Monday, December 7, 2009

Jana Richards on "Pacing" Your Stories

Perhaps you’ve had comments from an editor or agent such as “your novel moves too slowly.” Or you’ve read a review about a book that raves about its “breakneck speed”. What exactly are they talking about?

They’re talking about pace and it can be the difference between a humdrum book and an engaging read. Or perhaps, the difference between a sale and a rejection letter.

So what is pace? Pace is the speed at which the events in a book move and the speed at which a reader reads. It is also the rhythm of the book. In her article on pacing, Vicki Hinz says that pacing is “using specific word choices and sentence structure--scene, chapter, and novel structure--to tap the emotions of the reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants the reader to feel at any given time during the story.” At some points in the book, the pace will be slow and languid, while at other points the pace will be quick, moving us along breathlessly with the action. In most books, the pace is quicker in the latter chapters than in the first chapters as we race to the finish.

If you think your novel is moving too quickly or too slowly, how can you control the pace in your story? When should you slow down or pick up the pace? (FYI: Jack Bickham, in his book “Scene and Structure” says that after years of teaching writing he found that at least 90% of pacing problems are novels that move too slow.)

If you think your novel is moving too fast. Jack Bickham says that novels are made up of scenes and sequels. A scene is a segment of story action, written moment by moment, without summary, presented on-stage in the story “now”. It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on a theatre stage and acted out. Scenes are fast paced.

Sequels, on the other hand, are parts of the story in which the writer explores the viewpoint character’s emotions, thoughts and decisions. The sequel gives our character the opportunity to mull over what just happened to him in the scene, or to think about events in the past. This introspection is generally much slower paced than scenes.

Long stories are created by linking together scenes and sequels in a scene-sequel-scene configuration, although many variations exist. Bickham says that one way to slow down the pace is to eliminate a minor or weak scene and tell about it in a sequel. Another method is to enter a scene somewhere in the middle. For instance, if your scene is a meeting that begins at 7 pm, rather than dramatizing the whole meeting, start it later, beginning the scene with something like, “By 8:30 everyone was exhausted.” Conversely, consider expanding previously unexplored emotional reactions of your characters in a new sequel.

Vicki Hinz says that if you want to emphasize something slow down the pace by fully describing it. That will let the reader know that this event is important. For instance, a love scene is a good place to slow down the action and get creative with description and emotion. Long, flowing sentences and stretches of narrative will slow down the pace.

When you want to quicken the pace. Consider removing a sequel of introspection and thought that slows the pace. If a sequel can’t be completely eliminated consider shortening it. Conversely, examine your story to see if you’ve overlooked an opportunity for an exciting piece of action that you can develop in a scene. In existing scenes, find ways to raise the stakes, increase the conflict, add to the viewpoint character’s desperation or make disasters more disastrous.

In dramatic situations, the pacing must be brisk to help carry the right emotional impact. Here, long sentences or paragraphs won’t work. They’ll bog down the action, and negate any compelling sensation from the drama you’re trying to build. Use dialogue to quicken the pace by giving the illusion of action. Lean writing with strong verbs and short punchy sentences also increase pace.  Sentence fragments are read quickly by the reader and convey a sense of urgency.

One last word about pace. Pace should naturally vary throughout the novel. After moments of intense drama and quick pace, the reader needs a little breathing space with a sequel of introspection. Then after a break pick up the pace again. The closer to the conclusion of the story the faster the pace becomes.

Do you have issues with pacing? What’s your favorite way of picking up the pace?

Jana Richards’ books are available at Uncial Press   , Awe-Struck Books  , Amazon , and All Romance Ebooks  .  Her novella “Burning Love” will be released by The Wild Rose Press on January 20, 2010.  Please visit her at  to read excerpts, blurbs and reviews of all her books.  To celebrate the release of “Burning Love” Jana has two contests running on her website.  Please enter!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Judy,
Thank you for hosting me today. And sorry for getting my post to you so late. I have a feeling I sent it to the wrong email address a week ago. Somewhere out in cyberland someone is wondering "Why did this crazy writer send me an article about pacing??"

Lovely to be here,

K9friend said...

Jana, thanks for the very enlightening essay on pacing. Excellent suggestions!

Janet said...

Great article on pacing, Jana. I know that I use dialogue - with no dialogue tags - when I want the pacing to speed up. Dialogue tags tend to slow me down as a reader - and as a writer, when I use them, I write longer, more flowing sentences. The elimination of tags makes my brain shorten the sentences, too. If that makes any sense :)

I'm doing a re-visit with Lady Bells, as you know, and am going to spend tonight reading for scene and sequel. It might show me where some of my excess can be cut. Thanks for the tips.

Jana Richards said...

Hi k9friend,
Thanks for coming by and commenting. I'm glad you found the post useful.


Jana Richards said...

Hey Janet,
Nice to see you here!

Dialogue can absolutely pick up the pace in any story. Readers tend to read dialogue quickly, especially when it reads naturally and flows well. If the dialogue doesn't feel like "real" dialogue to the reader (ie: flowery language, long speeches, characters talking in language "out of character" for them), then the pace slows down.

If you've got a particularly tense conversation between two characters you can really make it move by taking out many of the dialogue tags. Keep the dialogue short and snappy. This will quicken the pace and give the scene the sense of tension and urgency you want.

So you're right: longer sentences/dialogue/flowing description = slower pace = sequels or introspection. Shorter sentences/dialogue/dialogue tags = faster pace = scenes with action.

Good luck with your revisit to "Lady Bells". All the best.


Karyn Good said...

Hi Jana,

Excellent post on pacing. You've given me some excellent ideas to consider and incorporate as I continue to revise. I'm always thinking about pacing and how things are moving along and usually wondering if they are moving too slowly as Jack Bickham suggests is likely the problem.

Emma Lai said...

Great post, Jana! I write fast-paced. My problem is I always have to go back in and write more descriptions.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Thanks for joining me!

I think Jack Bickham's "Scene and Sequel" is a great book for any writer wanting to get a handle on pacing. He explained it to me in a way I could understand. More importantly, I could then apply what I learned to my own WIP. Now that's a good teacher!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Emma,
I glad you stopped by!

You're not alone. A lot of writers write a first draft that is packed with dialogue and moves at warp speed. Most of the time this is a good thing. Like Jack Bickham said, most problems with pacing are stories that move too slow, rather than too fast.

But as you said, in subsequent drafts, layers of meaning must be added. Sometimes it's more description, or sometimes a character needs to think about an event that has just occurred, in order for the reader to feel the his emotions.

Just remember to keep those action scenes moving quickly. Save the descriptions and introspections for slower moving sequels where they belong.


Mary Ricksen said...

Great Suggestions Jane, I sometimes use too much describing and slow down the whole story. That's a problem for me as I love to describe things.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Nothing wrong with description - it just depends where you put it. If you put it in an introspection sequel in which your heroine is taking the time to think about things that just happened or her emotions and feelings for the hero (very necessary in a romance!) then it's perfect. She can describe a sunset or the bookstore she's in, and the readers will love it.

But don't slow down an action scene with description. If the hero and heroine are having an arguement, or fleeing for their lives in a car chase, this is not the time for the hero to describe the heroine's beautiful eyes. Keep the action scenes moving fast.

Thanks for stopping by.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Jana,
Great article, very informative. You have certainly raised soe valid points.

nlindabrit said...

Thank you for a most informative post on pacing, Jana. Dialogue is a thing I often struggle with and I sometimes feel mine sounds stilted. The tips on pacing and the use of dialogue tags are very useful indeed.

Judy said...

Jana, thanks so much for sharing at The Word Place! Pacing is the heart of the story, so your comments and tips are timely and apt. I'm working on revising a novel now that has some definite pacing problems, so I'll keep your tips in mind!

Come back anytime!

Beast said...

Just letting you know I enjoyed the tips. Good information in there.

Jana Richards said...

Hi nlindabrit,
Glad you enjoyed my post. I hope you found it useful.

Thanks for stopping by.

Jana Richards said...

Thanks Margaret. Pacing is an important part of the writing process. I try to keep a handle on it, but I don't always know if I'm successful.

Thanks for commenting.

Jana Richards said...

Judy, thank you for inviting me. It's been great being here.


Jana Richards said...

Thanks Beast. I'm glad you liked the information.