by Robert Gray
Chances are your first experience with pacing was in the form of a rejection slip: Pacing didn’t work for me; or in a seminar or writing group: I liked the story, but the pacing felt, I don’t know, off a little. Either way, when someone mentions a pacing problem, which is often vague at best, the tendency is to make drastic changes to your story in order to speed up your narrative to the point of nausea. Yes, pacing has to do with the speed at which your story unfolds, but it’s important to understand that you don’t correct the problem by moving at a breakneck speed.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s work through a definition of pacing. Pacing, as it relates to fiction, is time manipulation. Because every story – at least every story worth reading – has a forward momentum, pacing allows the author to control the speed at which that momentum moves. Think scene versus summary.
Some Things To Consider
You’ve probably heard that pacing is similar to skateboarding, with each thrust being revelation and action, and each glide being digression, contemplation and description. Perhaps your readers have been given some vital information they’ve been salivating for, or your monster appears for the first time and kills off a character you were just starting to cozy up to. What happens next is the glide. Here you can throw in some necessary back story, some key description you couldn’t find a place for or some piece of research that adds verisimilitude to your story. The important thing to remember is that how long you glide depends on how big the thrust.
In medias res, which is Latin for “in the middle of things,” refers to a story starting in the middle of the plot. Often writers turn to this technique so the story can hit the ground running, immediately drawing the reader in. The problem with in medias res is it necessitates flashbacks. Not that flashback is necessarily a bad thing, but it is best used to bring about a fuller understanding of character, not as a means of telling a story. If you find that your writing page after page of flashback, then you may want to consider starting your story somewhere else.
Many pacing problems occur either because a story is overloaded with conflicts in order to keep a dying momentum going, or because writers aren’t sure what to do with certain scenes, so they fan out in different directions before finding the right path. The best time to find these issues is while reading the first draft. If you can, try reading the draft without stopping, and note where the story seems to slow down or speed up for no reason.
Pacing can be subjective. It is why when someone says that the pacing felt off, it drives writers batty, because next to my personal favorite, the story didn’t work for me, it is the weakest advice a writer can receive. To be fair, most readers don’t know why there is a problem, and it is up to you, the keeper of all the story’s secrets, to uncover that mystery. My suggestion here is to get as many beta readers as possible to review your story. If one reader says, the pacing at the end didn’t work for me, that’s a perspective. If several readers say the same thing, then it’s a problem, and you can begin to focus on the specific problem without revising scenes that may have been perfectly fine.
Move too slow, and you’re readers are going to start skimming to get to the good stuff; move too fast and your readers won’t be able to keep up. Finding that balance is what makes pacing so difficult to master, and – because I doubt you’ve come across this advice before – the only way to really learn pacing is to read the authors that make it seem effortless.
So go forth and write, but remember to pace yourself.