Pacing: A Primer

30 Oct

I’ve been thinking about pacing a lot lately, as I’m revising my current work in progress, and pacing is always something I completely forget about in the first draft stage. Pacing is a really important element of writing fiction, and one many writers don’t really understand. So I decided to try to break it down.

Pacing to me refers to the speed of the action of the plot. If you think of that standard plot arc we’re all taught in school, the portion that takes the longest is the rising action. Once you reach the climax, the action quickly resolves and ends. That’s a truncated explanation of pacing. Pacing affects each scene as well as the entire plot. Here are some ways pacing can go wrong and what to do about them:

Problem #1: Too much backstory. Backstory is just what it sounds like—things that happened to the characters before the current story begins. Beginning writers notoriously include way too much backstory, which slows down the action of the story you’re trying to tell. Sometimes, though, the backstory is pretty important to understanding where the character is emotionally or physically. The trick is to balance these needs.

  • I would venture to say that you ought never to start your story with backstory. Get right into the current story. You can include important backstory bits as necessary.
  • Do not stop the action to give a long flashback or piece of information from the past. Backstory works best when woven into the current action.
  • Leave out all backstory in the first draft, then see if things make sense to your initial readers. If so, don’t even bother putting any of it in. If first readers don’t get a character’s motivation, for example, and a little backstory will help, then find a way to include it unobtrusively.

Problem #2: Rushing through a scene. This is something I am guilty of, especially in first drafts. If a scene is important enough for the story, it’s important enough to flesh out. I often find that I have summarized a scene rather than actually let it take place on the page.

  • One indicator of a rushed scene is one made up entirely of dialogue. You can slow down such a scene by giving the characters “beats” of action interspersed with the dialogue. You can also show the reader the main character’s thoughts, as well as the reactions of all the characters to what is being said.
  • Another indicator of rushing through a scene is the feeling a reader gets of not knowing where they are or what’s happening. Be sure to give your reader enough scene setting (without stopping the action for long paragraphs of description) to feel grounded and present in the scene with the characters.

Problem #3: A scene that moves too slowly or feels like nothing is happening. These can be scenes that are entirely dialogue, but they might also contain lots of moments in the character’s head while she’s thinking and deciding what to do next. Or they might be scenes full of backstory (see above) or full of description with no action. They might just be transitional scenes to get the characters from one scene to another.

  • Make sure every single scene in a story moves the story and the plot forward. A scene with character’s sitting around trying to decide what to do next might be realistic, but not interesting to read. I will often write these scenes in the first draft because I need them to understand where I’m going, but I cut them entirely in revision.
  • Avoid long descriptions, especially of what characters are wearing or their facial expressions, height, build, etc. One personal characteristic can give us much more insight into a character than what color her hair is. Does she bite her nails incessantly? Also avoid long descriptions of confusing places, as it just serves to confuse readers. If the character is trapped in a giant castle, we only need to see the immediate stone walls dripping with moss, not the entire layout of the castle.

Problem #4: Starting the story in the wrong place. This often involves starting with a bunch of backstory, most of which you can usually eliminate in revision. But it can also involve not really knowing where your story truly starts.

  • The best advice I’ve received as far as the beginning of a story is to start on the day everything changes for the character. But even this can be tricky. You want to give enough indication of what the character’s “normal” is before you get to what changes.
  • I used to always hear this advice: start with action. But more and more, I am finding that is not good advice. Yes, you don’t want to start with boredom, either, but often an action scene to open a story only serves to confuse the reader. They don’t know the characters yet, so they don’t care what happens in this death defying moment. First get the reader to care about your character.
  • Avoid starting with dialogue. Like action openings, we don’t know who’s talking, where they are, or what’s going on.
  • On the flip side, don’t spend so much time grounding us that we get bored.
  • I like books in which within the first two to three pages I see the main character and get a sense of who he/she is, have a sense of where we are, and can understand what the character’s conflict revolves around and why that is important to him/her.
  • Avoid beginnings that are dreams and then the character wakes up. The reader feels cheated.
  • Avoid beginning a story and then going back to a flashback to explain how we got here. (It sometimes works in movies, but only if done really well.)

Problem #5: An ending that drags on too long. Once the character has resolved whatever the conflict was, you can pretty much end the story. You don’t need to tie up everything in a tidy pink bow.

  • Leave the reader with a sense of what the character’s life will be like now, the “new normal” and that the character will be okay. Unless of course, you are writing horror or something.
  • Allow the reader enough uncertainty that we can imagine for ourselves what might happen if there were a next page.
  • Don’t try to explain every lesson learned or every plot point. Trust the reader to get it.

This is just a small portion of the revision that involves pacing. There are those murky middles, the endless horrific events problems in thrillers, and more. But if you follow these few guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to better pacing.

And don’t forget the amazing Plot Master Class with Cheryl Klein that will be held in Salt Lake City on November 17, sponsored by the Utah/southern Idaho region of SCBWI. More information can be found here:



6 responses to “Pacing: A Primer

  1. Janis McCurry

    October 30, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    Great points, Neysa. I’d add that Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey is also helpful with pacing.

  2. Judith Keim

    October 30, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    Excellent post, Neysa! All good points and reminders. I never get enough of them! Have fun at the meeting with Cheryl. She’s a wonderful editor and teacher! She was at a SCBWI meeting in Miami recently.

  3. Clarissa Southwick

    October 30, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    Good advice, Neysa. I thinking starting the story in the wrong place is one of those things that’s hard to see when you’re writing, but immediately obvious to critique partners. Good luck with your revisions!

  4. Peggy Staggs

    October 30, 2012 at 12:49 PM

    All good points. This is one to keep.

  5. maryvine

    October 30, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    Very helpful post, Neysa. Good to see as I’m editing. Thanks.

  6. MK Hutchins (@mkhutchins)

    October 31, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    I’m especially guilty of #2. I think the “start with action” works well in movies (shiny special effects!), and that somehow filters into books, where there is no SFX budget. I love how you phrased so many of these as a balancing act — no description is just as bad as florid pages of it.


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