Tag Archives: Pacing the novel

Pacing the Novel, Part III: Plotting for Pace

Movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader) is one of the two key aspects I introduced in part one of this series.  In this article, we’ll look a little deeper at how to get the plot in motion and maintain a fast pace.

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

the rollercoaster, an oft-applied metaphor for the fast-paced novel

One of the keys to pacing is the plot turn, a moment when the plot changes direction.  Plot turns come in many varieties:  action, discovery, revelation, dialog, reversal.  The most exciting books use all of these types of plot turns to keep the pace high.  So one turn might involve a physical fight that the protagonist loses, then they might find a clue in an ancient manuscript, then have a conversation with someone that heightens the tension between characters and shows that the character lied in an earlier dialog. . .and so on.

The greater the variety of turns you use, the more interesting the plot tends to be.  Books that rely too heavily on one type of turn tend to get predictable.  Oh–this is the part where the detective asks more questions and gets more answers.  Or worse:  this is the part where the character suddenly puts together two pieces of information for a surprising revelation!  Again.  And again.

Take note:  it isn’t a plot turn if the new element *does not* change the trajectory of the plot.  So if the character gets new information, but continues to do and believe exactly the same thing, it’s not a turn.  If the character loses that fight, and it does not change their relationships, force a change in tactics, or escalate the conflict, it’s not a turn.  If you read a book where many things seem to happen, but none of them seem to be important, it may be because the events are not changing the plot or the characters.

The interval between plot turns determines the pace of movement in the book.  Some authors are very deliberate about how they manage plot turns in relation to page count to create a page turner–one suspense author recommends a turn every three pages, for instance. If you have too many turns in a quick succession, it can create a whiplash effect where the character, and thus the reader, can’t absorb the information.   This can be a very useful tool for analyzing plot and pacing. Take a look at your scene or chapter breakdown:  where can you identify plot turns?  How far apart are they, and is that rate of movement appropriate for the story you want to tell?

The other big reason that stuff happening doesn’t add up to a great read or a fast pace is that plot is more than just a series of events—the events must be connected.  They must form part of a pattern the reader is invested in and interested in uncovering.  The most infamous example of this is the difference between:

“The king died and then the queen died.”  Things happened.  They are big, important things–and nobody cares.

“The king died and then the queen died for love.”  The same things happen, but now there is a connection between them, a very human connection that raises the reader’s investment.

If the reader can’t see the connections between the events, the pace of your story will feel slow or jerky.  The first, most important question the writer needs to address about any story is “So What?”  The king died, so what?  Why should the reader care about that event? Revealing or suggesting connections between events (often relating to motivations for characters) takes a bunch of events and transforms them into a compelling narrative.

Here are a few specific things you can do to help increase the movement of your narrative:

During your synopsis, pay attention to the verbs—the strength of verbs often shows the rate of movement.  If your verbs are all state-of-being verbs (is, seems, looks) that’s a red flag that the plot isn’t moving–and more to the point, that your characters aren’t moving it–creating the links between events that will drive the story forward.

Another way to increase movement is to create a sense of urgency:  a ticking clock that establishes a timeline; a crucible, a forced relationship like a cruise ship, a pair of handcuffs, or a tense marriage that keeps the characters close and creating friction; increase tension on all levels—whenever possible raise the stakes instead of lowering them.  You can raise the stakes by involving more people (increasing the scale of the conflict) or by making the conflict more personal.

Finally, make sure the timeline for both protagonists and antagonists keep moving.  The antagonist is not just waiting around for your character to go to school to make their next move, but is, in fact, working toward their own goals with equal (or greater–remember, we want to escalate the conflict) determination.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll turn toward the other pillar of pace:  Intensity.  Because even the fastest, best roller coasters have that concentrated moment at the top of the hill where the reader hangs, breathless, before the next plunge.

Pacing the Novel, part 1: Getting up to Speed

The most important thing about your first novel is finishing it.  The only way to learn to write a book, and that *you* are capable of writing a book, is to actually do the job, from beginning through the middle, to the end.  Short story writing can teach you all kinds of useful skills for crafting the elements of fiction:  character, plot, setting, theme. However, novels have their own special set of considerations.

A book that really takes off!

A book that really takes off!

One of the keys to a great novel is pace.  In a short story, pace is often less critical because the focus of the work is clear and direct.  The story pursues a single goal, and does so whole-heartedly, without digressions, diversions or dithering.  In a novel, you have much more latitude for these things.  Especially with a first novel (and even more so with a book of speculative fiction), there is a tendency to be drawn toward two poles:  exploring everything possible about the world, the characters, the situation,  OR making the plot snap along like the proverbial roller-coaster.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to manage the pace of your novel so that it moves at an appropriate speed for your readership and your material.

Wait a minute–an “appropriate speed”?  Isn’t pace all about speed?  Not necessarily.  Pace is about revealing your plot and characters in the most engaging way for your readers. Sometimes, that will mean moving quickly–bounding from one plot turn to the next to keep them on the edge of their seats.  But sometimes it will also mean drawing them so tightly into a moment of character revelation that they are on the verge of tears, fully experiencing a single instant in the fictional realm.

I describe these two poles as movement (the rate at which the plot unfolds for the reader), and intensity (the impact of that plot on the reader).  A book which is entirely focused on movement may be described as fast-paced, but is likely to leave the reader unmoved–yes, lots of things happened, but the reader didn’t get involved in the characters and their problems enough to care.  A book which is entirely focused on intensity may devolve into chapters of navel-gazing and inner monologue, but leave the reader with the sense that nothing is happening and that they are wasting their time.

The balance between movement and intensity is partially determined by the genre in which you write.  Thrillers are known for their fast movement.  Romances and literary fiction often lean toward greater intensity–how the character feels or reacts to what happens is as important (or more so) than the actual events.  This is why the art of pacing is individual to each book.  Even within these genres, individual authors or plots may emphasize a different ratio.  The key for your work is to be able to consider how your book will benefit from careful pace-management.

Over the next segments of this series, I will turn first to general principles of creating movement, then of intensity, then two lists of ways to boost either one to craft the best book you can.  Next up:  the basic building blocks of pace!