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, at its core, is a content issue. In large part, pacing is a result of how many words you use to describe an event, person, or place and how you order the events/scenes of your story.
- One tactic to help you get pacing right, and keep things from stalling out too much, is to alternate scenes of action and high tension with slower scenes more focused on character development or world-building.
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:
- Cut everything…. every sentence, every word… that you can’t defend as having a purpose or contributing in some specific way to your story.
- 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.