Pacing: Tips and Tricks

by, Alex Yuschik

Some stories take a while to set up, others don’t, and both can be fine as long as they hold a reader’s interest. Pacing is kinda nebulous. It’s a way to describe the flow of action and events that take place in a manuscript from a bird’s eye view. If a story is fast-paced, then there are a lot of things happening, maybe a lot of emotionally engagement going on that sucks the reader in. A slower paced story might mean that there’s a lot more set-up happening with less action, which isn’t unusual for fantasy or sci-fi pieces, where worldbuilding needs to happen and the reader expects the flow of the action to slow down as they’re given new information.

The scenario that you don’t want to happen (obviously) is for a reader to get bored and put down your book. Every book has its slow spots, but not enough action can make reading difficult– how many people want to read through endless info-dumps or explanations? Still, it’s not like you don’t need those things in your book. Somehow, your reader has to know what a plasmadrive does and how dangerous it is to use untrained, and somehow you have to express complicated emotional turmoil without losing a reader’s interest.

Pacing’s really annoying to spot as an author doing edits on your own work– usually, your best bet with this is to have a trusty and stalwart group of betas or CPs to tell you where things slow down. Still, if you don’t have readers yet or you want to polish your manuscript up as much as possible before sending it out to them, here are a few tips and tricks to bring action into your slow scenes and even out the pacing.

Multipurpose your scenes. You have a limited number of scenes to work with– just like how, in your query letter, every word pulls its own weight and sometimes double that, think about having there be multiple goals to be accomplished in a scene. Like: does the scene you’re working on bring the protagonist closer to discovering something he/she needs to know, or help put things in place for the main conflict and climax? Do you introduce a new character? Show another side of your MC? Add in backstory?

Make a list of everything you want to accomplish in one scene, and do this for all the scenes you have. Make each scene fight to be in your manuscript. If the action of the scene is some poor hapless guy with lock picks and no idea how to use them, then make sure you slip in information about backstory and have the characters flirt over and under the action.

Raise the stakes each time. Okay, you hear this a lot. What does this actually mean? If we don’t feel like the characters are in some fresh danger, then what’s keeping us reading? Oh, Becca’s facing human-sized robo-spiders? Big deal, last chapter she figured out how to defeat them without breaking a sweat.

Make the challenges incrementally more challenging. Just like in real life, once you learn how to handle stress at one level, life amps it up and forces you to learn to handle a higher level of stress (lol, can you tell it’s getting close to midterm exams?). Your antagonist learns, too. Oh, the robo-spiders didn’t work? That’s okay, I’ll just send in my heat-seeking long-range missile-spiders that are twice as hard to defeat.

Add in Beats. A beat is an action that takes place while a character is speaking. Example: “Oh sure, that’s easy for you to say.” Gemma smacked the keys on her laptop with righteous fury. “You don’t have to recode this script on a boat with crappy wifi.”

Sometimes, you just need to let people talk. Maybe your characters have been running from the law in all kinds of chase finery and pulling mad shenanigans and it’s time to take a breath before diving back in. Maybe you really need to explain that Gemma’s mad programming skills can open portals through space-time. While dialogue is awesome and makes up most of novels, it can also get really boring to have your characters sit around all the time. So, yeah, that space-time portal conversation needs to happen, but maybe your characters have to struggle with piloting a souped-up motor boat for their escape vehicle as they suss it out.

Ask yourself where you’d put your story down. When I was a little kid reading books, I would deliberately get all the characters to a safe place and and then stop reading (either for the night or just stop forever, if I wasn’t that into it). Sure, there are going to be oases of calm (too much being slung from heart-pounding action scene to heart-pounding action scene can wear anyone out) but make sure that there’s tension in another way that pushes the reader on. Something that, even if they do put the book down eventually, they’ll still feel like they need to keep reading in order to figure out.

Maybe your characters are finally off their motoboat escape and into freedom. They’ve reached a safehouse where they can collect their thoughts without the authorities catching up for at least a little while. Sneak in tension of different kinds. Okay, so they’re not going to get caught, but does their romantic attraction come to a head now that they have time to catch their breath? Do they find that they’re born on the same day or some other odd and sinister foreshadowing? Let up on one kind of tension and add in a different kind.

Your reader is smart. I know, I know! I have said this before, and will always be saying it until the end of forever because it just keeps on being true. Resist the urge to explain everything. Your reader is also a human (yay humans!) and they’ll pick up on the cues you leave them. There’s only so many things that stammering and blushing and sweaty hands can imply. If you don’t want readers to pick up on something, then don’t have your MC notice it as much. Keep in mind that over-explaining emotions and events is going to turn people off. No one reading a book wants to have conclusions handed to them.

Readers want to feel like they’re doing something when they read, like they’re the ones putting together the story in their heads. No one reads a book to have an author hand them a fully-formed Athena of character development. They want to connect the dots themselves (hence this show don’t tell business). The reason people read Harry Potter (well, one of many, obvs) isn’t because they NEED to have JKR tell them in pretty twelve-point type that Harry is brave enough to walk unarmed to his death– you read it because it’s awesome duhhh you want to put together the pieces of action and character development yourself, and see how a kid who lived under a cupboard and who no one thought was all that special can become an adult who saves basically everything.

These are some of the things I do to check my pacing when I revise– tell me about what works for you! I’d love to hear your thoughts and tricks.

Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing. You can find her on twitter @alexyuschik, or at her semi-updated personal blog.

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