How to Perfect Your Novel’s Pacing – A Powerful Guide

How to Perfect Your Novel’s Pacing – A Powerful Guide

Pacing is one of the most discussed story structure elements. Everyone knows about it. (We learn about it in high school English class along with tone and atmosphere.) But even if we didn’t study it, it’s an intrinsic piece of storytelling we subconsciously recognize.

How many times have you walked out of a movie and complained that a section dragged? Or looked at your watch and realized an entire film blew by at lightning speed?

Put simply, pacing is the speed at which a story is told. Pacing controls the story’s rhythm and flow. And like many of the other big ticket tools in a writer’s belt (such as voice, tone and atmosphere) many elements at many levels of the writing process can affect your pacing.

Pacing is heavily affected by story structure because the way you tell a story often defines its speed. The biggest and most obvious affect on a story’s pacing is where the chapter and scene breaks take place. But pace can also be affected on a much smaller scale by paragraph and sentence breaks.

Ever notice how authors tend to use short, staccato sentences during action scenes? This is because it makes the story feel faster, even if it hasn’t actually sped up.

One of the primary tools of pacing is tension. The more urgently a reader wants to discover what happens, the faster they are likely to devour the tale. But you can also use tension to prolong specific moments. Kind of like bullet time in a movie. Or when you know something bad is going to happen in a horror story, but you just aren’t sure when.

This makes pacing an extremely important part of any story you write.

Fast is Good, but Slow is Bad

I decided to write this post after one of my beta readers messaged me. He thanked me for the pace at which my novels tend to move, and explained that he was reading a book that seemed mostly to spin in circles. All of the plot appeared to be crammed into the last 40 – 50 pages.

As soon as he said it, I realized that I have read several novels that fit the same description. (And some of them are traditionally published by big name authors.) Despite warning new authors away from getting bogged down in the descriptions of day to day lifestyles in their fantasy or sci-fi worlds, it turns out I’ve read several books that do exactly that. I can’t actually count the number of times I’ve approached the end of a book and wondered if the author has left enough time to actually finish the story.

This led me to wonder what causes this sensation of drag. Aside from a desire to include all of the millions of things an author researches in order to write one or two sentences about a certain aspect of fantasy life. Because believe me, I understand the pain of leaving pages and pages of world building unviewed by readers.

I think it’s important to have discussions like this because story structure was one of the things that confused me most as a young writer. And if I hadn’t encountered several negative examples in the wild, I think I probably would have fallen into a lot of these pits myself.

Here are some common pacing problems, and hopefully how to solve them.

The Problem of Saggy Middle

Ever read a book that seemed to spin in circles until just before the end? Probably it started out great. The main character was faced with a problem and set off to tackle it. But then the path went cold. The characters might have wandered in circles, retreading old ground for awhile. Or they may have gotten stuck until some event or luck pushed them toward the final resolution.

Most writers call this ‘saggy middle.’

What causes it? Usually spinning in circles means the writer missed a plot point. Most commonly the midpoint turn (hence saggy middle). Possibly they had a really strong idea for their inciting incident and climax, but no idea how to connect the two.

Sometimes the missing plot point is subtle, but it makes the lead up to the climax feel disjointed or bleeds the tension from the final confrontation.

If it feels like your characters are just doing busy work or getting distracted, you might have a case of saggy middle.

Sometimes characters do get sidetracked during a quest by unexpected events – that’s not a bad thing. Especially if those unexpected events change the way the main plot unfolds. This represents the main difference between a solidly paced plot and a saggy middle.

Everything your characters experience along the road of their journey should eventually tie into the main plot somehow. Whether it delays the main climax, introduces a problem or obstacle that needs to be overcome, or just changes the way your characters think. Take a look at each of your scenes and ask how it fits into the overarching plot.

If you can’t find a structural purpose for your scene, you may have missed a plot point leading up to it. This can apply to individual character arcs as well.

Tight Pacing is Important

Stories – novels especially – are complex tapestries with a lot of threads and moving parts. This is why it takes multiple passes to pay proper attention to everything.

If you’re writing an epic tale with several main characters, each is going to have a plot arc, and each of those plots will need to be woven into the pace of the main story – which is tricky.

My betas recently caught a lost thread in one of my stories. I have an important romantic subplot. This relationship becomes an important part of the story later, so I need it to hit hard.

But it didn’t.

I dropped a thread and missed a plot point. It’s not the first time; I encountered a lot of dangling threads when I rewrote my Celestial Serenade series.

How do you keep track of plot pacing when you have a large cast of characters and everything is happening at a different speed?

I don’t know if there’s an official method, but I use something I call ‘tracing the character arcs.’

Remember the plot graph? Each of your characters with a major plot or subplot will experience a smaller one. They will have their own inciting incident, midpoint turn and climax – though these may or may not line up with the main plot points.

If you ignore the main plot for a second and simply trace the rises and falls in each character’s plot, you might find that you skipped a step. By making sure each character is properly exploring their problem and experiencing a change, you can usually locate the dangling thread and weave it back into the main tapestry.

Keeping each of your side plots tight will keep the pacing of your main plot tight as well.

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