JWAM reader request no. 25: Pacing

Rachael Says:

I was hoping you might talk a little bit about pacing. What are your thoughts on it? What kind of methods do you have for making sure things move at a proper pace; how do you tell if it’s too slow or too fast at certain points? Whatever you can tell me about this subject would help. Also, if you feel like passing this around to any of your other writer friends who blog (or if you know of anyone who has already blogged about this), I’d be curious to hear their answers, too.

I don’t think much about pacing until I have a finished draft. Then it becomes all I think about. No doubt about it pacing is hard. And you will never satisfy everyone. I’ve had quite a few people tell me—especially teenagers—that they found the beginning of Magic or Madness and How To Ditch Your Fairy boring, but that once they got into they were fine. I’ve also had some folks complain—all adults—that both those books move too fast and they do so at the expense of depth and literary worth. Whatcha gonna do?

As instructed I asked around my writer buddies and here’s what they came up with. Listed in the order that I received them:

    Cory Doctorow: Things get worse on every page = reason to turn the page.

    E. Lockhart: I am always trying to fix the pacing issues created by my philosophy of “just write it stupidly the first time and fix it later.”

    Robin Wasserman: I’m horrible at pacing—my editor used to tease me that my first drafts always have about thirty chapters of nothing, then two really ACTION PACKED chapters of CHAOS, then boom, THE END. It’s vaguely embarrassing. For me, I’ve found the best ways around this are outlining (I outline before I start writing, but I think it would be equally, maybe even more helpful to outline your first draft once it’s finished, so you can see very clearly the dead zones where nothing happens). I also outline other books that I feel are structurally similar to my own, and try to figure out how the authors move around their characters, where and when the action scenes fall, etc. I still suck at this, but I’m working on it.

    Sherwood Smith: The old structure of action-reaction is a good rubric. If reaction starts stretching out too long, especially when reaction turns into the character(s) planning the next action—which requires some new information, may as well insert it here–I sense the pacing slowing, slowing, slowing. Reaction and planning scenes need to have the motivation (with its attendant emotion) right up front. When the emotional logic is as convincing as the physical logic then the pacing ramps up correspondingly. I think.

    Ellen Kushner: Pacing is entirely subjective. Just the way an hour spent talking with an old friend can feel like a minute, while ten minutes in the dentist’s chair can feel like ten lifetimes, so good pacing is about whether the reader is having a nice time or not. How that time is spent almost doesn’t count as long as there’s a question in the reader’s mind that needs to be answered. It can be immensely trivial-seeming (“Will she accept the party invitation?”) or huge (“Will they get the serum to the town in time to save her life?”) or personal (“Why on earth did the hero insult her when she seems so nice?”) . . . as long as there’s something I want to know, I’ll keep going. You, the writer, get to decide what it will be.

    Ursula Dubosarsky: I remember an eleven year old boy in a workshop, when I asked what sort of problems they had writing stories, saying: “How do I make my story last longer? Like, I wrote this story about a boy climbing up to the top of the volcano and then he fell in and that was the end.”

    Makes you feel like an agony aunt, that sort of question. How to delay the obvious gratification of having your hero fall headlong into a volcano…perhaps he stops on the way and has a sandwich? looks at a flower? remembers his last meeting with his aging grandmother? Only after all that your readers may well toss it aside . . .

    Pace is very fascinating. I think it’s all about experimenting. When I write there’s a lot of coming and going, trying this and that and seeing how it reads—like balancing hundreds of different sized bricks on a scale—until you feel it’s just about right and then you tiptoe away very quietly…(Crash!)

    Margo Lanagan: I think this one’s really a practice thing—reading a lot of differently paced stories, particularly ones that change pace internally, so that you get a feel for the kinds of details that get left out/included in order to speed up/slow down the telling. Where do authors make the cuts (e.g. how is a hot-pursuit scene put together)? Where do they start letting their characters pause and look around and register the smell of the roses/drains (e.g. when the character is home free/dying/waiting for the next burst of activity)?

    How do you know when a scene is moving too slow or too fast? You just know, from experience. Too fast, and you get confused (sometimes you have to ask someone else to tell you whereabouts they get confused); too slow and you find yourself thinking about shopping lists, or yawning, or not caring what happens to this dreary character in his overdescribed cave that has nothing to do with the plot. There is no quick recipe; you just develop a feeling for pacing by experiencing lots of examples of good and bad pacing.

    Diana Peterfreund: 1. “Get in late, get out early.” That means start the scene at the latest possible moment you can and end before it gets boring. Try to end on a “hook” too—keeps things moving.

    2. Elmore Leonard said “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Good advice. That means no scenes of hair brushing, unless it’s important to the plot (the only time I can think of is in The Snow Queen.) You can also skip the scenes of people going from one place to another, most times. Just put in a scene break and then put ’em there.

    3. If things are getting slow, throw in an explosion. That’ll hold ’em.

    Melina Marchetta: Pacing’s hard. If I’m writing an action packed scene, like one of the fight or chase scenes in Finnikin, I use continous verbs (-ing words—flying, thumping, connecting, roaring etc) and I tend not to use punctuation, soo it seems as if the chase or fight is neverending.

    Scott Westerfeld: Pacing is like a monkey on fire: you either have one or you don’t.

Wow. How cool is it seeing those different takes side by side? I wish I’d written all these writing posts like this. So much less work!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.


  1. Harry Connolly on #

    A very interesting exploration of pacing can be found in Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. It’s detailed and in-depth, even if it isn’t the kind of thing you (by which I mean, “me”) can keep in mind while writing the first draft.

  2. veejane on #

    So, Justine, how does the Larbalestier/Westerfeld household deal with all the flaming monkeys you’ve got? That has to be awfully inconvenient in a city apartment. I suppose you quarantine them in the bathtub until they go out? Or the kitchen sink, if they’re the pygmy marmoset kind of monkeys.

  3. Justine on #

    Veejane: It’s no problem cause we’re in our Sydney digs with are HUGE. There’s a whole fire-proof dungeon room for the flaming monkeys.

  4. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    So Scott’s response was the last one to arrive and that was what he offered up? Must have been edited down from the 1500 word first draft and something was lost in the process.

  5. Justine on #

    Malcolm: Well, he was sitting next to me as I was about to put the post up. I reminded him he hadn’t contributed. Then he started rambling about monkeys. I said, “I’m adding that to the post. Are you sure you want my blog readers to see how mad you actually are?” I didn’t quite hear his answer. Too late now, eh?

  6. Rachael on #

    Thanks so much for doing this, Justine.

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