Pacing is often an overlooked, sometimes seemingly magic, element to a good book. It can keep readers at the edge of their seat, calm them from high intensity scenes, and drive them to turn the page. Yet, if it’s not done well, it can exhaust your audience, bore them, or make them forget all about picking up your book after a break.
It’s important to remember that pacing is not necessarily action and that each genre has its own expectations. It also doesn’t mean how fast or slow someone reads the book. Pacing is the rhythm, the flow, and the feel of the book. What does that mean? A family drama will feel slower, more reserved, than an action adventure. The pages will still turn, the reader still wants to know what happens next, but they are vastly different in their rhythm and flow.
There is a point though, where the pacing can be too slow or too fast. Sluggish pacing can bore a reader. Slow scenes usually have little going on and are filled with exposition that doesn’t drive the story forward. It might also have little change in the value of the scene, meaning it starts on a positive note and stays that way, instead of ending on a negative note (value changes are for another post). Sometimes these scenes are filled with back-story or description. Again, the main issue is not that it isn’t filled with action, interpersonal and internal conflicts are viable, it’s that it doesn’t move the plot forward.
The opposite could be said about a book that has a volley of rapid scenes. If the action is too quick, important elements can get lost. There is a cost to having scene after scene of action. Readers need a break to process what the action is about and what it means. Take the Transformer movies for example. While exciting to watch, the audience doesn’t get a break; important information is lost in the din.
When I look at a book that is poorly paced, I pay close attention to the value of a scene. That is, how did it start (positive or negative) and how did it end. Then I take a look at how many of the scenes share the same value and if they are in a predictable order or not. Hint: they shouldn’t be too predictable. I’ll suggest rearranging information, scenes or complications to give the story a better flow for the genre.
Progressing complications is also a great way to figure out pacing. As the story unfolds from beginning to end, the conflict or complications should increase, never decrease. A character who breaks their arm in scene four shouldn’t then have a major complication of a stubbed toe in scene seven. When self-editing, another thing to look for is repetitive complications. Each issue can only work once without the reader getting bored.
The point in pacing is to get the reader to smoothly move forward with the story but in a surprising way. The reader thinks they know what to expect but aren’t jarred when it’s something unexpected.
Pacing doesn’t have to be difficult, but done right and it will help create the emotional pay-off that readers are looking for. When you’ve done all you can, I can help you increase or decrease the pacing where your story needs.
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