Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thoughts on pacing-- nothing brilliant

Pacing is really a measure of how frequently important plot events happen in your story, how closely occurring they are. So in a fast pace, these events come more often and closer together than in a leisurely pace.

A few caveats:

1) Plot events that affect pacing are usually external, that is, important things happening in the external plot. This is one reason you’ll often find a fast pace in a plot-driven (non-character-driven) book.

2) Fast is not the only pace. There is “a leisurely pace” and “a measured pace” too, and those are good paces. But this isn’t genre-dependent so much as sub-genre-dependent—that is, within the “crime-novel” genre, the pace of a thriller is usually fast, while the pace of a suspense novel is usually more measured.

3) Why? I think that novels that are meant to inspire particular emotion—that is, horror novels, romance, suspense, and comedy—might need more time BETWEEN events to nurture the emotional response to events. In fact, that emotional response is often just as or more important to the story than the event itself.

Adapting your story to the sub-genre’s conventional pace is probably helpful in selling it.

The most important events for pacing are those turning points we were talking about, because they are the events that chart the path of your plot, and are the ones that determine when and in what direction that path changes. But between those major events are other events, and these are creators of pace too. Generally, the more events you have between turning points, the faster your pace will be. Some other considerations:

1) Placement is important. When you place a pacing event at the end of a scene—right before the scene ends—you are signaling to the reader that it’s important. The short pause—the white space, the change in time and setting—that usually comes with a scene change reinforces the importance and drama by giving the reader a moment to think about it.

2) So the purpose of the end placement might differ depending on the pace, and that might also modify how the event is presented. The goal of this in a fast-paced book is to give the reader incentive to quickly turn the page to find out what happens. That is more likely if the event poses a question, like “Will he survive that fall off the cliff?”

But if you want to create suspense or some other emotion, you might want the reader to linger there in the “old scene,” perhaps even re-read that last paragraph or two and relive the event before moving on. So in that case, the event might end on a some seeming conclusion: “He’s dead.” Or it might end with an emotional revelation or expression: “I can’t fight it anymore. I love you.” Obviously, causing the reader to stop and think and re-read will slow down the pacing… but that’s not a bad thing for emotion novels.

By the way, notice that the ending placement is a signal to the reader that “this is important!” If you want the reader to note the event but move on without really marking it, as often comes up in a mystery, where do you place the event? In the middle of the scene.

3) One feature of suspense-scening (and I don’t just mean in suspense novels, but any novel, including comic novels, where you want the reader to mark an event and respond to it, but without the drama and frenetic need to know—when an event’s repercussions might take place over the next several scenes, or be suspended for a few scenes) is that the event is often deceptively trivial. That is, it might just seem like a secret admirer has left Joanie a romantic gift, but the reader (if not Joanie) might sense that there’s something vaguely threatening in the gift. This can be accomplished by presentation.

First, placing this at the end of a scene tells the reader it’s important. Also, you can vary the language and selection of descriptive detail slightly to hint at something darker, something beyond Joanie’s own puzzled pleasure (one of the flowers in the bouquet is dead, and she notes this and pays it no mind, or she sets the bouquet on a desk under the window where can be seen a gathering of rainclouds, or she runs to get a glass of water to add to the bouquet and the faucet is stuck). The reader will note this and be emotionally affected, but not know exactly why—that creates suspense. (Remember, comic scene structure is very akin to suspense scene structure, because both rely on postponement to create emotion but also the suspension of emotion which will explode later.) This will lead to a more measured pace, as you build up the emotion in the reader over several scenes.

4) In contrast, in fast-paced thrillers and adventure novels, you want to make those scene-ending events unmistakably dramatic, so that the reader has no doubt that This Is Important Right Now. Again, placement at the end will help accomplish this, but that’s not enough. You need perhaps more dramatic language and description around it, maybe even dramatic pronouncements like, “He was the last man she wanted to see,” or “Mark didn’t have any choice. He had to stop that explosion.” This is somewhere detail really matters, so write the scene and the event, then go back and think about whether you want the light translucent or glaring, and if you want him to jam his hands in his pocket or grab that hammer, or if the object is described as smooth or bulky. Your choice of details can actually help the reader know whether to linger here or pelt onward to the next scene.

5) For real drama (a turning point or a cliffhanger), create an event that poses the question and then have a chapter break; that is, place this not just at the end of a scene but at the end of the chapter, so that reader feels that frenetic frustration as the white space at the end of the chapter becomes an obstacle to Finding Out. That is a mark of fast pace—that the reader wants desperately to Find Out.

6) With a fast-paced novel, you do probably want to answer that question or complete that action or show the reaction soon—definitely in the next scene, maybe in the first part of the scene. Why? Well, the point isn’t to frustrate and enmesh the reader, but to keep the reader moving on, so there should be an expectation of another event, another question, another cliffhanger, coming up quickly. So resolving the previous scene’s question makes way for the next one.

Oh, you’re probably noticing an opportunity here—if you want to pull an end run, a reversal, a trick, play with this. Say at end of Chapter 14, someone is arrested for the murder. You can keep the reader reading past this seeming conclusion first by having the arrest happen at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning of the next, that is, the arrest is the question, not the answer. Also you can play with the convention (and signal that This Isn’t It) by suspending (postponing) the actual consequence, by waiting till the start of the new scene not to resolve this (protagonist breathes a sigh of relief) but to plant doubts (protagonist is haunted by the one thread that wasn’t wrapped up). That sets up the dread in the reader that something is wrong, that this isn’t finished… but she’ll have to keep reading to find out.

Okay, those are just some thoughts. Notice I’m not focusing much at all on what the events ought to be, rather more about placement and presentation. That’s because I think those are key to pacing, and fortunately, are easy to manipulate. We are fortunate that we have readers well-trained in “story grammar,” who respond with gratifying swiftness and accuracy to structural cues. So, as always, figure out what works for you when you’re reading—what makes you frantically flip that page, or linger and re-read—and apply that knowledge to your own story. Pacing isn’t really about WHAT happens, but how whatever happens is presented, and while your muse and id and dark inner demons might dictate the what (and many thanks for that!), your conscious mind can be in control of the how.

Let’s think of “deceptively trivial but actually important” events for the measured pace, and maybe some “question-creating events” for the faster pace. Thoughts? Suggestions?



Anna said...

Great post! I think a lot of people look at pacing as "What should I make happen next?" I like that you make the distinction that pacing is about placement and emphasis, not about the actual event.

Vonna said...

Well, you might think this was nothing brilliant, but I do. I've copied this post to keep for reference and to share with my critique group. I especially liked the observation of leaving white space to give the reader time to ponder the scene and gather an emotional response before moving on.

Livia said...

Thanks for this. Alot of people cover the "Must find out" kind of pacing, but fewer people have talked about the lingering emotional type of pacing.

Jami G. said...


I agree. There's a subtle difference between the fast and measured pacing methods I hadn't thought about before. I have one scene in my WIP that I wanted to end in one spot for that lingering "This is important effect", but that messes up the starting point of the next scene. Now that I understand the why it seemed better the measured way, I know I need to think more about how to make that next scene work anyway and not just mush them together because it's "easier". :)

Thanks, Alicia! I think I tend to use the faster pacing approach at chapter breaks (when you don't want to make it convenient for the reader to put down the book. :) ), and I do the measured approach for other scene breaks.

Jami G.

storm grant said...

This really clarified a lot for me. Thanks so much!