Wednesday, April 15, 2009


The taxes are done and I've even scanned in the finished forms. Now I just need to write some checks and walk to the post office. One upside of all this is that by paying my taxes without being prodded by a media investigation, I've made myself ineligible to be nominated for a Cabinet position, so I'm off the hook for that (rimshot!). Now that it's time for another writing post, I've got another reader request topic: Pacing.

The short, snarky advice on how to have good pacing in a novel is to cut out the boring parts.

But that doesn't really address the issue. It's not so much about not being boring as it is creating an ebb and flow of tension that keeps people reading. You probably don't want non-stop action and tension through an entire novel. That would be exhausting to read, and I suspect that people might put it down because they just couldn't take it anymore. Even the most tense, relentless action films have quiet moments. Take The Terminator -- it's a movie about a killer robot from the future hunting down a defenseless woman, but in between the chase scenes there are character moments where the characters bond with each other and learn about their situation. In order to make readers care about the fate of the characters in the tense, action-type scenes, they need to get to know the characters as people (and, meanwhile, the characters need to get to know each other so they care about what happens to each other), and that usually comes in the quieter moments.

A book should be like a roller coaster, with rising and falling action coming in waves throughout the book, a few twists and turns, and a build-up to a big finish. Generally, you'll want a peak somewhere near the beginning of the book to kick things off, then maybe a lull to establish the characters, some building peaks and valleys as you head toward a big turning point in the middle, a lull to recover from the turning point, and then a big build toward the resolution, with a drop-off after that to tie things up.

Pacing also encompasses the amount of action and the speed at which events happen. You can pick up the pace as a way of making things feel more intense. One way to do this is by using the scene and sequel technique (which is written about in great detail in the Writers Digest book Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham and in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain). As a disclaimer here, I've never really managed to use this technique on purpose, other than when I have a difficult scene to figure out, but I think I do this without thinking about it. This approach divides what I tend to think of as "scenes" into two parts. The "scene" part is the action -- a character has a goal and goes after it, trying multiple approaches until some kind of disaster occurs that definitively answers the question of whether or not he achieves his scene goal. Usually, that disaster is him not achieving his goal, but it can be that he does get it, only to find that it gets him into worse trouble or isn't what he really wanted. Then in the "sequel" the character reacts to the disaster, regroups and comes up with a new goal that drives into the next scene.

Since the "scene" is action and the "sequel" is thinking (reaction), you can manipulate the pace by increasing or decreasing the relative lengths of these parts. If you want a faster pace, you'll want longer scenes and shorter sequels -- more action, less thinking. For a really fast pace, the sequel may come down to being just a line or two, essentially, "Oops, now what do I do? I'll try this." Then to slow the pace and let the readers catch their breath, you may want longer sequels to really get into the characters' heads and empathize with their emotional responses.

Mind you, "action" doesn't have to mean car chases and gun battles. In a romance novel, for example, it might be conversation. Generally, action is stuff other than thinking. There may be moments of thinking in an action scene as the viewpoint character reacts to events in the scene, and there may be moments of action in the sequel, such as if the character does bits of business -- pacing, washing dishes or whatever -- while thinking. Think of action as steps taken toward a goal, so stuff a character is doing while thinking but that has nothing much to do with reaching a goal doesn't count as action.

You can also manipulate pacing by the way you use words. For a faster pace, you'll want shorter words (the words in English that are derived from Anglo-Saxon tend to be one syllable and are often more concrete), shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs. For a slower pace, you might use longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs. Dialogue tends to speed the pace while narrative slows it, which is another reason to have shorter paragraphs in action sequences where there's not a lot of dialogue. You want to keep the eye moving down the page and keep the pages turning more quickly.

Point of view will also affect pacing. If you're staying tight in a character's head, how much is going on will affect how much he notices. If he's running for his life or engaged in a verbal battle of wits with a sassy lady, he's probably not going to notice much extraneous stuff. His focus will be on the things that are immediately affecting him and what he should do about those things. In a less tense situation, the character may notice more, and that's where description can come in.

The ideal pacing is going to vary by audience and genre. Books for younger readers generally need faster pacing. Action-oriented genres like thrillers or some science fiction require a faster pace. The romance genre has entirely different pacing expectations with a much higher sequel-to-scene ratio because one of the appeals of that genre is delving into the characters' emotions. You may even have two sequels to a major scene because you get the scene viewpoint character's emotional reaction immediately following the scene and then you'll get a separate sequel from the viewpoint of the other character so you'll know how that character is reacting emotionally. It's a good idea to read as much as possible in your chosen genre so you can get a sense of the pacing expectations (and if you're really analytical you may think of a way to chart the rising and falling action). But make sure that your research reading is recent. Pacing expectations have changed significantly over time, and today's books are much faster-paced than even those published ten years ago. Attention spans today are much shorter, so that a 20-year-old book practically reads like a Victorian novel in comparison to today's books.

Are there any other writing-related topics you want me to tackle?

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