Pacing–I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can

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By Margaret Daley

The structure and pacing in a book is what holds the story together, moving it forward. Pacing and structure (what scenes go where) involves how you convey the characters and plot. In order to talk about pacing you also need to talk about the structure of the book. They are interwoven together.

Why should a writer care about the book’s pacing? Times are changing–actually already have. Readers want to be swept into a story from the very beginning. As an English teacher I discovered how important this was while I worked with high school students. They often didn’t have the patience to savor the slow start of a lot of the classics. They lost interested by the time the story pick up toward the middle. In today’s times people are used to instant entertainment–on television, in the movies, in video games.

Good pacing doesn’t mean every book should have the same. Different genres require different pacing. Women’s fiction will be different from a mystery or suspense. Romance different from an action packed adventure. But as writers, we will always need to be aware of the pacing in our genre. Pacing doesn’t mean throwing in an action scene. It means moving the plot forward–lots happening to do that. It can be a conversation between two protagonists or between the protagonist and the antagonist–a lot taking place between these characters in a give and take dialog.

You can speed up the pacing or you can slow it down. There will be times you need to do both. If you always have a fast pace, your readers will come away exhausted. Too much of a good thing isn’t always the way to go. Readers need to take a breath. There needs to be an action scene (action means where “stuff” is happening not always physically) then a reaction scene (a time for reflection). Even in a romantic suspense or thriller, the protagonist needs to stop and make decisions on what he needs to do.

What can a writer do to have good pacing? I have some suggestions for you to consider when writing and coming up with the structure of your story.

1) Watch your description in scenes. You don’t want to overload any one scene with too much. Description can slow the pacing.

2) When you want to increase your pacing and have it go faster, write shorter sentences. They can create a sense of urgency. Also have shorter scenes between characters and leave the reader hanging at the end of each scene.

3) Use cliffhangers or stop in the middle of a scene at the end of a chapter. Make your reader want to keep reading to find out how that scene ends.

4) Create a ticking bomb–a decision or action must be completed by a certain time to save someone’s life or to have something happen that is important to the protagonist. A character is going to lose his farm if he can’t come up with $25,000 in a month. It doesn’t always have to be a life and death situation.

5) Develop your conflict well (which ties into the structure of your story). Conflict drives your plot (therefore your pacing). Develop good goals, motivation and conflict for your characters. By doing that your job of keeping the pacing going will be much easier.

6) Hook your readers at the beginning and at the end of a scene or chapter.

7) Building toward big scenes in a story is important, but you need more than one big scene. Think of your book as having valleys and peaks.

8 ) Show and tell. There are times to show a person’s emotions and be deeply into that character’s point of view in order to write the scene. But there are times to tell–summarize parts of a scene to keep it moving. Know the difference. When it is important to the plot and character, show it.

9) Make sure your book isn’t episodic. In From This Day Forward (Summerside, September 2011) the hero ends up helping the heroine to settle in South Carolina. They work together and bond. That common goal holds the story together. It doesn’t always have to be a common goal but one where they are on opposite sides. But that fact, they are on opposite sides is what holds the story together. You aren’t just writing one episode in the story and moving to the next without anything tying them together.

10) Also always have at least three reasons for a scene (for example, comedy relief, introducing a character, background info, goals, motivation and conflict of a character, suspense/faith element, the developing romance, etc.).

Check out my first chapter in From This Day Forward ( at ) and look at its pacing. Does it pull you into the story?

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