Pacing: into the wilderness

December 11th, 2006

This is less in the nature of an essay and more in the nature of a brief exploratory mission. I’m thinking aloud, and I hope you will join in with your own opinions, thoughts, and variations on a theme.

For the moment I will define pacing as the forward momentum of the narrative.

A related term is ‘narrative drive,’ which I define (today, at this hour) as the author’s command of your attention and your emotional engagement in the story.

Good pacing draws a reader forward through the narrative without the reader ever sitting back to twiddle her thumbs or wonder what’s for dinner.

Poor pacing leaves a reader wondering ‘what’s for dinner, anyway?’

Pacing is not more and more events thrown down in front of the reader. All-action all-the-time, wham bam There’s a Gun! does not necessarily constitute forward momentum in any way except for the breakneck speed with which events are presented to the reader and then moved off the page. I admit that your mileage may vary; some readers will be engaged by this form of storytelling, but I can’t describe it or analyze it because I can’t write it or read it.

These days my current theory is that narrative is all about balance.

Pacing is a balancing act between moving the plot – the physical or emotional events – and everything else that goes into creating a substantial narrative: the landscape, the characters, the philosophy or thematic elements, the musing and hammering that creates the foundation.

So here’s my question to you all:

How does it work?

How do you as a writer create pacing that keeps the reader with you?

As a reader, what elements, in what balance, keep you moving forward through the narrative?

11 Responses to “Pacing: into the wilderness”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 11 Dec 2006 at 5:21 pm

    I’ve recently been thinking of pacing in terms of gravity. So there are certain moments in a story that have a large amount of gravity — the climax and the inciting incident, for instance — and everything else gets drawn down into them by varying degrees. You’re always getting pulled down into these moments or you’re climbing away from them. The closer you are, the more compressed the pacing; the further away, the slower you can proceed.

    Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t work in all instances, but right now I’m finding it to be a nice little rule of thumb. Hope this is pertinent to the discussion.

  2. Marie Brennanon 11 Dec 2006 at 7:36 pm

    I’m amused by the gravity analogy because it’s one more data point for the “writers view story in weird metaphorical terms” observation I’ve had.

    My own personal metaphor is based on weaving. There are different threads, interlocking in different ways, and if you’ve got your pacing right, you’re creating a nice, solid fabric. Where the pacing’s slow, the threads don’t fit as tightly, and you can kind of poke your fingertip through the fabric. Where it’s too fast, you’ve pulled the tension too tight, and it’s rucking the fabric into an uncomfortable little lump. And I sense all of this in some weird back corner of my brain that can’t really explain to anybody how it determines whether the fabric’s right or not.

  3. Marie Brennanon 11 Dec 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Which (she said, having hit “post” too eagerly; bad pacing, bad commenter), doesn’t actually answer the questions posed. But I need to chew on those some more, thanks to the aforementioned tendency of my back-of-the-brain to not articulate itself except in bizarre metaphors.

  4. Danion 12 Dec 2006 at 12:08 am

    >certain moments in a story that have a large amount of gravity

    And there needs to be scenes that don’t have gravity. A book I was recently reading, I put down and haven’t really had the “umph” to pick it back up (and it’s book 3 of a trilogy) because EVERY SCENE HAS TOO MUCH GRAVITAS. It’s too much emotional work for me — kind of like a day time soap opera.

    Kate — one thing I really like about the Jaran novels, is that you’ve got a great balance/mix between heavy and light scenes, humor and intense scenes, information and description.

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 12 Dec 2006 at 12:50 am

    I look at pacing as a function of suspense and tension, which have to be very firmly anchored on one end by character sympathy and on the other by believablity. There are certain formulaic cheats that are allowable for initial setup: For example, the ingenue is assumed to be pure and virginal, the beggar children wily and winsome, and the destitute widow only to be pitied for the sad fact of her husband’s unexpected demise and is in no way responsible for the crappy state of her personal finances. Similarly, the moustache-twirling lotharios, ravening wolves, heartless moneylenders and other perils have a certain amount of stock-believability to hold up their end of the tension.

    However, while the suspension of disbelief gives you a little bit of leeway, it only gives you a little bit, and if you lose character sympathy or believability–or worse, both–your tension goes all to hell and your reader starts snickering at the tale of the incompetent wolf unable to eat the unlikable children.

    Part of suspense is also foreshadowing. The scene of Little Red Riding Hood pausing to pick wildflowers would be dull as dishwater if her mother hadn’t warned her to both not delay and not stray from the path, because that sets up the sense that something bad’s going to happen It’s like having sex in a teen horror movie–you do what’s forbidden, you’re in danger, and we completely ignore the fact that wolves smart enough to talk and cross-dress might also be smart enough to wait on the path that has all that tasty human scent on it and eat dutiful obedient children with the same savor as the slightly naughty ones.

    Of course we’re talking stock characters and perils here, but once you get into a novel, you get more space for depth on all ends. Wham-bam action won’t work because it will quickly become ludicrous unless there are lulls for suspence, rather than a white-knuckle ride the whole way.

  6. tchernabyeloon 12 Dec 2006 at 3:39 pm

    I’d echo/magnify Dani’s point above. Cadence and flow are very important in stories. You need to slow things down a ttimes, as well as speed things up. “Speeding up” may not imply you cover stuff very quickly, merely that you crank up the tension.

    There are also big differences between short stories and novels. A short stoy you want to keep the reader there, finishing it in one sitting. In a novel, while that might be an aim, it isn’t really practical to expect readers to do the “I couldn’t put it down” thing. In a novel, therefore, you need to let people have nice natural points (chapter breaks) to put a book down – but you want them to pick it up again. The hoary old cliff-hanger is a ocmmon method, but that largely dates back to the days of the serial and I’m not convinced (pace Dan Brown, or even Zelazny in “Doorways in the Sand”) that it’s appropriate or necessary nowadays. Ideally, there should be more of a hook to your novel – characters you care about, events that have been foreshadowed – so that you don’t need to dangle the “you must come back next week!” carrot.

    I’m currently working on a novel that’s wayyyy more structured than anything I’ve previously tried to do. I’m planning out sections with all manner of thematic counterpoints, trying to resolve plots inside plots, even getting to the level of determining how long given sections need to be in order to match other sections. So far it’s coming together nicely and I think the flow is working; there’s both an individual flow to the various sections (almost like short stories in their own right) as well as the overall flow to the over-arching plot. Sometimes the two pacings coincide, but sometimes you need to be doing something that’s lively in terms of the core plot without appearing to be lively in terms of the subplot (or vice versa).

    I’m given to understand a number o fpeople use graphign techniques to plot out the tension in a story. I haven’t physically tried that, but I kind of have an idea in my head about what should go where.

    In detail, how do you do this? Sentence structure, and the amount of sensory detail, would be the two points I think I’d stress. Normally, I try and balance short and longer sentences, but the balance will definitely change depending on the level of tension. And sensory detail… there may be a lot of detail in an action sequence, but it’s all relevant detail, whereas in a spacing sequence you might be giving a lot more “irrelevant” detail – stuff that builds the overall atmosphere and sense of reality, but isn’t tied to specific action events.

  7. Charleson 12 Dec 2006 at 4:18 pm

    How much is pacing influenced by which POV character is controlling the narrative?

  8. Betsy Dornbuschon 13 Dec 2006 at 6:06 pm

    Forward pacing… hmm. I like that a lot. To keep readers humming along, I think it’s about questions and answers. Every scene should ask questions–small and large ones, and most scenes should resolve one. I tend to read (and write) books in which every answer leads to more questions about the characters and stakes.

    My favorite, overused chapter-ending ploy is not the cliffhanger, but the “ticking clock,” in which the characters are up against a time constraint. I love that tool for tension, and putting a calendar or time element goes a long way toward world building. It gives the reader something to look forward to.

    I won’t even touch the more intricate details of sentence structure and use of description. I find that to be the most instinctual part of writing and I have such a hard time talking about it without specific examples.

    Interesting post. Got me thinking, since I’m trying to keep up the tension in the current WIP, while also inserting significant amounts of pertinent backstory.

  9. Constance Ashon 13 Dec 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Focus. On the plot and the theme. Rigorous removal of all that doesn’t push both forward, i.e., no trimming.  At a fairly early point you have to be ruthless about bringing in any more pov characters, because as soon as another pov arrives, so do more characters, more backstory, more complications, etc. etc. etc.

    Love, C.

  10. Carol Bergon 14 Dec 2006 at 1:26 am

    I like what you said about weaving, Dani. Pacing is so much of a “feel” thing and your description is very tactile. Pacing is one thing I hear better than I read, which is why I read every word of my stuff out loud.

    One way I approach pacing is to keep in mind my story arcs–collections of scenes of rising tension that reach a climax–a resolution or revelation that introduces a new problem, twist, or complication. After that small climax, I try to leave my readers some breathing space before starting the rise again–without letting down totally at any time. And always with more at stake as we move forward to the major climax, of course.


  11. Nicole L.on 17 Dec 2006 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for starting this discussion, Kate!

    As a reader, many different things will pull me and entice me through the narrative: empathy with a character; questions: how are our heroes going to get out of this? What is the answer to this puzzle the author has set up? what is going on here? (all variations on “what happens next?”); expectations: am I’m correctly reading the signposts the author has left for the reader? (reading them correctly or incorrectly can be pleasurable); anticipation if I’ve read the book before: I know what’s coming next and it’s good.

    But except for the signposts, it’s hard to pick these apart and say how they work and why they work.

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