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How to Pace your Novel for Bestseller Success

Pacing is the speed at which events occur in your novel. Pacing can occur within lines and within the entire novel, which is the speed at which you move the plot along.

Generally, you want scenes (where things happen) to move quickly, and interludes (where you describe or your character ponders) to slow down. Pacing problems occur when scenes go by too quickly or are too slow. One can leave your reader feeling confused and a little ripped off, and the other will bore your reader into putting your book down.

I am currently reading an Indie novel and though there is some bang-on pacing at the beginning and at the 3/4 point, there are a few areas that had me pulling out of the story and wondering what the author was up to.

  • The too fast example: The main character finally finds a necklace of power and when she puts it on her head flies back, lightening strikes, her arms reach out as if embracing the sky and then it's over and she says, "That was weird." As a reader, I wondered what the heck had just happened.
  • The too slow example: The main character and her lover are going to the "fairy" house on their property, which the reader knows is being patrolled by the bad guys, and which will reveal some more magical elements and secrets of the plot. On the way, the characters have an eight line conversation about what the weather is like in this part of the world in the winter, including highs and lows in temperature and annual rain fall.

Not only did these two situations kill the emotional investment I had in the scene, but they also highlight some irregular pacing in this novel. And that translates into "amateur" writing that will probably receive multiple rejections from publishers and agents.

 In this article, I will focus on the slow pacing of scenes and how to fix it.

As a writer, everything you write into your novel will engage you, but it won't necessarily engage your reader or potential publisher. You are pace-blind when it comes to your own work, which means you might not be able to fix it completely. But let's try a scientific approach and analyze each scene to see how much you can correct. The better the pacing, the higher the chance you'll catch the interest of an editor who is willing to help you improve the rest.

First step is to get a beta reader to read through your manuscript. Have them take notes on when they put down your manuscript, when their attention lags, and when they get up to get a snack, use the washroom, or check their messages. Have your reader mark the spot they were reading in your text, at that very moment. That's where your pacing is lagging.

While the beta read is doing their part, you go through your text and do a few things as well:
  • Create an outline that shows the events that most change your character or plot. These are the scenes. Mark your outline with the page numbers in which these scenes occur. Then see if the frequency of scenes (how many pages in between) is balanced within the whole text. Do you have any areas where you write quite a few pages, but nothing happens?
  • Mark each fast scene with a red check and each slow scene with blue, then look at the pattern. Avoid too many blues in a row. Can you rearrange?
  • Next, take a good look at each scene your reader marked and see if there are any matches to the colour coding or event marking you completed above.

Target the scenes that you both highlighted, first. And remember this, every scene should have a point. Something should be different at the end of every scene. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Try to figure out the problem in each scene by looking at these specifics:
  • Are you sticking to one character or one set of characters, or did your scene jump to include others. If so, is that necessary at this moment in your story?
  • What tone did you start your scene with and does that tone hold all the way through your scene? If not, why did it change? If the change is not needed to achieve your goals for that scene, see if you can hold the tone steady.
  • What emotions were you trying to evoke with your scene? Did you mix in too many? Did you lose track or write inconsistent or contrasting emotions?
  • Close-up senses increase pace, so describe those little details like licking of the lips, flaring of the nostrils and beads of sweat.
  • Analyze any new information being revealed. Is it NEW? or is it redundant? Is there anything that can be revealed at a different spot where it won't interfere with pacing?
  • Remove adjectives and adverbs from text you want to speed up. Use more powerful nouns and verbs instead.
  • Increase white space on the page of any scene you want to be exciting and fast-paced. Shorter lines and shorter syllables in words can increase drama. Can you increase white space on the page by reducing wordiness, breaking lines and thereby speeding up the pace of the reading?
  • Are there any confusing words or jarring grammatical rhythms within your text? Don't bring attention to your words because you want the reader to pay attention to the events. "Jarring grammatical rhythms" is a an example of word choice that might distract your reader. Choose words that enhance tension but keep them within the realm of your reader's understanding.
According to Jessica Page Morrell, word choice is a craft-level technique that can affect pacing:

Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia (crash, lunge, sweep, scatter, ram, scavenge) also add to a quick pace. Invest in suggestive verbs to enliven descriptions, build action scenes and milk suspense.
Harsh consonant sounds such as those in words like claws, crash, kill, quake, and nag can push the reader ahead. Words with unpleasant associations can also ratchet up the speed: hiss, grunt, slither, smarmy, venomous, slaver, and wince.
  • Don't repeat words or phrases. Remember that book I was reading? I decided I would go outside and polish the stone by the well. Perhaps then I would uncover the secret to its light. I ran into Greg in the hall. "I'm going outside to polish the stone by the well," I said. "Why?" he asked. "I want to see if I can uncover the secret to its light". Get rid of repetition, whether it occurs immediately or after a number of chapters. Trust that your readers will remember what they read on previous pages.
  • Remove all passive writing and replace with active voice by searching for "was", "will be" and "were". Is the subject doing the action? The girl danced her shoes off. That's active. If the object is receiving the action, that's passive. The shoes were danced off the girl's feet.
  • How often is your character having internal thoughts VS fast-paced dialogue? Internal thoughts slow the pace. Can those thoughts be revealed through the  exchange of  words between two characters?
  • Is this a flashback, exposition or descriptive text? Is there any way to shorten it? Can you move it to another area so that it provides a break from tension but does not kill a tense scene? Can you cut it? Is it absolutely necessary?
  • On the other hand, a scene-cut (moving from one area or character to another) can increase pace if done well. Limit transitions or explanations, get leaping.
  • Dialogue or any part of a scene does not have to happen in order or at the beginning. Don't start with "hello". Get right into it with "Did you see the body?" Don't go into multiple details of the journey, "She walked, drove, stepped, waved." Just get her there by stepping her right into the scene.
  • Think Ping-Pong for dialogue and avoid character actions during scenes you want to speed up. Have the words zip-zinging back and forth to increase tension.
  • Forget manners. Let your characters interrupt to get more information on the page, faster. And then end the conversation as soon as you've revealed the information or dynamic you were shooting for.
  • Are you filling in a passage of time? Just because the characters are separated for a few days or weeks doesn't mean you need to stall the reader. Mention it, provide enough detail to make it believable and then move forward in time.
  • A character should never have meandering thoughts during a high climax scene or a scene in which the character is in danger. Remember flight or fight responses? Little thought + more action = survival.
  • Master the cliff-hanger. Readers suffer from uncertainty and must read on to find out what will happen. Therefore, you must avoid resolution until you are actually writing the resolution. Leave actions unfinished, let needs go unfulfilled, and interrupt any resolutions to create a lovely, uncertainty hanging in the air. Prolong those solutions.
  • Resolution should always involve transformation of character, situation, relationship etc.  And when you do resolve, be prepared to jack up the tension again with a new situation, unless you are at the end of your novel. 
  • Increase suspense as well. Tension makes the reader want to know more, but suspense tells the reader more is coming. A  reader can't feel tension unless they can relate to the story, character, location or emotions. Emotional conflict creates tension. Foreshadowing increases suspense. Withholding your character's desires creates tension. Creating reasons for the reader to worry about the character creates suspense.
  • Remember goals. What does your character want or need? What is preventing your character from getting it? And what terrible outcome will occur if the character is not satisfied? The reader needs to know the answers to all three in order to care enough to experience suspense.
Make your changes, then repeat, starting with a new beta reader. Know that different genres have different expectations on pace. An historical romance can pace slower than a thriller. Structure also affects pace. Shorter chapters can seem to  increase reading speed by encouraging the reader to try another chapter before they put the book down. If you think you can't do it yourself, consider hiring a content editor.  Poor pacing can kill your novel's chances of ever being published. Invest the time required to polish the pace of your novel until it is a roller coaster, jungle tram combination that speeds up during scenes and slows down during interludes, giving your reader just enough excitement and enough time to calm down, to keep them turning pages right to the end.



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