Setting the Pace

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m at the point in my current WIP where I’m checking the pacing of the story so far. I often do this when I feel that something just isn’t clicking – either the story is starting to drag or I’m in danger of losing direction – and I find pacing is often at the crux of the problem. Being the anal outliner that I am, I have a number of steps which I undertake when I need, quite literally, to go through the paces. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, Consequences of Sin, my study was plastered with butcher paper graphs of the story – with different colors for all the critical aspects of the story – mystery, character development, romance etc. and with all the highs and lows (as well as lulls) represented. It was a visual way for me to gauge how well I was pacing the story (or not!).

Pacing is a tricky thing and one, I suspect, gets easier with practice (at least I bloody well hope so!) but when the pacing gets out of whack the story either dies a long, lingering death or seems to hurtle from scene to scene without stopping for air (leaving the reader a little winded and unsatisfied at the end). Somewhere between the two, the story sings.

So this is how I try and attack the pacing issue:

  • Chapter outlines – I know, I know, only an outliner would start with this anyway, but I actually redo these midway through the first draft, emphasizing what key tensions are involved, what key plot points are revealed, and how the relationships between the characters are unfolding. This type of outlining helps me visualize if there are places in the book where nothing seems to be propelling the story forward and also where they may be spots where too much seems to be happening all at once.
  • Graphing the book: Using the classic three act structure I map out the critical conflicts and plot points in the book. Being a visual person this helps me immediately see how the contours of the story are coming along: too many troughs and I know I’m in trouble; too many peaks early on and I know it’s too much like ‘Days of our Lives’…
  • Editing for pace: Midway through the first draft I often find myself in edit mode, not necessarily for the nitty-gritty writing elements but more the big picture pacing issues: How is it flowing? Does the book feel like it’s building suspense or is it already starting to deflate?…This type of editing helps me focus attention on storyline structure as well as pacing. Many writers probably wait until the end of the first draft to undertake this but I find it helps to do this about half way through – helps me avoid getting bogged down in the saggy middle.
So how do you tackle the issue of pacing in your books? As a reader, who do you think has mastered this (for it is an art to do it well I think)? Any additional tips or pointers – because, let’s face it, I could use all the help I can get at the moment!

8 thoughts on “Setting the Pace

  1. The first thing I thought was not to forget to leave places for the reader to take a breather. I remember reading one book where it was all non-stop, and by the time I reached the end, I was bored! Middle of a lot of action, and I was bored because the pacing had flattened the excitement out.

    On the last book I worked on, the story structure lent itself to a lot of action. So I was having to make sure I stopped and thought about putting in s “valley” to slow things down. I didn’t get how much valleys were needed until I read the book above.

  2. Visual helps me too, Clare. When I was screenwriting I used to take a long section of computer paper (for daisy wheel printers, remember? So the pages were attached) and on the left side list the characters and then show where they are in the story across the top, and color code these so I could see in an instant where the story might be dragging because my Lead isn’t involved, or whatever.

    These days I color code with a great program for Mac called Scrivener.

  3. Colored index cards work well for me. I also sometimes use different colors of ink on them as ways to track POV (If multiple) and character appearances.

  4. You’ve got a good, working system, Clare. It always amazes me how many ways there are to writing a book.

    My co-writer and I often use what we call a plotting matrix. It’s a basic Excel spreadsheet with the names of all our major characters in the columns across the top and the chapter or scene titles running down the left. We then state in each scene (row) what each character is doing. Even if a particular character’s activities will not be used in that scene, we feel it’s important to know what everyone is doing at any given moment in the story.

  5. Garridon – crazy isn’t how sometimes too much action can actually be boring. Jim, Dana and Joe – Thanks – more ideas for me,yay! It is amazing how many ways we writers try and deal with plotting and pacing.

  6. I think endings are the hardest things to pace. How many times have we been reading along in a good book, and then the writer drops us off a cliff with an abrupt ending. That’s my biggest issue in my own writing–to deliver a well-paced, satisfying ending.

  7. Very good point Kathryn – the ending is one of the hardest things to pull off. I hate both the long drawn our ending as well as the ‘oops over the cliff’ ones too.

  8. I was pretty disorganized about it – files and notes everywhere. But I’m trying to take it more seriously now – analyzing what I’ve got after I’ve written it even if I’m too disorganized to plan it beforehand. Snowflake (software and the idea) is a good guide.

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