Episode 26: Pacing: How to Get it Right
Hello all you writerly people, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
Today I'm talking about pacing. Why? Because I like to talk about my weaknesses. How else do we get stronger, right?
First, let's talk about what pacing actually is. "Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told" (Carpenter 2012). In other words, it's how fast or slow you make things happen in your narrative. The pacing in my first drafts (referred to some as the zero draft) is always at lightspeed. Things happen fast and then the book is done. This is why I'm always 30k-40k words under industry standard. I guess my first draft is really my outline. My very in-depth outline. It takes me 3 - 4 drafts before I have the pacing and story just right.
Last term my professor commented on my outline that I don't have enough action in Act II of my historical fiction/thesis novel. If you look at my work through the eyes of someone who writes plot-driven narratives you will always believe that my pacing is too slow. That's because I don't write plot-driven or action-driven narratives. I focus on conflict and characters. In other words, I don't have a ton of physical action in my stories.
"Now, hold on there, missy," you might be saying. "Conflict is pacing. It drives it."
You would be right. If you were saying that. Also, don't call me missy.
With great conflict comes swifter pacing, at least for that scene. You're raising the stakes for your character, putting them in the hot seat and making them squirm, and if you're very good at it you're making your readers squirm too.
K.M. Weiland says, "writers who are in control of their pacing are writers who are in control of their stories" (Weiland 2017). If this is the case, I am not a writer who is in control of my stories. My problem… I don't seem to be very adept at pacing scenes that are high action. I'm too wordy.
Last term my class had a discussion wherein we were supposed to write two scenes and one of them needed to be fraught with conflict and high in action. Here's what I turned in:
The air was thick, sticking to her skin as she rushed through the trees that spread out before her. Heart pounding and air coming out in dripping gasps, Kyla dashed through the thickets, wincing when a bare foot would land on a twisting root. The naked fingers of trees just waiting to die scratched her bare arms and tried to become entangled in the long tendrils bouncing in her wake. She stopped, her head jerking left, then right. The air was pressing harder, making her gasps come out quicker. She was alone in a sea of trees. She tried to begin again, to find her way out of the succession of naked and full trees, but her legs wouldn’t move. Falling to the ground, she rolled onto her back, her hands going to her throat, and her mouth posed to scream for help, but all air was gone.
Here's what my professor said:
In this assignment, your own style has gotten in your way. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have a certain pace and sentence structure that appears to be pretty natural in your writing. I think that voice is so strong that you fall into that rhythm without even noticing.
As a result, both of these pieces are almost the same pace. Your action piece should be more disjointed. Short. Clipped. Instead, your sentences are about the same length and offer the same type of information as in the second paragraph.
Suggested rewrite: The air was thick. Her shirt stuck to her as she rushed through the thicket. Her heart pounded. Her breath became dripping gasps. One bare foot landed on a twisted root. She winced. Kept going.
She has said in 7 sentences what it took me an entire paragraph to convey. The difference between us, I think, is that she is a more experienced writer and she writes in a different genre. She doesn't like writing in the women's fiction genre and instead prefers writing book club fiction. You may think they're the same, but they aren't. Book club fiction has to appeal to a broader audience, must like commercial fiction. More on that in a later episode.
So my problem with pacing is that I slow things down too much. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I overthink everything, and because I have very little experience with anything. This is one of my greatest weaknesses as a writer and human. I've always heard we should write what we know, but the things I know through experience are very limited. I'll be working on both of those in the future.
What do I do about this little problem of mine then?
As always, I've scoured the internet and my bookshelves to find some awesome tips.
Noah Lukeman says that "Pacing and progression are the most cumulative, most far-reaching elements of writing and thus demand the greatest long-term concentration" (Lukeman 187). It's delicate and unbelievably strong all at the same time. Think dynamite.
Two things stand out to me in Lukeman's book as things that are affecting my own pacing: my stakes aren't high enough or plentiful enough and too much description. Though he's speaking specifically of telling in the narrative, I'm harkening back to what my professor said, my sentence length is too rambly. Too long. For conflict-driven scenes where the stakes are high and the action is amped up the sentences need to be short, disjointed, and constantly keep readers on their toes. We want them to be just as out of sorts as our characters.
Courtney Carpenter lists 7 literary devices that can be used to keep your pacing where it needs to be:
Action - keep them active (duh), have few distractions, little description, and limited transitions.
Cliff Hangers - keep your readers guessing.
Dialogue - Rapid fire with reactions and descriptions kept to a minimum.
Scene Cuts or Jump Cuts
A series of incidents in rapid succession - a whirlwind!
Short chapters and scenes - I used to see these all the time. One page chapters or half page chapters. They really did keep me turning pages.
Keep these scenes active and use potent verbs to keep your scene moving forward.
The really important thing is gaining the control over your story mentioned earlier by K.M. Weiland. The most disappointing thing to me, as a reader, is a big build up with no pay off. In other words, pacing that falls flat or fails to produce anything at all. Don't drag me through a narrative at warp speed and leave me with nothing. It's disappointing and frustrating.
Weiland has a few tips for both speeding up and slowing down our pacing. I guess I don't need much help slowing down, but you might, so I won't leave them out.
For speeding up:
Reduce the number of characters - I usually only have 2 characters in a scene, so I'm good there.
Minimize sequel scenes - these are your "follow up" scenes. A big break up followed with the equivalent of a movie montage of your character going through life aimlessly without their one true love.
Add a ticking clock - A deadline your character must reach in order to avoid dreadful consequences. Think Jason Statham in Crank (those movies are pointless, BTW. Well, except for the Jason Statham parts).
Raise the stakes - This is the one for me. I never feel like the stakes are high enough in my stories. Gonna keep working on that.
For slowing down:
Complicate your sentence structure.
Skew the scene.
Add more internal narrative.
Focus on descriptive details.
I'm going to be experimenting with these tips while working through my WIP. It's contemporary women's fiction, of course, but there are some highly emotional moments where the stakes will be high and I'll need the pacing to be just right. Wish me luck.
What are some of your tips for handling pacing in your own work? Send me a email or message. I'd love some additional tricks to getting my pacing just right.
That's all I've got for you this week. If you enjoyed this episode please like and share. If you haven't subscribed to my monthly email list, and you'd like to, you can visit my website and sign up to see what I'm reading, what I've got coming up, and (of course) what's happening with About This Writing Thing.
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Next week I'll be chatting about some of my favorite literary devices. Thanks for listening. Have a great week and stay safe!