On Pacing and Plot: Tips to Pace Your Creative Writing

Like runners, writers need to pace how quickly they expend their (storytelling) bursts of energy

Like runners, writers need to pace how quickly they expend their (storytelling) bursts of energy

Today, continuing a series of posts about trouble areas concerning plot in creative writing, I’d like to open a discussion about pacing plot development. About arranging events in the most effective way to tell your story.

I’ve written two posts in the past about pacing, and the major points there are worth revisiting, if only briefly:

Pacing is notoriously hard to judge in your own work. I’ve definitely discovered that, and I think anyone who has written a novel would agree. I mean, even the more boring aspects of our plots, our worlds, and our characters interest US in ways they won’t interest other people.

The best tricks I have discovered to judge pacing?

  • Let a draft sit for at least two weeks before you read through it. The distance that will bring is helpful. You can’t fully distance yourself, ever, but you’ll be more impartial in your reactions as you read if you separate yourself temporally from what you’ve written.
  • Rely on good beta readers and editors. They’ll let you know when something bores them or something is going too fast for them to keep up.

Pacing plot development is never easy…. How do you know the best way to arrange scenes, and how much to reveal when? Revealing too much too early is confusing for readers. Take things too slow and they get frustrated and bored. They might even feel like you’re treating them like children or doubting their intelligence.

THE GRUNT WORK OF PACING

One thing I have learned recently, after reflecting on my experience writing, is that I may have missed out on the opportunity to really nail pacing. Why?

I write as a pantser, without an outline, so I don’t outline ahead of time. And that’s fine; it’s a perfectly valid way to write a first draft.

I think, though, that I might have benefited in the past from outlining after the fact (after a draft is down) and playing around with scene arrangement in that format.

Who says you have to arrange scenes in chronological order? There are flashbacks (a dangerous but still useful technique, if done well). There are revelations about characters’ history that can come at any point in the development of a major story….

You can change what characters, and/or readers, learn when by rearranging scenes. This can add tension, add intrigue, add a fun shock, throw emphasis on a favorite aspect of your work or draw attention away from a necessary but weaker part…. All by simple rearrangement of what you’ve already written.

Have I moved some scenes around, here and there? Sure, especially when a beta reader has mentioned that a certain revelation might work better elsewhere or that I’m revealing too much all at once.

Still, I’ve never sat down, titled each scene, laid them out in the order in which they appear in draft one, and gone nuts shaking things up. I think I should in future!

THE BEST TIP I CAN GIVE TO KEEP YOUR PACING FROM STALLING

Okay, actually, these tips are two. I’ve been on a kick lately reminding myself of the obvious, because that’s helpful sometimes. For some reason, the obvious can be easy to overlook: to lose in the background while I focus on smaller, more complex things.

Here they are:

  1. Cut everything…. every sentence, every word… that you can’t defend as having a purpose or contributing in some specific way to your story.
  2. Don’t obsess about pacing because hey, it’s all about pacing your story as well as you can, not about being perfect.

If you follow tip one, and know you’re following it, then you will feel more confident in letting go of the panic that you can’t get things perfect.

Make a conscious effort to cut adjectives and adverbs, and even prepositional phrases  or dependent clauses that are extraneous. I find a lot of my sentences have repetitive elements that don’t come from an intentional desire to emphasize. It’s more that, “I don’t trust that I’ve made myself clear. Better say that again….”

Unless you have a specific reason to repeat something in a different way, try not to do that. Cut cut cut…. Cut whole paragraphs when you can, even whole scenes. Sometimes, when editing, I make a game of trimming a paragraph down to one necessary sentence I can stick somewhere else.

Readers who aren’t part of your target audience might find themselves bored no matter what, because your story just doesn’t interest them. But cutting the unnecessary stuff that bogs your story down is the surest and “simplest” way to keep your story’s pace on track for your intended readers, even if it isn’t easy.

After all that cutting: get beta reader and editor input, fix accordingly, and then understand that writing is always about improvement. IMPROVEMENT is the goal, not perfection.

So, what are your thoughts about pacing? How hard do you find it to judge your own pacing? How do you try to keep pace under control?

If you liked this post, you might also find my other posts on plot helpful. And don’t forget that if you don’t want to miss out on future posts, you can sign up to follow this blog by email at the top right of the page.

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39 responses to “On Pacing and Plot: Tips to Pace Your Creative Writing

  1. Miss Alexandrina

    I’m definitely one of those people who repeats themselves. Even at this later stage in editing, I find that I’ve added dialogue that goes nowhere or reinforces a trait I’ve already mentioned.

  2. I’m reluctant to admit my pacing is probably all over the place. I also tend to repeat myself and get bogged down in uneceessary detail. And now while doing Nano and I’m stuck I tend to s-t-r-e-t-c-h scenes just to get more words. Clarifying clarifications becomes common! I’m thinking when Nano’s finished I’ll be trimming so much I’ll have to add more characters and their associated threads just to fill out the story. Not sure. We’ll see.

    • That was my problem with NaNoWriMo. Yes, it got me writing, which is good. Yes, it got me shutting down my inner editor. But as you say, “I need word I need more words!!!!” isn’t justification for fluff and so much of what I wrote last November I just had to get rid of.

      It’s fine to have to trim a lot of stuff, of course, as long as that’s not something that bothers you. It kind of irked me a bit, which is one reason I don’t know that I’ll ever do NaNoWriMo again.

      Anyways, I will be pulling for you in NaNo!!! Best of luck!!! It’s pretty hard to write a first draft that you can’t fix or that doesn’t have something of quality you can use later on

  3. Bonjour

    Thank you – your advice and tips are manna from heaven

    Dan

  4. Funny that you mention this. Yesterday, I started writing my 6th book and I was panicking about the quality and pacing. Sent it to a friend who is doing my editing and gives her honest opinions. Told me that I’m fine, so I’m thinking I have trouble noticing if my pacing is good or not.

  5. Pacing has come naturally for me, but I do tend to use extraneous words like; actually. sort of, rather and quite…so I am trying to cut those out. It is part of my southern dialect, but may come across wrong to a larger audience. I don’t want to loose my dialect in my writing, but I do want to cut what isn’t necessary to make for a smoother read.

  6. Pacing is the bane of my existence. As you mentioned, it’s tough to nail. I have great beta readers who have brought up issues even after I thought the book was done. (Silly me.) I’m a pantser, so I often stuff the last third of the book with long explanations and revelations that should have occurred earlier. I’m trying to work on the pacing issue with this new novel. I outlined this one, but left room for spontaneity. 🙂

  7. Great tips on pacing. That has been something I worry about as I try to brainstorm and that is difficult. I guess I really need to do the writing to judge the pacing.

    Completely off the subject, I submitted my first piece, a short, short story yesterday. It is for a Christmas anthology due to be published on the 27th of this month on Amazon. It will be a free download. I could not believe my reaction the minute after I clicked send. I would say that I had butterflies, but I think it was more like bats and I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach! I didn’t expect that reaction. So, my first ever submission. Oh well, it’s a start and I suppose I have to start somewhere! 🙂

    • Oh my gosh, GOOD LUCK and congrats on the first submission!!! That’s a fantastic milestone. No matter what happens 🙂

      You are so right…. planning can only take us so far and do so much for us. A time does come when all that’s left is just to write and then judge the quality of what’s there and make the fixes. It’s really a blast to me, seeing how I can improve a draft and then seeing the improvements take form piece by piece as I edit them in (and edit the fluff stuff out).

      • Thanks for the good luck wishes! It is exciting. There are 30 of us writing for it from my ASMSG group and we were told that everyone that submits will be included in the anthology. Our word limit was 1,000-3,000 words, so it was quite short. Mine ended up to be around 2,456 or so. In that short piece, I edited, my roommate edited it, me again–back and forth and I ended up rewriting it in a few areas, tweeking a few more areas at least 4 or 5 times..I’m sure both of us probably missed something, but I got it to a comprehensible level I think. 🙂 The question I am left with is: Is it ever completely ready? When do you know when to quit editing and let it go? I’m sure that is so much more difficult to know when it’s a book! 🙂

        • that question is SOOOO hard! I find when I start changing things and then deciding to change them back, my work is done 🙂 Time to let someone else read and fix more on their feedback or, once that’s been done a time or two, let it out to the world.

  8. Victoria, this blog was so helpful to me and really clicked with what I needed to know to be better at pacing and plot since I, like you, do not outline anything ever – I just write until I get to the end (although I always already know the ending – weird I know). Thank you!

  9. Another good post Victoria.

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  11. Nice article. It’ll be very handy to me O:-)

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  16. *Adds a pace/tension level column to excel spreadsheet.*

    • ooh that’s a GREAT idea!!!!!

      • I want to figure out how to make a graph automatically refer to the numbers I put in that column.

        • oh my gosh. AWESOME! I don’t know too much about the nitty gritty regarding excel and graphs…. but there’s got to be some way to do that, I’m sure?

        • I figured it out 😀

          If you’re curious:

          >Insert
          >>Line chart (or whatever style)
          >>>Select data
          Choose your pace/tension column/row. (click+SHIFT+DOWN arrow then ENTER.)
          Then I had to “Switch row/column” so that my scene entry numbers were on the horizontal X axis.
          The Y axis should have the range of numbers you have for pace. I’m doing mine on a 0-10 scale (which may be too detailed, idk) so in a random lower cell in the pace column I put a ’10’ so that I could visualize the relative range.

          I also then copied and pasted the graph in another tab so that I could see it at a glance.

          I don’t know if you or anyone actually planned on making a plot tension-graph, but if so hopefully my instructions make some sort of sense.

        • oh COOL!!!! Thanks for this! It’s super amazing that you took the time to write this down!

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