Pacing is one of the hardest things about writing a novel. Whether you are a Pantser or a Planner, it can be difficult to manage the tension between making interesting events happen and giving your characters time to react.
If you are going for highly unrealistic action adventures where characters get repeatedly punched in the face only to get up and sprint a mile, you can skip this post and read one of my short stories instead. Try Clown Boutique Fairytale – it was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
However, if – like me – you are keen to nestle your weird and wonderful ideas in a modicum of reality, read on…
I am a planner. I’ve admitted to this before and I’m sure I’ll have to confess to this a thousand more times in the future. I’ll explain how I manage pacing as a planner. I plan it in. No kidding. I work out what is going to be interesting about each chapter before I write it. If it’s going to be an ‘events’ chapter, where something plotty happens, I’m sorted just describing that action. If it’s going to be a chapter during which a character develops, maybe realising something about themselves or another character, that is a bit more of a lengthy explanation in my plan.
If you are a Pantser? I’m not exactly sure, so you could always comment and let me know what you do. I know how you can fix a pacing issue after it occurs, so let me tell you about that…
Fixing pacing after the fact is all to do with quality editing. When you read your work back, preferably after setting it aside for a while to give you much-needed distance, pacing issues may well leap out at you of their own accord. If not, look for the following:
- Things happening too fast. You need to give your characters time to assimilate new information. How would you react if you just found out that your arch-enemy is actually your father? Give your character time to think about it and reassess their lives accordingly
- Things happening too slowly. If you find yourself with a chapter in which nothing of note happens, you have two options: a) cut the whole chapter or b) salvage it by including a piece of life philosophy or an idea you have always had about something relevant. The queen of this, in my opinion, is Anne Tyler. She manages to put very small but very real observations throughout her novels to keep them ticking along and give depth to her characters.
- Write well at the word- or sentence-level. Sometimes whole books get away with this. Take another look at The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It’s not truly literary fiction. What is its underlying message about something larger – like humanity? It doesn’t really have one, but Tartt – in true magician genius fashion – managed to get people to overlook or forget this by writing really well throughout.
Good luck with your writing and let me know if you think I’ve missed anything out. Particularly you Pantsers; I need you to even out my terrible planning tendencies.