I’m going to answer questions from a couple readers this week. If you have a question, email me and I’ll try to answer it, too.

SarahJ asks: Could you give us an exercise for pacing for the whole novel?

Pacing is a question of providing a combination of tension, reflection, rejoicing, sorrows across a novel in such a way that the reader stays interested and reading.

This is one of those things that the answer is “it depends.” Using the art analogy again, you might want a pastel palette, with less action/tension and more reflection, a more character-type novel. Or, you might want an action/adventure story–a bold, primary colors sort of palette.

With that caveat, there are a couple ways of looking at your story that might help.

Reader Reactions to Pacing

First, re-read the story yourself and this time pay attention to yourself as you read. Are there places where you zone out or skim? Put a check mark in the margins, but keep on reading. You’ll want to come back later and evaluate those places to see if you can make them more interesting.

Next, have three readers do the same thing. You ONLY want them to put a check mark in the margins when they find themselves not reading every single word. That’s the only thing they need to do. Don’t let them mark misspellings or grammar or anything. Kids are great at this, because they are honest and don’t care about that other stuff.

These are reader’s opinions and reactions, and therefore, there’s no arguing with them. If they zone out at one place, you might say to yourself, “This person just doesn’t like dogs, so they’ll skip everything about dogs.” Well, other readers will be similar and you don’t want ANY reader to skip ANY words, do you? Is there any way to make the dogs interesting to a person who is generally uninterested in that dog? Maybe not. But it’s your job to try.

Pacing Evaluations
  1. The Shrunken Mss is one good way to look at pacing. You can use this exercise to look at anything you want for the overall story. For example, you might put a large red X over every scene with a fight scene. Put a large blue X over every scene which is mostly dialogue. (Obviously, you’ll decide on how to mark it exactly, depending on the content of your novel.) Do the lay-down of the Shrunken Mss and evaluate how well you’ve integrated the different types of scenes. Notice not just frequency, but also length of each. Do you want one to dominate more than the other?
  2. Be sure to provide a few places of rest. If you think about the Writer’s Journey The Writer's Journey, Second Edition: Mythic Structure for Writersdescription of the Hero’s Quest, there are definite resting places where characters can chat, look for information, develop a romance (in adult novels, read, have a sex scene), enjoy a small victory. After the hero has crossed into the new world of the adventure, one option is the “watering hole” scene, where the characters go to a gathering place and gain new information.In the first Star Wars movie, for example, Luke and Obi Wan go to a bar to find transportation to another planet. It’s here that they meet new people (Han and Chewbacca), Luke gets a glimpse of the variety of aliens in this wider world he’s about to enter, and Luke gets a glimpse of Obi Wan’s powers. It’s a relatively quiet spot in the movie, with the tension coming more from the unknown qualities of what Luke is experiencing.Study the Hero’s Quest for other resting places, including the Approach to the Inmost Cave and The Reward (or Seizing the Sword). If you think I’m talking Greek here, it’s just Joseph Campbell’s classic structure for a hero’s quest. See Vogler’s book for more.
  3. In his book, Lessons from a Lifetime of WritingLessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, action/adventure author, David Morrell (creator of the Rambo character, among others), says he tries to write short chapters, so that a reader can complete one chapter (or structural unit) at one sitting. He bases his ideas on two essays by Edgar Allen Poe, The Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle. Part of this discussion is about pacing, because it’s about keeping the reader’s attention. Morrell says he keeps his structural units small in order to accommodate the reader’s bladder, TV interruptions, phone calls, a neighbor who drops in, etc. Poe’s essay is worth reading, as is Morrell’s chapter on “The Tactics of Structure.”
  4. Evaluate the white spaces on your pages of text. Single space your mss and print it out; it’s hard to see this on the screen. In general, you don’t want dense blocks of text. See if you can break up long paragraphs into shorter ones. Use dialogue to provide white space. As usual, the right combination of text and white space “depends.”

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2 responses to “Pacing”

  1. Thanks Sarah for the question and Darcy for this discussion!

    I’m going to use your Shrunken Manuscript Technique this week — for plot points and subplots, to make sure I haven’t dropped any characters for too long.
    I’m looking forward to that since working through secondary characters in the workbook Writing the Breakout Novel.

    I tend to write a lot of dialogue so maybe I need to even out my ‘white space’ with more description.

    I have Vogler’s book and LOVE that he gives examples of movies to go along with his explanations etc.!

  2. Thanks for your ideas.

    Something else I have tried as I look at pacing within a novel: I look at where the climaxes of the subplots occur. (This would work well with the Shrunken Manuscript Technique, but I used a spreadsheet and it was easy to visualize the subplots on just one page.) But subplots are only one small thing to look for in choosing pacing.

    I agree that readers will catch the “slow” sections.