Thursday, December 09, 2010

How to Write - Pacing

I've addressed this before, here, and here, but I recently read a book ms from somebody I invited to send it when he was done, and since it came up again, here's what I had to say to him about the subject of pacing:

Dear __________,

You have a pretty good story, and interesting characters -- a good effort for a first novel -- you should be pleased; most people never get this far.

My main criticism goes to the pacing, which is always a tricky beast, and not something most beginners have any idea of how to do. I make the novel at just under 80K words, which is a good length, but the pacing is off.

Not a difficult problem to fix, but it will require another pass before you try sending it around -- in my opinion, which with a dime will get you ten pennies, if somebody wants to make change ...

The quick and dirty course: There are three main ways to move a story: Exposition, dialog, and action. Exposition is the slowest, dialog and action both faster, and the balance among the three is what gives your tale its pacing. Ideally, you want something like an ascending sine-wave, up, down, up, down, all the while slowly climbing to a high point and a leap off the cliff to the end and finish -- like a roller coaster.

If you have too much exposition, it feels slow. Dialog and action can break up the internal monologues and descriptions, but if they are too heavy with qualifiers, they don't do the job and actually make the problem worse, and you don't want stately in an action-adventure novel. There are places where you need lean and mean.

You've probably seen this before, but here are two visual aids for a page layout:


and this:


You see the difference -- shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, choppy exchanges, play faster because they are literally faster to read. You have fewer words on a page, and if you use punchy terms -- smash, stab, thrust, whack, like that, to ramp up the imagery, the pages get turned faster, which imparts a sense of speed to a reader. 

Want them to hurry along? Write short and tight. If you want it exciting, moving them along faster helps.

Chapters are another way to alter the pacing -- a longish chapter followed by a shorter one, followed by a medium-length one -- don't make them all the same length. Might average eight or ten pp each, but now and then, a three- or even a one-pager is valid and can pick up the pace. 

There are places to walk, and there are places where you want to run like a scalded cheetah. You don't want a steady pace throughout. Sprint, jog, walk, stand still, sprint again.

No reason you should know this, it's a fairly advanced writing skill and not easily taught, but that's what you need to do. 

While the writing itself isn't bad, most of your text is homogenized, i.e., the paragraphs and sentences tend to be the same length and this makes for a kind of slow-jog monotone in delivery. You don't want this. (Pick a couple pages at random and look at them; what I mostly see is: Four or five lines to a graph, seven or eight graphs to a page. This is okay for a few pages, but more than that, readers will start getting bored. You need to vary it.)

Once you see this, you'll wonder how you missed it -- and you won't miss it again.

Break them up. Use active voice and not passive. Instead of phrases like, "Heading up the mountain, he ..." say instead, "He headed up the mountain." Simple past tense flows better. Clean and crisp are the way to go. Don't worry about style, just tell the story. Style comes on its own. 

Fix this, you are 85-90% of the way there.


Anonymous said...


This is good info. Thanks for sharing it.


Joshkie said...

Yes, this is valuable info, and as someone new to writing this should save me a lot of time and effort.
I do believe that I need to work on grammar first then pacing.

Thanks again.

FYI, I'm looking to put together a collection of your works ever since I was re-introduced to you and your work through reading your comments on Rory's blog.

It was through reading "The Man Who never Missed" that I realized that I need tobe careful and not set up bad habits. That there was economy of and right movement. That if you new these principle that when the time came you would know what to do as needed.

So, over the years I've stepped into a few dojo and never been happy as after you learn the basic they seem to lock yo into the 'if they do this you do that' paterns of thought and muscle memory.

Then, I came across MoV Rory's Book and it resonated with my soul. This is what I had understood at a subconsious level. But, he had been willing to go through the proces of learning the systems to then be able to deconstruct them.

So isn't it a small world that when I started to read Rory's blog, from the beginning as that is the onlyway to get the totality of something, I run across you and him, having some interesting discussions. Both coming at the problem from different perspectives going to the same place.

Sometimes I feel like a theif in the night scavenging the thoughts of those around me.

Justin said...

Sounds like a great book. ;)

Joshkie said...

Which one? ;-)

Dan Moran said...

Great writers can write any way they like. Short and punchy is the best way to get it done if you're still learning your craft, no question. (And there are great writers who do short and punchy -- read Gregory Mcdonald sometime, who wrote entire novels out of speed-of-light dialog.)

Justin said...

Joshkie: The one Steve read, prompting this blog post.

Jim said...

Interesting observation prompted by this...

In a book I'm reading, the author could have probably trimmed it by a third had he received your guidance on this. It's a good read -- but I think it might have been notably improved by the trimming, too. I just hadn't been able to put my finger on what was annoying about it... Big blocks of paragraphs on most of the pages... Averaging 3 to 5 paragraphs per paperback page.

Steve Perry said...

Pacing is tricky -- one person's sprint is another person's crawl, and how much detail is too much or not enough is apt to be a matter of opinion. I could never get past James A. Michener novel openings -- he'd start a tale at the Big Bang and s-l-o-w-l-y work his way forward, but millions of people bought his books.

As ever, when I render these opinions, I offer that they are mine alone, and one's mileage may vary. What strikes me as something to be fixed might not be at all, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em ...

Jim said...

Steve, your opinion carries the weight of a fairly successful professional in the field. As such, you've bothered to figure out what works and why -- whereas someone like me just reads and wonders why it is that books keep running longer and longer. (I also blame word processors... I think when authors stopped having to deal with the length of their manuscripts, they got a lot freer with going longer...)

Like I said -- it's a good book. Lots of nice actions scenes, some good gun porn, and decent character development. But I think the average paragraph is about 1/3 or so of a page... Some trimming might be good.