Pacing Your Novel–Part 1

Your book reads too slow. Or too fast. And your writing is flat.

I have had all sorts of rejections, but some are more cryptic than others. On one book, I had all three of these concerns. It was too fast, slow, and flat. Where do I start? What does it mean?

The first step for me was to assume the editors were insane. But after a few days I had to accept that just maybe there was something wrong with the pacing of my novel.

I break pacing into two categories. Line by line pacing and structural pacing. Pacing at the page level and pacing at the story level. When an agent or editor passes I usually can’t ask which they’re talking about. In my case I had to assume they were talking about both. In this post I’m going to talk about line by line pacing. Next week I’ll cover structural pacing.

In line by line pacing we’re talking about how the page reads. Dialogue creates more white space, it allows the reader to turn the page faster—to create a page turner—this accelerates pacing.

Stephen King said that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Sometimes a writer will use too many similes, adjectives, adverbs. These seldom really add anything and slow the reader, especially if they are particularly well written similes. Ever hear it said ‘kill your darlings?’—this is what they are talking about. Delete writing that is so ‘good’ it’s bad, distracting for the reader and pulling them out of the story.

Another line by line pacing issue is exposition. Exposition is the ‘telling’ of facts to the reader.

You have a world you’re building and you need to get across certain elements, the political structure maybe, or a magic system. By giving what’s often called an info dump and telling the reader everything they need to know, you suck the narrative energy from your work. So what do you do? Do you pull a Davinci Code in which one character asks stilted questions?

“Wow, professor, I’ve never heard of a mitochondrial dark matter beam,” she says. “Can you tell me more?”

“I’m glad you asked, yes, …” etc.

This is the same, or worse, than actually blocking out a description on the reader’s behalf. The solution is to make the exposition work for you and to turn it into conflict. Want to show how the magic system works? Then have your magic user fail, learning with the reader. Want to show the political system? Then bring the king to the peasant and have the peasant offend the sovereign.

There is story in your exposition, find it, and develop it.

This said, there are times when a line of exposition is a line of exposition. First decide whether the reader really needs to know it, and if so, do they need it now? Suspense is the withholding of information—ever stay with a book to figure out why such and such happened? Sure! So decide whether or not you can save this tidbit of info for later to surprise the reader or to turn a scene. If you need it now, then try to work it into authentic conversation. Depending on your point of view, it could be a character thought or narration, but be sure to make it short and pace your exposition so that the reader isn’t faced with a page of it.

Categories:   Writing Tips