Jan 10 2011

Pace yourself

How can I tell if the pace of my novel manuscript lags in parts? Ames from Alabama.

First, let’s define terms. What is pace in a novel?

Pace is what provides the flow and rhythm of the story through the arrangement of action, suspense, conflict, rising tension, intermixed with slower scenes to give readers a breather.

Pace is the forward momentum of the story, the speed at which the plot unfolds. A novel is a marathon race, not a sprint. It’s not flat out as fast as you can go from start to finish. It’s uphill, downhill, around curves, speeding up during a straightaway, slowing for an uphill climb, taking a few minutes to go steady and take in the scenery, the position of the other runners, the lay of the course ahead, even pause for a sip of water and a breather. The runner (in our case, the writer) needs to know when to preserve energy, when to turn on some speed, and when to give it the final kick to the finish line.

The overall pace you want to create in your story can be from one extreme to the other depending on your story and genre. The pace of a Tom Clancy thriller is going to be very different from a Nicholas Sparks love story. But pace is crucial to both.

So how do you know if the pace lags in places? The easy answer is when readers skim pages looking for something interesting to happen, put the book down, fall asleep, or gouge out their own eyeballs from boredom.

But how do you gauge the pace when you’re writing the manuscript?

Every writer has a different approach, but many don’t worry about pace during a first draft. Get the story down, pay more attention to plot, character development, the writing style and voice. Then during your first revision, map out each scene to see where the pace increases and decreases, and where it needs to speed up or slow down.

Other writers map out the scenes before writing, taking the pace into account as they outline.

Either way, plan for pace. Slower scenes still must move the story forward. Flashbacks, narratives, characterization scenes, sedate scenes, transitions, and breathers all must be placed at the right point so the information conveyed is crucial to the reader at the exact moment it’s needed. These scenes must fit into the story at that point, not randomly tossed in.

If you plotted the scenes on a graph, does the pace go up and down with a gradual increase over the course of the novel as the tension builds? Are there long stretches with slow pacing that might lose readers’ interest and cause mass eye-gouging? Do you have page after page of back story, flashbacks, descriptive narrative where nothing really happens, no rising tension or conflict or suspense? Those long low points on the graph are likely spots to look for lagging pace.

At the other extreme, does the main character lurch from one crisis to the next with no breaks in the action, no lulls, no introspection or places for readers to catch their breath? Even in a fast-paced thriller, one car chase, shoot-out, and explosion after another becomes repetitive. Repetitive becomes expected. Expected becomes boring, and then eyes get gouged.

6 Responses to “Pace yourself”

  • Pete Says:

    Best way to know if pace lags is if you want to scan! Heh.

  • Phillipa Says:

    Very true Pete, I find if my manuscript bores me in parts then that’s the bit that needs to be trimmed back.

  • Lindy Piraino Says:

    hey there great post! Enjoyed it!

  • b Says:

    This is a tricky area, Robb, and you’ve made it easier for people to understand it. I like the idea of the graph – actual visuals (stripped of words) can make the draggy bits so much more evident. I always find that, even when I’ve tried hard not to let things flag, there are moments when I re-read and/or edit when I sense that the pace is dropping and I need to focus on that section. Very often, some judicious cutting does the trick.

    • Robb Says:

      Bill, thanks for the patience with the comments issue we had yesterday. I hope that’s all straightened out now. It’s a new site and we’re still finding an occasional glitch.

      I found the graph thing helped me a bit. When you’re reading something and it starts to drag, or you start to scan/skim, you know the pace has fallen off too long. But it’s tricky sometimes to figure out when you’re the writer and you’re too close to the material to spot it. Of course, the pace does need to slow down at times, to ebb and flow with a rhythm, but it’s not easy to know when you’ve slowed it down for too long.