“Pace doesn’t mean speed; it means the right speed.” – Reginald Hill
Some people think the 800-meter race is the hardest track event to run. Why? Because the race is twice around the track which equates to roughly a half-mile. Pace is the key. There’s a tendency to run the first lap too fast and run out of steam on the second lap. On the other hand, running the first lap too slow could mean falling so far behind the leaders that you can’t catch up. Each runner has to find their own pace within the field to run their best time. Can we apply this knowledge to writing a novel?
One of the most famous 800-meter races of all time was the 1972 Olympic final in Munich, West Germany. Eight world-class runners toed the starting lines. The favorite was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union who had won every race he had entered for the previous three years.
The lone American in the race was Dave Wottle. Although Wottle had won the U.S. Olympic Trials race, he suffered injuries prior to the Olympic Games, and there was some question about his fitness. Here’s a two-minute video of the race. Arzhanov is wearing a red shirt and is in Lane One. You can easily spot Wottle – he’s the one wearing the golf hat.
Several weeks ago, Reavis Wortham wrote a blog post on pacing within a story. I’d like to explore the subject further by mapping Wottle’s race to a novel format. We’ll make Dave Wottle the protagonist in our story. Although I’m sure Yevhen Arzhanov is a very nice man, he’s going to be our antagonist for the purposes of this post. All the others are secondary characters in the story.
I suppose the inciting incident in this story is the start of the race. The gun goes off, and seven of the runners fly around the first turn.
My husband and I heard Dave Wottle talk about that race years later. He said he was surprised at how fast the other runners went out, and he was afraid he wasn’t up to the task. (Refusing the call?) Wottle could have stepped off the track after the first turn, claiming injury, and would have avoided disappointing his friends and family at home. But despite what he thought was a poor performance at the start, he decided to answer the call.
The backstretch, like the middle section of a novel, is usually not the most interesting part of the race. But in this race, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on in the first two hundred meters that focuses our attention on the secondary characters leading the race. At the same time, our antagonist, the favorite Arzhanov, slips back into anonymity at the middle of the pack.
As they come around the turn to complete the first lap, Wottle is still trailing. Running in last place at the midpoint of an Olympic final doesn’t bode well for our hero. Wottle must have asked himself if it was worth the pain to keep trying.
Down the backstretch for the second time, the tension ramps up as the competitors bunch up and jockey for position. Wottle moves ahead of a couple of runners. Now our attention shifts to Arzhanov as he takes off like a bullet to pass the leaders.
The race is now a 200-meter sprint. The finish line is in sight. The runners accelerate down the homestretch. The crowd senses the drama. Everyone yells for their favorite.
Our hero starts to pick off runners one at a time. It’s like figuring out clues in a mystery – with each new insight, he moves one step closer to catching the bad guy.
The tension is palpable as they approach the climax of the race. When Arzhanov realizes how close Wottle is to him, it’s too late to do anything other than fling himself forward, hoping to cross the finish line first, but Wottle clips his opponent at the line to win by three hundredths of a second.
In a mystery, the criminal always makes a mistake. In my book Dead Man’s Watch, the killer takes the watch off his victim, thinking no one could ever trace it to him. In the 1972 Olympic 800-meter race, Arzhanov started his finishing kick too soon, thinking no one would catch him. Both were wrong.
Maybe we can add a corollary to Reginald Hill’s maxim:
Writing a novel isn’t about producing words. It’s about producing the right words at the right pace.
So TKZers: How do you handle pace? Do you make your protagonist suffer an almost-certain defeat before finding that fire within? How do you prevent a sagging middle section? Do you pick it up in the last chapters heading to the climactic scene? What advice do you have about setting the right pace in novel-writing?
The Watch Series of cozy mysteries
Watches that tell more than the time.
Kay, what a good analogy between running and writing. I wonder what Wottle was thinking as he spent most of the race in last place.
When I sense the story is lagging, I ask what is the worst thing that could happen now. Then I write that. When faced with a new hurdle, the character has to kick up his/her effort.
Another pacing trick is to give the character a temporary victory. S/he breathes a sigh of relief, thinking the immediate problem is solved. Then s/he trips and falls.
My only quibble with your analogy is that writing a novel isn’t an 800 METER race but an 800 MILE race. 🙂
Good morning, Debbie.
“writing a novel isn’t an 800 METER race but an 800 MILE race.” You are so right!
I like your idea of giving a character a temporary victory. Just when she thinks she’s got it made, whammo.
Have a great day.
You got me thinking some more about this. What seems like an 800-mile slog to the writer should feel like an 800-meter race to the reader.
Great observation, Kay!
Thanks for sharing this, Kay. I hadn’t seen this before and didn’t even know about it (I used to jog but the ice kept dropping out of my glass). I was laughing in amazement as I watched it even though I knew what was going to happen.
You could sum it (everything) up in your three words: answer the call. You gotta show up and you gotta do it, every day. All else flows from that.
Good morning, Joe.
Yes! Answer the call. Run the best race you can and cross the finish line. A foot race is a great metaphor for just about everything in life.
I remember that race. I agree with Joe. You show up and write. Get it on the page, fix it later. I also agree with Debbie. The story needs ups and downs, highs and lows, fasts and slows. I ask myself “What can I throw at the characters now?”
Good morning, Terry.
“The story needs ups and downs, highs and lows, fasts and slows.” I agree. Full speed ahead is great, but a change of pace gives the reader a chance to catch their breath before the story takes another turn for the worse.
Thanks, Kay, for an inspirational moment to begin our day. Given the current state of foreign affairs, this was good to see. And the race is a great analogy.
I think that the first half of Part 2 in a three-part structure (or Part 2 of a four-part structure) is a great place to work on preventing a sagging middle. As the protagonist observes and gets himself into more and more trouble, he falls farther and farther behind the pack, and will acquire more and more to accomplish in the next half of part 2 (or in part 3). The midpoint mirror moment will be more dramatic, and the climb out of all the trouble will be more interesting, as he struggles to take the lead.
In the final sprint down the home stretch, we (the reader) then have that final sinking feeling that our antagonist isn’t going to be able to pull it off. He’s going to lose. But he uses every ounce of courage and skill as he propels himself across the finish line and snatches victory our of the jaws of defeat. The reader stands and cheers.
I loved your analogy, Kay. Thanks!
Good morning, Steve.
I agree that running a race is a great analogy for a novel. If we can hook the reader with a surprising start, keep them interested in the sagging middle (maybe a subplot?), and get their heart rate jumping in the homestretch, we will done our jobs. (Sounds easy, eh?)
Have a productive day!
Love the running/writing analogy.
Good morning, BK!
Running seems to be a good metaphor for just about everything in life.
Have a great day.
Good morning, Kay. This is a very apt analogy for pacing in a novel–loved it. Plus, a great story in the bargain. Like Steve commented, this was an inspirational moment to begin our day.
Pacing is very important to me as a reader and a writer. I want to swept up in a novel and be kept turning pages. I’m with Steve–structure is my go-to for keeping the middle of the novel engaging. I lean into it for pacing throughout the novel.
I especially like JSB’s “Mirror moment,” it’s a terrific way to up the stakes, personal and/ or external, and to at least hint at what the story is really about. In a mystery, it might be when a second victim turns up. It can be, too, when the protagonist commits to the investigation (in an amateur sleuth mystery). The middle is when “the fun and games” (as Blake Snyder put it in “Save the Cat”) happen, when you can ramp up the B Story, which can have it’s own pacing.
The darkest moment is a great way to set the scene for the final battle. Again, structure to the rescue. Pacing is also related, in my mind at least, to narrative drive, which is essentially information management–how much information and when do you share with the reader.
Your post gets this Monday off to a fine start. Have a wonderful day!
Good morning, Dale!
You make some great observations. I had forgotten Blake Snyder’s characterization of the middle as “the fun and games.” When I was watching the video in preparation for this post, I noticed how my attention was drawn to the “secondary characters” in the backstretch since they were having their own race. It was like a subplot being acted out. I need to re-read “Save the Cat.”
Thanks for reminding me!
Talk about a chapters-sized question for a busy Monday morning. Pace matters from a paragraph level to a scene level to a chapter level to a novel level. It determines whether an action or a love scene works or fails, a character is interesting or boring, or the reader keeps turning those pages or puts down the book forever. It’s also much easier to teach on the small scale elements because the big scale is much more instinctual despite all those rising and falling charts and plot templates.
So, from a writing teacher’s point of view, big scale. Pace isn’t just violent act after violent act, or the characters moving from one place to another. It’s mixing characterization and elements that move the emotional and action plot forward. It’s giving the reader continual interlocking questions about the characters and what’s happening and answering a few of those questions as you move along.
It’s also having a quiet moment of introspection or a brief comic moment in the heat of a long battle that reminds the reader why they’re reading the story or why they like these characters.
If anyone is interested in detailed info on pacing within scenes as well as big picture pace, click on my name for my blog, then click on the labels, “pace” and “interlocking questions.”
Excellent points, Marilynn. I especially like your paragraphs on big-scale pacing. That’s the area that interests me most because it’s so complex. Like playing three-dimensional chess.
I took a look at your blog – you have an enormous collection of writing information. I hope to spend some time exploring.
Yes! The big scale is instinctual, relying on the Guardienne to set up the major surprises. the intertwingled questions … and interlocking everything.
I’m a believer in quiet moments, too. In my thriller, the MC and his sidekick are tooling along in their 12-cyl Auburn, smoking cigars, discussing his findings, revealing things. After a beat, as the road straightens, a Citroen full of Gestapo appears in the rear window, seen only by the reader. The info dump continues as a second Citroen joins the first, getting closer and closer. Then, suddenly . . .
Good morning, JGuenther!
“interlocking everything.” Such an interesting concept. The analytical and instinctual (left brain / right brain) having to play nice together.
I like your description of the Gestapo moving up on the MCs. Very suspenseful. it reminds me of a scene in “Torn Curtain.”
It’s interesting to read what Dave Wortham said about answering the call.
I read the following in the AARP mag this week from John Mellencamp.
(I guess that means I’m over 55)
It’s also about pacing and discipline and giving up too easily.
“Usually I have to write about a hundred songs to get one good one. Painting is the same way. You’ve got to keep slugging.
The problem with most people is that they quit too early.”
“I’m not a religious person but there is some great wisdom in the Bible, including the notion that we were sent here to toil through our lives. And I believe that. We’re not here to lie around on the couch.”
“Every day I have to create something.-a song, a painting. And if I don’t I feel I’ve wasted my time.”
Words to live by.
I agree with Mellencamp. We’ve been given this magnificent gift of life — we shouldn’t waste it.
It’s so easy to give up. Reminds me of that great quote by Richard Bach: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
In one of my Sci-Fi drafts, there’s an alternate world where their Moses originally brought home twenty Commandments from the mountain. After he smashed the tablets, Moses said, “Just give us the first ten again. My people are struggling with ten; twenty is way too much for them.”
Other world’s Commandments:
XI: Thou shalt create.
XII: Thou shalt leave things at least as good as you found them…
I forget the rest.
Wonderful! I’d like to submit another possible commandment:
XIII: Thou shalt not give up.
Terrific advice from a music master. Thanks for sharing it!
Edit. I meant Dave Wottle. Details details.
You merged Dave Wottle with Rev Wortham! I’m trying to imagine what that would look like.
✪ How do you handle pace?
✫ I’m afraid I rely mostly on instinct at all levels.
✪ Does your MC face almost-certain defeat?
✫ Of course.
✪ How do you prevent a sagging middle?
✫ Action scenes! More menace! Setup & payoff!
✪ Do the last chapters speed the pace?
✫ Yes, but they’re often followed by wrap-up scene(s).
✪ What advice do you have about pacing?
✫ Make your chapters shorter at key points.
✫ In screenplays, watch your white space.
✫ Write action scenes as sumi-é, not trompe l’oeil.
✫ Vary the amount of dialogue to suit the tension.
✫ End chapters with a hook, a question or a motif.
✫ Utilize polysyllabic verbiage for more leisurely scenes;
✫ Use short words for fast scenes.
✫ Tighten fast scenes. Omit “…he wondered,” etc.
✫ Maintain menace in “breather” scenes!
✫ Minimize head-hopping, flashbacks, data dumps.
✫ Maximize linearity (chronology, etc.)
✫ Be kind to your Guardienne. Salute her!
I love lists, JG, and I think I’ll print this one out to keep next to my writing recliner. Thank you. (I had to look up sumi-e and trompe-l’oeil, though.)
I would add “Keep sentences short as you move toward the climax.”
Saluting the Guardienne with one hand as I hit the “Post Comment” button with the other.
Loved this, Kay. The video was awesome.
My son was a star 800 meter runner and 4×4 anchor in high school, won 2 full-ride college scholarships, and continued running through his college years. We watched countless nail-biting finishes. Now he volunteer coaches at his old alma mater HS; three of his students are his own kids. His son, Aiden, is making a name for himself. Watching him run, his stride and form almost identical to his dad’s, is like deja vu for me.
All that to say, I got your post perfectly. It was a great analogy.
Good afternoon, Deb.
Kudos to your son on his performance as an 800-meter runner. I’m sure he could teach us a lot about pacing, and I’m certain he knows about Wottle’s race.
Track and field is such great focus for students, and I’m glad your son is passing along his expertise to his children and others.
Kay, what if you pull a hamstring at the start?
Hmm. I guess injuries are part of racing — and life. Sometimes you just have to step off the track, take care of yourself, and live to race another day.
I’m trying to come up with a writing analogy, but I guess it’s too late in the day.
Rest up, study your past races, and get ready to go again.
Just like any form of art, there are those who produce art and those who appreciate art. I fall in the second category. I sit and stare at a painting and am in awe. I read words combined by you authors and I am in awe. I know the same words but YOU know how to put them together. As both an author and I runner, I loved your analogy in this blog. Thank you for putting your words together for our pleasure.
Good morning, Vicki, and thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment.
There’s much to be grateful for in this world, and the fellowship of good friends ranks near the top. Have a great day, my friend!
Sorry to be late to the party, but this just came to my inbox a day late. 😉 This is such a good analogy for writing. And paired with the video, it’s perfect. I’m at the midway point in my book and my heroine is losing the battle. But in the next scene, knowing the antagonist is bound to make a mistake, she will vow to keep going until she finds the killer.
This book is the first on where I’ve used plot points and pinch points and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me keep going and gives me a direction to go in.
I’m so glad you liked the post, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about your new book and the process you used to create it.
Your disciplined output always amazes me.
Have a great week.