Pacing Your Novel–Part 2

Have you ever read a book and had it feel kind of … blah? I mean, the world, maybe the universe is under threat and yet you’re just not all that gripped. What’s wrong with the book?

The challenge for you, the author, is that the problem could be in several areas. It could be a matter of characterization or maybe your antagonist isn’t well developed, or it might be what we’ll talk about now, pacing. Pacing at the plot level.

The stakes need to be high. Yes. We’ve talked about that before. But every chapter need not ratchet the tension higher. If complications layer one atop the other in a continuous build the reader will eventually … close the book. Really, you’ll wear them out. This is why when you see a movie that has gun fight after gun fight after chase scene, it can wear a bit thin.

So the first question is whether your scenes are varied. Are they all gun fights? Or do you have romance, humour, or drama mixed in with the action. Do they end with the same sense? If it always ends with the same implied question – Will he survive? Then eventually your reader already knows the answer. Yes. He will. Because he always does. And the tension will be gone no matter the stakes.

But, Mike, don’t you always say that conflict is king? Yes, it is. Conflict on every page, in every line of dialogue if you can, but conflict that progresses. So for instance, if in a story our dog is sick. We feel badly for the dog and are sad. To progress the story another dog is hospitalized. Something bigger is at play. We can commiserate with another character. We ask questions—is this a coincidence? We find poison at the park, but it’s only poisonous to dogs. Someone is deliberately targeting dogs. But only dogs we know. Then we are framed for the crime! We’ve been charged by the police. Our girl or boy-friend hates us! Etc.

With each plot point the story widens. It goes from our sick dog and how we feel about it, to us losing everything and hurting everyone we care about. It starts with few characters and moves to many. It starts with personal stakes and broadens to societal stakes. If your story is one dog after another getting sick until you solve the case, the story won’t build. It would be what’s called episodic. And the pacing would be considered too slow.

Finally, a small technical point. Are your scenes the same length? As you roar toward your climax are your chapters the same word count? You can increase tension by shortening your scenes. This is a question of rhythm. When you hit the climax, make that scene as long as you like, in fact, draw it out. If you shorten the preceding scenes, by the time the reader reaches the climax they will recognize, even subconsciously, that this is the big moment. Every chapter has gotten shorter and shorter, the tempo quicker and quicker, and now wham, a long scene … this is it … and they will be unable to put your story down.

Is something wrong with your pacing? This is a harder fix, but the first step is knowing where the problem could lie. Time for a rewrite.

Categories:   Writing Tips