Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pacing your novel

Paula thinks about pacing

Pacing, according to the various definitions I’ve read, means keeping the story and the characters moving forward. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But how many times have you read books that have detailed descriptions of people or places or – even worse – huge chunks of backstory that bring the story to a standstill, or send it backwards? Have many times have you read conversations between the characters that are so inconsequential that they don’t add anything to the story?

I have struggled with my current ‘work in progress’. Instinct told me something wasn’t right although I couldn’t put my finger on it for a long time. It was only when I did the pre-publication final edits for ‘Irish Inheritance’ that I realised what was wrong with my WIP.

I hadn’t read through ‘Irish Inheritance’ since I submitted it last September, and so, when I came to do the edits, I was distanced from it. Reading through it again, even I could sense that it had that elusive ‘pacing’ and was a page turner. This has been confirmed by the many comments I’ve received, saying, ‘I couldn’t put it down’, which, of course, is wonderful music to a writer’s ears.

I realised my current story lacked that kind of pacing – the moving forward all the time, as well as the plot twists that makes a reader want to keep reading, I was delighted when one of my readers ‘complained’ I had kept her up late because she had to read ‘just a bit more’ until she got to the end of the book!

This made me start to analyse what ‘pacing’ actually means. My stories usually pace themselves. I don’t consciously pace them so maybe it’s some kind of instinct, and this was why, with my current story, my instinct was telling me something was wrong with it.

So what is pacing? Some people would say ‘action’, but that word gives the wrong impression. Readers will get worn out if too many different events rain down on the characters. I remember feeling like that when I read Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’. I had to stop reading at one point, simply because I was exhausted by too many events happening too quickly.

‘Action’ doesn’t have to be some big, dramatic twist in the plot, or even any actual ‘activity’. ‘Movement’ or ‘Development’ may be better words to use. Every scene, every conversation, should move the story forward. If a scene doesn’t contribute to the development of the plot or the characters in some way, delete it. Similarly with conversations, although this may be more subtle. Conversations between characters can obviously move the plot forward, but they can also reveal more about a character or the relationship between two characters. However, if conversations don't do this, delete them! My characters do tend to talk too much at times, and I’ve deleted or shortened more conversations than I can remember when I’ve been going through the first drafts of my own novels and cut out any irrelevant parts of those conversations.

Pacing also includes the rhythm of the novel. If all the scenes proceed at the same ‘speed’, the story can become too active or too monotonous, Therefore, changes of pace are necessary at times. After a dramatic or intensely emotional scene, the characters (and the readers too) need time to catch their breaths – but, of course, any ‘quieter’ scenes still need to contribute in some way to the story as a whole. Beware the 'filler' scenes that do nothing to advance the plot!

I’m sure we all have our own ideas about what contributes to the successful pacing of a novel. These are a few of mine, and I’ll be interested to know yours.


  1. I wish I had a specific set of guidelines to use for pacing, but I find it's an internal thing. I just know if it's good or bad when I read it (usually). I like to compare it to a comedy routine. You have to get the timing down for the routine to be funny. Same thing with a book.

  2. Agree about it being an internal thing, Jen, and I like the comparison with timing. When it's instinctive, it's not easy to define - you just 'know' when it's right, and also when it's not!

  3. A good piece Paula, I agree with you about instinct. When reading over my work, if it feels boring or tiring, it usually is, which means the pace or rhythm of the story is off. Listening to your own gut feeling goes along way with getting it right in the story. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Mary, thanks for visiting us here. I've found that gut feeling is often the most reliable guide to getting it right. If it 'feels ' wrong, then it probably is!

  5. I have been taking a workshop called Deep Story that deals, in part, with pacing specifically for romance stories. I'm loving it as I rewrite my first WIP inserting deep character motivation (my weak spot) .
    I learned that the hero can be the protagonist of a romance. He's often the person that needs to do the most changing. He's the character that the heroine (and the readers) want to rescue and love.

  6. Must admit I hate the idea of a heroine wanting to 'rescue' a hero, Ana. 'Rescuing' implies one is stronger than the other, and wanting to 'rescue' a hero implies he is weak. Yikes, no way!I prefer to think of my hero and heroine as equals, and both having to adjust and change as they draw closer to each other. However, they do it themselves from their own strength of character, not because one helps to 'change' the other. That, to me, is a 1980s type of romance, not a modern one!