by Kell Inkston
Good day, Writer. Let’s talk about pacing in writing fiction.
Pacing: What is it?
Secret time, Writer, pacing is one of the most important factors in deciding your book’s audience, its entertainment factor for the audience, and the book’s viability on the commercial market.
Pacing is the flow and movement of your book’s action, description, and dialogue. Pacing is the length of breaths it takes for your protagonist to confess his love to the heroine. Pacing is the patience of the writer in visible, word-length form. Put simply, pacing is, and is all about how long you can keep your reader engaged.
Now that we have an understanding of how important pacing is, we need to go over what works best, and what works… less best.
“Pacing Speed” or “Luke, I am your masculine parental unit that couldn’t raise you because I decided being malignant and overall just a big turd was more fulfilling than raising my offspring”
In the new, modern world of commercial fiction, brevity and sharpness is considered the hallmarks of “good writing”, like some magical gem that the muse-gods bestow on the disciplined worthy, and intolerably snarky. Thing is commercial fiction and literary fiction’s been splitting off of each other for decades now- believe it or not there used to be a day when both of them were considered unintelligible from one another.
That time has passed.
As a writer, you need to ask yourself something before you decide your pacing: Who do you want to read your stuff? If you’re a YA writer, write like Rowling, or King, with sparse, clear sentences. There’s nothing shameful about having trouble reading stuff like Herman Melville, and of course reader comprehension develops as the reader develops and reads more. Don’t push it, though. If you want younglings to not get bogged down by your work, keep things short, to the point, and don’t dwell too long on singular concepts in the book.
Let’s try an exercise:
Imagine your reader is a runner, and every new sentence is a hurdle.
You can go easy on them:
“The whale was white.”
A little bland, but some people like that- that’s fine. Anyone salted out of High School should be able to leap over this hurdle and understand the sentence without difficulty, so let’s kick it up a notch for people who like reading:
“The burning red gaze of the snow-white whale seems to boil the water around the ship, foretelling of a fate most dire for every man on board.”
Here we have some more simile, imagery, and all that good stuff. This is great for helping the reader get the images into their head. This is still a relatively easy hurdle, and is a popular level of difficulty for YA novels. The harder and more complex the sentences become, the harder it is for your running reader to get over them. The difficulty does give you more freedom to convey the story’s message to the reader, but you can always go too far.
Here is an actual quote about the whale’s whiteness in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Don’t worry, shouldn’t take you too long to read; after all, it is just one sentence.
“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title ‘Lord of the White Elephants’ above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things — the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four- and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
The majority of readers, even readers of literature, would stumble over this. They would have to re-read parts, slow down, and maybe even put down the book. You don’t want your reader putting down your book, I’ve seen too many good writers go down that way.
Now of course I don’t mean to bash Melville. While his writing is among the highest echelons in length, that doesn’t mean it’s not good writing. What we must understand here is that far, far fewer people will be able to appreciate your book or the concepts you’re trying to put across if you continually have them leap over a giant burning pit filled with robot-alligators. Keep things easy, and they’ll like that.
The big thing is to know your audience and give them what they want. Long sentences, whole chapters of description? (Still looking at you, Herman.) Heavy Classical Literature- the sort of stuff people would call a “challenge” book. Or maybe you’re like most writers and you do commercial genre fiction. Short, sharp, and tight is the name of the game.
That said, if you’re a writer of literature, you definitely have more freedom than commercial fiction writers. You have a much larger margin for length and description, so put that to use; but above all you should know your audience and give them the pace they want. Look at popular genre fiction in bookstores for instance- get a good handle on how published writers are setting their pacing, and copy it like a pro- remember that the most sincere form of flattery is imitation!
Improving Your Pacing: Methods and Cool Things
Alright, now that we have a good idea what pacing is and how it works, we best now look at ways to make it work for you.
If you’re having any trouble, consider a few methods:
1. Cut out the boring stuff:
Hey, you know when you’re reading something, and something fits into the plot, but you don’t actually enjoy reading it? Maybe it’s slow, or the information isn’t valuable, or it’s just two characters talking in a café when they should be out saving the world, maybe even two characters saving the world when they should just be in a café?
Deal is, pacing paces the thrill-factor of your book.
You should crunch your high points together. Write a book that you enjoy reading at nearly every moment it’s in your hands. Now, I’m not saying you can’t write a book that is enjoyable at every moment, but not many people have been able to ace that- it’s something you gotta develop.
That said, consider playing with some scenes and consider tightening them up or just cutting through them with your editor’s death-scythe. It’s one early grave you’re wanting if it makes your book a faster, stronger read.
2. Story Arcs:
You’ve read a novel in which it was an exhaustive amount of action, right? (A book with a cover review like “A WHIRLWIND ACTION THRILLRIDE FROM START TO FINISH!”) But real talk, Author: if you just stuff your book with nothing but action, it had better be an action adventure book. You can bog your reader down with excitement, you know.
Think to some long movies. Haven’t here been final battles and scenes that held onto the tension just a little too long? That’s how the poor reader feels if you continuously shove action in their face- same with slower scenes.
What I’m trying to say here is that your novel needs a rhythm.
Now, this isn’t as hard as it may sound, as it’s something that I developed by just writing over the past five years, but this is worth talking about because understanding it is a key to some fine writing.
The arc of “rest” to “rising action” to “climax” to “falling action” is something that will be mentioned if you attend any class on narrative creation, but there’s more to this than most see.
Aside from being a tried-and-true method of satisfying the reader, it’s also something you can work into with more than just the main plot. Try using an arc with a whole book series, where each book progresses the arc alongside working through its own book’s main arc. Perhaps have miniature arcs in the adventure (we’ll call them “hills” of rising and falling action). You could even work it into a conversation.
Now, rather than give you a bunch of examples that look like totally normal dialogue and writing, I’ll just tell you this stuff is in totally normal dialogue and writing already. The ups and downs of a story is, if done skillfully and naturally, a sure fire way to send your reader to all the highs and lows you desire them to travel to.
3. Read, Write, Repeat:
Real talk, just read and write more. Steal techniques from popular writers diligently, and you too can one day become the new ninja writing master.
Alright, Author, best of luck in the white and black spaces of ink town. The most important thing is to continue writing- that’s the most sure-fire way to become a better writer.
Kell Inkston is an analyst for S.E.E.R. and writes ascended masterpieces of literature on the side, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Hobbies include sushi, long walks through industrial parks, rainy days, and drinking regrettable amounts of coffee.
Follow Kell at kellinkston.com, where you will find all sorts of good reading as well as a free novel for signing up to the newsletter.