|There we go. That's nice, isn't it?|
A quick disclaimer: anytime you're reading writing advice, you should be aware that it comes with a bias, and that these things are all subjective. One person's idea of good writing isn't another's, what's good for one genre isn't necessarily good for another, and so on and so forth. So, my bias? I write commercial fiction, I don't think "commercial" is a dirty word, and slow-moving books like, say, MOBY DICK, make me want to bash my head into the wall. I also write YA largely because, as a very general rule, they tend to be quicker paced, and I love that. Another disclaimer: pacing is a HUGE topic, so obviously this isn't a rundown of How to Have Great Pacing in Every Book You Write. It's more of a general overview, some ideas, tips, tricks, etc...
Anyway, I've decided to break this down into three sections: Overall pacing, chapter pacing, and sentence level pacing. Being aware of all of these things will hopefully help you to better keep readers flipping the pages--while at the same time not moving so overwhelmingly quickly that you lose them, as that's just as important. To me, pacing is a sort of precarious balancing act--it's up to you as the writer to find the right "balance" for your particular story, but my goal with this post is to at least give you a starting point.
- A large portion of genre fiction (again, what I have experience writing) adheres to the trusted "three-act-structure" that you've all probably heard of before. You've probably seen that diagram too, with the triangle or whatever, representing things such as set-up, confrontation, and resolution. It seems formulaic (does my story really have to follow this? I want to be different! blah blah), and that's because it is. And I don't think a well-plotted and paced story has to adhere completely to this structure, but it is a good reference point. An even better reference, perhaps, is this beat sheet for novels, based on the popular Save the Cat! book on screenwriting. You can use this as a rough guide to see if you're taking too long to introduce your main conflict, your characters, to prevent sagging middles, etc... It's helpful if you're an outliner/plotter like me, but you could also use it during revision when you're tightening things up.
- Balance, balance, balance. As I mentioned before, good pacing doesn't necessarily mean faster faster faster. It means alternating between slowing down and speeding up, keeping readers excited but also allowing them to catch their breath every now and then. Action and explosions and gunfights are all well and good, but if we don't get the chance to slow down and connect with your characters, then no one's going to care whether they survive all that action or not. And in the end, even if readers make it all the way to the end of your book, if it's all action and no substance, then they probably aren't going to remember anything about it a week later. Think of action scenes like fireworks: they explode into the book, dazzle the reader and keep their attention, but they fade quickly to smoke, and then to nothing. When I think back to last fourth of July, mostly I remember the people I watched the fireworks with, our conversations, the thoughts I had while sitting in the wet grass, etc...--so don't leave those parts out!
- Starting and ending your chapters in the right place is a great way to keep your story moving forward at an engaging pace. One piece of advice I try to stick to when deciding on chapter structure is to "start as late as you can and get out as early as you can". Look at your WIP's chapters. Do they sort of meander a bit before getting to the meat of the scene(s)? Do they ramble on at the end? I'm guilty of doing both of those things, a lot. Whenever I'm trying to cut words from a manuscript, this is a great place to look for "filler" words that can probably go. Think of chapter breaks as scene breaks in a movie; and the great thing about scene breaks is that you can pick up wherever you need to (with the proper sentence or two of transition, of course). It's harder to jump around time-frame wise in the middle of chapters, but readers will be less thrown off if you do it on a chapter level, so use that to your advantage!
- Cliff-hangers at the end of chapters are a great tool to use--just be careful about overdoing it, because it can start to feel melodramatic and cheesy. Try alternating the level of cliffhanger you use--some can be big and dramatic (your main character turning and finding themselves with a gun pointed at them), whereas others might just be little questions or "hooks" that you plant in the readers mind (your mc wondering if she's ever going to see his/her lost love again).
- Readers should finish every chapter thinking that something about the story, the character, the world of the book, etc... has been irrevocably changed. Call it the "Law of Escalation". Things should constantly be in a state of flux for your character. They may move one step forward every now and then, but then they fall two steps back, over and over until they reach that ultimate low point and your story's eventual climax. If things start to feel static, you run the risk of drifting attention spans and people closing your book and never opening it again.
Sentence Level Pacing
I love flourishing as much as any writer when a scene calls for it, but in general, concise and efficient writing can go a long way towards keeping readers interested. Unless you're going for things like atmosphere, the occasional well-placed emotional melt-down, etc...(and even sometimes in those cases) don't use twenty words when you can say the same thing with five. Every single one of your words should pull as much weight as possible, and anytime sentences can do double duty, it's usually a good thing. What I mean by double is, say you're describing setting. Instead of just a static, straightforward description like
"The rug was an awful shade of army green, and it smelled like cigarettes."
Consider tying that description in with a bit of characterization, backstory, etc...
"The rug was the same army green color of the jacket my father used to wear--it even shared his trademark cigarette smell, which made me want to gag."
A quick, terriblish example, but notice how the second sentence does more than one thing, while still conveying the setting details. That's efficient writing, and as an added bonus it generally gives the work a more collected, intricate feel.
A caveat to this: the first example has a place too. If you're writing a really really tense scene, then you probably don't actually want to bog it down with your character's memories, thoughts, etc... too much, because then it becomes unrealistic. If your character just walked into a gunfight, they probably aren't going to be reminiscing about how the wallpaper in the room reminds them of their childhood home (unless they fall into the category of Too-Stupid-To-Live). They probably aren't going to notice much about the setting at all, actually. It just comes down to knowing your story, and knowing what you're trying to accomplish with each scene you're writing.
So, a lot of it's on you to interpret, in other words-- but I've made one last thing to help you out: a chart. Hooray charts! This will maybe give you something concrete to reference if you've got a section that feels too slow or too fast, and you need to edit accordingly.
Stefanie Gaither writes YA novels about killer clones and spaceships, with the occasional romp with dragons and magic-users thrown in for good measure. Said writing is generally fueled by an obscene amount of coffee and chocolate, as well as the occasional tennis and/or soccer break. She's represented by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary, and her debut novel, FALLS THE SHADOW, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2014. You can add it on Goodreads here!
You can find her on Twitter @: https://twitter.com/stefaniegaither
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