

    I find one of the hardest parts of editing a first draft can be focusing on the core story and cutting out all of the baggage- loose ends, unfinished subplots, etc.

    • Julie Aug 14 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Hey Jon! Ah yes, the unfinished subplot; I hear ya! I sometimes think something’s going to be brilliant and then decide it adds nothing to the overarching story and have to cut it all out. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  10. Meredith Anderson Aug 17 2012 at 1:53 am #

    I’m a little late commenting, but when I read these it’s usually on my phone and it sucks to respond!

    But I want to say thank you. While reading this post and thinking about pacing, I realized that this draft of my story was trying to stretch and focus on two different things in two different directions– and it wasn’t flowing well. So now I’ve picked one and I’m running with it. I’m writing back at square one essentially, but I’m incredibly happy with the change. So thank you for writing this amazing post that is making my story better! Wonderful advice and examples. This is why I LOVE PubCrawl! You ladies never fail to amaze me. <3 <3 <3


    • Julie Eshbaugh Oct 2 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      Thanks Meredith! You are one of the loyal readers who make the effort so worth while! <3 <3 <3

  11. Ubaid Seth Oct 2 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Great tips! This does help me out a lot in my screenwriting but I’m conflict on one tip:
    ” Enter a scene as late in the action as possible.”
    If I write a scene of this young girl walking into Med school and asking the receptionist for the pre-orientation forms, it would make sense to start the scene with her dialogue “Excuse me, I need the pre-orientation forms.” However, what if I’m conflicted on this and want to show her walking through the building to show how beautiful it is, establish location, and give the story some ‘beats’ before having her interact with the receptionist? Simply told.. what if we enter a scene early and neglect the first act of each scene (establishing characters, location, desire)?

    • Julie Eshbaugh Oct 2 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      Hi Ubaid! You make a good point. I would have to say that I tend to agree with the adage that there is an exception to every rule. I think knowing when to make the exception is the tricky part! Or perhaps in your example, showing the girl walking through the building and creating her in that moment is vitally important to the scene. In that case, maybe you actually are entering the scene as late as possible, because cutting that set-up would detract from the story. Something to think about. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  12. Hamed May 18 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    Loved it!
    I was in the middle of reading “The Sun also rises”, the bullfighting chapter, and I swear I could count all the tips that you had mentioned. Especially the last one, where Hemingway was using dialogues to keep the pace slow and yet maintain the “truest” amount of tension on the air.
    Personally, I found the second tip- the one about entering a scene as late in the action as possible- way more than helpful. It was… enlightening. Needless to say, all the other tips were great. I can see my next book is going to be read very differently.

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