No, I’m not talking about how fast you write, walk, or work. Today we’re talking about narrative pacing, or how fast your story feels.
5. It’s About Them Feels
Unlike commas (which have rules often non-intuitive and aren’t well-predicted by feelings), pace is almost entirely subjective. It’s about how quickly a piece of prose seems to go by relative to the amount of time spent reading. It’s something vague, and it’s not something I’ve yet heard many editors focus on despite the importance it has on the book’s feeling and success.
What’s worse? You almost can’t determine pace of your own work. My pacing disaster is characterization-based. I’m a plot person, through and through, and it shows in most of what I write. American Chimera was written in part as a way to explore character and setting in a format that forced me to do it. Without that forcing myself, I often make characters that are mere plot vehicles. That means my pace errs on the side of too fast. It’s important I know this so I can improve in the future.
From beta reading, though, I think it’s equally likely for pacing to swing the other direction and be too slow. Here’s some signs to look for when determining if you could improve a scene’s pacing:
Signs of Good Pacing
- You wonder where the time went – and why you read so long – but in a good way
- You don’t have any confusion about what happened in a scene
- You read every word
- You were never bored
Signs of Slow Pacing
- You feel tempted to skip a sentence/paragraph/page
- You can skip a sentence/paragraph/page and not lose track of the story
- A slight hint of boredom; even if you think it’s because you’re re-reading, there’s the possibility you could improve pacing
- Though not a sure-fire tool, lengthy paragraphs can be a sign of slow pacing
Signs of Fast Pacing
- Slight confusion (especially with beta readers)
- A feeling something is missing
- The events are hard to keep up with
- No single event in a scene feels important because there are too many important events
4. Dialogue vs. Narrative vs. Philosophical Diatribe vs. Math
When working your pace, the length of paragraphs, sentences, scenes, and chapters all determine the speed at which the reader feels. The fastest flow is with dialogue. I found this example by Joanne the Geek of a story written entirely in dialogue. It’s very short, but it gets across a LOT of information and is understandable. Entirely dialogue flash fiction is a good tool to have in your pocket, especially if you can pull off giving the characters distinct tone (which is something Joanne did well).
Shorts, novellas, and novels all have different rules from flash. Dialogue can sometimes be fast enough that information is lost. It’s full of telling rather than showing, for obvious reasons, which can lead a reader away from immersion in the story.
This is where narrative comes in. Narrative is the bit where action happens, some introspection, and most descriptions of environment or characters. It’s the bit where the story’s mind tells what it sees. In our heads, we remember life events and scenes complete with feelings and analysis (was it fun? did it taste good? did I love that person?) even if we don’t realize it. That narrative voice helps give life to a scene.
The narrative voice can also go too far. Spend too long describing a small piece, and you’ll stagnate. Or, worse… wax political or philosophical.
Unless you’re writing Atlas Shrugged or some other political treatise, you’ll at best stroke the egos of readers that agree with you and piss off the readers that disagree. That’s at best. It’s also possible that the metaphysical arguments or blatant discourse about political or philosophical items will become boring. If someone’s looking for fiction and finds philosophy, there’s a good chance the passage will feel dense and slow to them. That was my experience with Atlas Shrugged.
There’s one item that is even slower than philosophical or political diatribes: math.
Don’t do it. Even in engineering school we’re taught to avoid putting equations in a presentation unless absolutely necessary, and that’s presenting to people who enjoy math. Don’t make bets that your audience will consist of people who love math enough to enjoy paragraphs about it.
3. One Scene, Two Purposes
One important method to make sure you don’t slow down too much is to make sure everything you write is important. In order to help ensure importance, give your scenes two purposes.
By two purposes, I mean use the scene to advance the plot and do one other thing. This “other thing” can be advancing a second plot, providing characterization, developing a worldbuilding element, or focusing on some literary device such as theme or symbol.
When you include two purposes side by side, the slower-paced items such as characterization or worldbuilding can be enhanced by inclusion with the faster-paced plot movement. You can balance things more readily. As well, having two goals in one scene makes it so that every piece has importance. If you divide the two goals into two different scenes, the scene exclusively dedicated to characterization is going to be slower. Sometimes a slower scene is good in order to de-escalate the tension after a mini-climax, but even in these slower scenes you want to accomplish enough goals and push in enough meat that a reader gets something from it.
Try it. Take a scene where you’ve done characterization exclusively, then try to jam it into a scene where you’re just doing plot. Once you start doing double duty, it gets much easier to do it again.
2. Don’t Hide Information
Subtlety is useful in cases where you’re building to a twist, but making small hints at information that are easily forgotten leads to exactly the problem you think it might have: it’s easily forgotten. If that forgotten hint comes up important later in the story, the reader could become either confused or disinterested. This moment of confusion can lead to a slow in the pace one takes in information, as a reader will have to start combing through earlier pages or they’ll be overly scrutinizing within the rest of the passage. Be less subtle with your hints, and the times of confusion will lessen.
At the same time, there’s the opposite problem: telling everything. If you throw too much information out there, what’s essential gets lost and nothing matters. To a lot of modern people, that’s the problem with books such as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Christo, or other 19th century works in which the authors drag on and on about things that don’t matter. You can get away with giving too much information at times in modern works, but it needs to have a reason.
1. Simplify the Story
Multiple plotlines, complicated backstories, symbols and themes and – oh my! So much to fit in, so little space!
Congruent with much of what I’ve already said, one of the easiest ways to make a story have great pace is to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Most people comfortably read at a level below 8th grade, and fiction is best when read comfortably. In addition to the need for understandable phrasing, words, and sentence structures, maintaining storylines and artistic moieties that are easy to understand (for your intended audience, I might add) is key.
Do you need multiple narrators to tell the story? What does this side-plot add? Does everything fold together, or do they remain as two separate tales throughout the book?
If a piece of information is not essential, consider cutting it. Kill your darlings, as it were.
You might also consider letting someone else read the book as a beta reader. This will help you know what parts they liked, if nothing else, and may help you determine if one storyline didn’t add to the overall quality of the book. Don’t be to attached to any scene being in the final version of the book before it’s time to ship out and sell.
How do you handle pacing in your stories? Any hints, especially for flash or blog-oriented things? Tell us what you’ve got in the comments!