Pacing in Fiction

I’ve been thinking about pacing, and what a judgment call this aspect of fiction requires. Repetitive and unnecessary words, paragraphs, and scenes can suck the life out of a story. I tend to write longish and cut back in the rewrite phase. But I also try to forestall poor pacing with some diagnostic questions; see below.

Pacing is the speed at which you tell your story. How quickly are you forwarding and deepening the plot? Is it too fast, appearing rushed? Too slow, losing the reader’s interest? Usually, the problem is the latter: set-up paragraphs at the start of scenes, aftermath sequences where we consider what just happened, pointless scenes flailing at character development or background, too many words, saying things twice, plus repeating yourself.

I also note that pacing is often very hard to judge. It is part of your style. It is dictated to some extent by your material and the style of book you’re writing. None of this excuses us from working at pacing, though.

Some diagnostic questions:

  • Why will anyone will care about this scene? What is the point, here?
  • Is there enough tension in this scene? How far have I strayed from strong emotion?
  • Is the central conflict is as deep and momentous as it can possibly be?
  • Does the story coil around itself, growing stronger, more resonant? Or is it episodic, with parallel incidents?
  • Am I using a “cinematic eye”? In this movie-obsessed age, I try to remember that my novel is not a movie. In spite of the fact that I may see a movie in my head, I will never convey this movie by writing visual descriptions.
  • Do I need this flashback? (Avoid it unless it is Just So Good.)
  • Do I have a good number of big scenes that dramatically alter hopes or relationships?

That last question is a hard one. In fact, all of this is really quite hard. It’s why most people aren’t writing fiction.

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