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Monday, June 18, 2018

8 Common Pacing Problems

"Pacing" refers  to how fast or slow a scene, chapter, or overall novel is relayed to the audience. It essentially refers to the speed of the story. Some stories have more of a leisurely pace. Others may be fast-paced. In most stories, you will have slower paced scenes and faster paced scenes. When to use what depends on the story you are telling, but one thing is clear, pacing can have problems just like any other writing element.

When I started working in this industry, I figured that problems with pacing mainly related to how many words were being used to convey something--too much or too little. And surely (I thought) fixing slow pacing meant we should always "cut to the chase" (as they would say when making movies in Hollywood), or if it was too fast, we needed to add words to slow it down, but I soon learned that pacing has a lot more layers to it than that, and while that's not always a wrong way to deal with pacing . . . it's more of a beginner's way.

And even then, it sometimes doesn't fix the problem.

Sometimes the problem with pacing is that it's too "fast," but almost always, I've found for the majority of writers, the problem is that it's too "slow." (Why are these terms in quotes? Because they may not necessarily deal with strictly adding or cutting words to change reading speeds.)

But here are some of the reoccurring problems I've discovered and how to fix them.

Problem 1: Not Enough Potential Conflicts To Feed Enough Tension

Pacing actually has a lot to do with tension. And tension and conflict are two different things. However, they work together, because tension is the anticipation or potential for conflict to happen. Conflict is the actual problem happening.

Dealing with one conflict (or potential conflict) at a time is rarely enough to hold the audience through a whole story. Sure, in some scenes, there may be one overarching conflict, but there should be multiple types of conflict--however small, however subtle--in each scene. It might be the viewpoint character having an inner conflict about how to deal with the overarching conflict. It might be the protagonist and his best friend having some tension between them--a disagreement that wants to surface. It might the heroine worrying she won't get through the desert without dying from dehydration, while the main conflict is trying to rescue her sister from some outlaws. But in a scene, there should almost always be multiple potential conflicts in order to create tension (which is the anticipation of conflict).

Sometimes you can have multiple important conflicts at once. Other times you only need small, tiny micro-tensions.

But because tension is often so important to pacing, you need enough of it to pull it tight. Lack of potential conflicts and tension often mean the pacing feels too slow and boring. So brainstorm how to add more, even if they are subtle.

Note: In some cases, rather than adding tension, you can add intrigue, or something intellectually stimulating, or make wonderful promises to the reader, or appeal to particular emotions more powerfully, but usually you should still have potential for more than one conflict.

Problem 2: No Hooks

Someday I'm going to do a post just on hooks, but today is not yet that day. Hooks can relate a lot to tension and even everything in that "Note" above. They can often relate to how those potentials are actually written or addressed on the page. It's sort of what I talk about in this post "Mastering Stylistic Tension"

Often (not always) hooks work by giving the audience something to dread or hope for. They may offer promises (at the line level). Like the note above, they may be intriguing and intellectually stimulating. They may promise if the reader keeps reading, they'll experience a particular emotion.

Sometimes the writer has the right concepts and content for the scene, but there aren't any lines that are actually written in a hooking way. Work on mastering hooks to keep the pacing tight.

Problem 3: No Subtext

I was once editing a manuscript that had all the right beats and emotional draws and even the plotting was turning out to be pretty good. But it felt slow and boring. As I paid attention, I discovered it was because it had next to no subtext, and therefore, as a reader, I wasn't intellectually invested in understanding and figuring out the text, and though the emotion was on the page, I didn't feel it because it was so direct.

In this case, subtext needs to be understood, mastered, and added. You can study all about subtext and how to write it here.

Problem 4: Showing AND Telling

Another problem happens when the writer explains everything and doesn't trust the audience to "get it." They might "show" something and then write sentences or paragraphs "telling" the audience what they already put together. They don't need the author to spell out that Suzy loves Donald--they saw their interactions, and it was clear that Suzy loves Donald, so to repeat that with a long explanation slows the pacing down. If you are going to tell about it after showing it, the telling needs to add new information and value and meaning, not just restate what the audience already knows.

You can learn more about showing and telling in this post: Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell."

Problem 5:  The Audience comes to the Right (Obvious) Conclusion Long Before the Characters

This is not to be confused with suspense, where the audience knows both what the protagonist and antagonist plan to do and are anticipating, sitting on the edge of their seat, wondering how that's going to play out.

This is often a problem of using a common, overused trope without changing it in any way. One of the most common ones is the "prophecy" story line, where the protagonist discovers there is a prophecy about him defeating the antagonist, but even though the audience has seen this story line a dozen times, the author still writes it as if it were the first. They might make the prophecy a main focus in the plot, then drag it out so that the protagonist discovers the "shocking" truth at the climax. (This isn't to say you can never use any kind of cliche in your writing. You can, but you need to do it right.)

If the audience has figured something out, and the characters are still acting like it's a mystery for pages longer, it's going to slow down the pacing.

Problem 6: Misunderstanding What's Significant 

Sometimes the writer spends too much time (or words) on things that don't merit that kind of attention. Other time they may not spend enough on what deserves more. They are misunderstanding what is significant in the story.

The more words you spend talking about something, the more the weight of the story shifts in that direction. If you are putting a lot of "weight" where it doesn't belong, it can make the story feel too slow. If you are skipping over things that deserve more weight, the pacing may feel too fast in those spots.

This is a case where adding and cutting words can be the solution to your pacing problem. Just make sure in adding, you aren't simply repeating the same thing, but expanding or deepening the subject.

More on this and how it actually works here. And more on discerning what's significant here.

Problem 7: Misunderstanding What the Target Audience Came for and/or Cares About

Imagine a Jurassic movie where the main plot centered on two characters working at the theme park falling in love, with no dino terror until the end.

For most people who go to that movie, it's going to feel slow. Really slow. They'll walk out at after and say, "Nothing happened until the end!"

This is one of the reasons it's important to keep your target audience in mind. It's also worth keeping in mind that you can't please everyone. Someone who likes a lot of magical action may not actually like Harry Potter, which is more of a slice-of-life magic mystery. Why is your target reader reading your book? Are you delivering on what was promised?

This can happen on a small scale. For example, when editing last week, I came across some nice descriptions of a side character, and while well written, realized the audience doesn't care enough about that character to get that much description in that moment. They care about what's about to be revealed in the plot.

Putting in what your audience doesn't really care about slows the pacing down in all the wrong ways. Speeding over something your audience picked the book up for can make pacing seem too fast.

Problem 8: Not Enough Variety

Hitting the same story element over and over doesn't make it more powerful, it makes it less. And in the worst-case scenario, it makes it not only boring, but annoying. Contrast and variety make a good story.

Comedies that only try to be funny won't hold an audience for long. It's why comedy movies are short and usually have a life lesson weaved in. If it's always trying to be funny, it's not funny. It will start to feel long and slow and bloated. Make sure your story is balanced out. If it's funny, weave in something serious. If it's about love, weave in some heartache. If it's about dinosaurs terrorizing people, weave in moments of dinosaurs looking beautiful and amazing.

Variety strengthens pacing.


The thing with pacing is that I think many writers eventually learn it intuitively. Often we can tell when pacing is off and sometimes even what to do to fix it, before we can consciously explain what's going on. This is one of the reasons why reading both published and unpublished fiction can be really helpful, because your subconscious will gain a better sense of pacing if you consciously can't put it to words.

I remember working on a short story in college, and cutting lines for pacing. I liked the lines, and they weren't bad, but I just knew that it would make the pacing better, even if I couldn't explain why.

Hopefully, though, this post will help by jump-starting the conscious part of your mind on what to watch for.

On Cutting

One of the reasons cutting is a good beginner's tool is because usually beginners write too much about the less significant stuff anyway, and you can cut and cut and it brings back tension into the story because there is less space between each tension line, each hook, and each moment of conflict. Therefore, you are getting more of all that on a page and condensing the story to the most significant, meaningful components.

More on Pacing

Today I talked about the overall problems of pacing, but you can break pacing down in more structural ways: chapters, scenes, sentences. Next time I'll talk about how structure affects pacing and how to use that to your advantage.


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