One of the most common critiques authors get from a beta read or content edit of their manuscript is to watch their pacing. Pacing will make or break your book, because it’s what helps keep the reader engaged. If your pacing is off, then you’ll lose your reader as they’ll cease to care what is happening, even if your character is perfectly crafted. Therefore, pacing is one of the things an editor will look at to make sure that doesn’t happen.
First let’s look at what an editor means when they say the pacing of your book is off.
Pacing is defined as the speed at which a story’s plot moves forward. Now, the pace of your book doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, stay the same over the course of the book. You want action scenes that read fast and get your blood pumping, but you also want moments where your character has down time to chill with their friends, or reflect on past events. What matters is consistency. A consistently paced book that has well planned plot points ensures that there isn’t too much action or to little in large chunks that make the readers lose interest. Consistent pacing is a God send because it keeps the reader engaged, builds the suspense, and makes for a smoother read.
The standards for what is considered to be a “good” pace are very much determined by the genre of your book. If you are writing an action-driven thriller, mystery, or urban fantasy novel, then you must have a quicker pace than if you were writing a more emotionally driven romance or spiritual journey book.
What Influences the Pace of a Book?
There are many things that can speed up or drag the pace of your story. Each author is different, and thus I can’t really give you an all-inclusive list of the things that you might be doing to negatively skew the pacing of your book one way or the other. However, I can list the five most common pacing problems I’ve seen.
- Emotion hotspotsEmotion hotspot clusters are major plot draggers. All heavy, emotional scenes slow the pacing, because it takes your reader time to get through them. Back-to-back series of high intensity scenes without giving the reader a break are overwhelming. If your character goes from a high-speed chase, to a gun battle, to a threatened rape, to being abducted by a sadist, to throwing up and not being sure if they’re pregnant by said rapist’s child, your reader is going to get overwhelmed. Heck, just reading that sequence of events is heavy. And the more the negative the emotional tension is, the heavier it feels and reads.
- On the other hand, if you have a series of scenes/chapters that aren’t emotionally compelling, then the reader will lose interest because there is nothing there to hook them into caring about what happens to the character. This series of emotionally void scenes become, what I call, the blah-blah-blah scenes that make the reader skip pages at a time. The more pages they’re skipping, the more they start to think that the book wasn’t worth how much they paid for it, and the time it took to read it.
- Information Dumps or GapsSimilar to emotion hotspot clusters, information dumps (def.: back story or information that the reader needs to know in order to understand the current events of the book) will slow the reader down. An information dump, or excessive paragraphs or pages of back story are as good as a TV commercial break for a sponsorship message. They are annoying, overwhelming, and leave readers wondering why the heck they should care. Conversely, your reader is going to DNF your book if they have no clue what is happening. Information gaps are therefore like walking into a movie forty minutes late. It doesn’t matter at that point if the acting, or cinematography (or in this case, the voice and characterization) is wonderful; your reader is lost because all the important bits haven’t been explained.
- Exposition OverloadsA close cousin of the info dump is the exposition overload. If you have pages and pages of exposition (def.: descriptive passages that detail information about the characters and setting) then your readers are going to go back into that blah-blah-blah page-turning mode just to get to the good stuff. If during a fight scene you are waxing poetic about how the hardwood floors of your character’s bedroom gleam mahogany under blueish LED lights, but more brown in normal yellow light, but always smell like the Pine Sol Squirt ’N Mop they use to wax them, then your reader will be taken out of the moment. It has nothing to do with what is going on, and the reader will feel cheated that even the action scenes lack focus and punch. It’s very rare to have an author use too little exposition, because most of the time they are obsessed about making sure the reader can picture the scene like they did. Don’t forget there are other senses that may better suit the scene being described.
- Time JumpsTime jumps are the sister-wives of information gaps. If you skip out on a huge chunk of time (during which your character wasn’t in a coma), then you need to catch the reader up on what the heck the MC was up to during that time. If you don’t, not even a teeny two-liner, then your readers will be disoriented and lost.
- Inappropriate Sentence, Paragraph and Scene LengthsSentence length is king at communicating the emotion behind your words. If your character is angry or tense, chances are they are talking in a clipped tone and not in long, detailed sentences. Flowery language and long sentences take time to digest, so you don’t want them in your fast paced action scene, because it’s not going to be fast paced much longer if you do that. Equally, short sentences, or even fragments, intimate either anger or a ticking clock, so you want don’t too many of those in your slow-paced introspection scene, or your character is going to seem really abrupt and abrasive—even in their own head. The same applies to the length of your paragraphs and the actual scenes themselves.
How do You Fix it?
The best way to keep the pacing of your story consistent is to plan all your major plot points in advance. If you know that chapters 3, 10, and 16 have the character experiencing physical danger and fear, then make sure the chapters preceding and succeeding those have different emotional focuses. Maybe in chapter two the character is having a great lunch with friends before the killer kidnaps them as they are heading home. And in chapter four, the character gains solace in the fact that there is another kidnapping victim with them, who has been there long enough to know the kidnapper’s weaknesses. This emotional rollercoaster is so much better than staying in one emotional state for a prolonged period of time. Have your character deal with the aftermath of the event, accept their new situation, plan how they are going to move forward, have difficulties putting that plan into motion, all before you even hit that next plot point. By planning your plot points, you’ll know exactly where to slow down the pace by including exposition and longer sentences, and where to focus on which emotions.
If you are interested in improving the structure and pace of your book, I would definitely recommend, Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot by Jane K. Cleland. It is my go-to bible because Jane’s guidance comes with plenty of advice on how to create emotional and tension-inducing low and high notes that will keep your reader gripped from start to finish. Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, this book will give you a solid foundation to start from and things to consider after you’ve got your first draft done.