Monday, October 27, 2008


We might first try approaching the writerly subject of "pacing" by using analogies.

I'll start with this fortuitously available photograph of the moon, by Andif..

You could say that pacing is like any 24-hour period of the sun and the moon. There's the initial drama of the dawn, which lets down slightly into the ordinary and yet ever-building rising of the sun, which hits a dramatic high point at noon, followed by the let-down of early afternoon, then the pace starts to pick up again as we move to sunset. . .

Most of us probably don't want to live in a place where there's 24-hour high-noon sunlight, or 24-hour moon-lit darkness. It would get on our nerves eventually. Never-ending sunshine might keep us too "up" for too long; never-ending night might depress us, even to suicide. We wouldn't be able to stand the sameness. We would long for a shift, a change, something different but which also smoothly connects with what came before and what will come after. . .

That's pacing. Nice work, oh great Writer in the Sky!

By the same token, most of us don't want to read something that moves at the same pace throughout. We want to go up and down and all around, with shifts in mood and the propulsion of the story, with pauses for us to relax a bit from high action or high drama, and with climaxes that really do seem like high points because of the lower, slower points that came before. We want, in other words, for stories to read like a particularly interesting 24-hour day. . .with a dawn that grabs our attention, and then an interesting morning, building to a high point of surprise and tension, and then a relaxing, followed by ever-increasing build to the last big drama of the day, and then sometimes followed by a brief winding down. . .

I also think of pacing as being akin to rhythm in music. It helps if you have natural rhythm in your dancing and your writing, but I think it's possible to learn it to some degree, mainly by paying attention to it in the work of writers you enjoy. How do they do it? Chart it out in one of their books. Try to "feel" it, the way you'd feel rhythm in music.

What do the rest of you think? Want to add anything to this? Either with analogies, instruction, or the wisdom of experience as a writer or reader? I'd particularly love to hear from you readers. What pacing do you hate, what do you love, what stops you from continuing to read, what pulls you along to read more?


Nancy P said...

I posted this way early in case anybody wants some time to think about it before the, er, dawn.

FARfetched said...

Thanks for posting this. I eagerly look forward to any & all thoughts.

Nancy P said...

Glad to do it, Far. As you can tell from my opening bid, the subject is a little loosey-goosey to talk about. If you have any specific questions, let us have 'em,and that may prove more helpful, and not just to you. Otherwise, we'll just see what unfolds.

I just read a book, btw, that I couldn't finish because of the pacing. It started hot and fast, which was great, but then it kept up the Exact. Same. Pace. on every single page. It didn't take long for it all to mush together. That's what pacing's about--avoiding mushing!

Kelly McCullough said...

Pacing...hmmm. It's a toughie, especially at novel length because the writer moves so much slower than the reader ever will. You can feel like a book is really dragging and even have that impression reinforced by a writers group reading a chapter every couple of weeks, and then find out from the first readers of the completed work that you're actually moving so fast you need to build in more breathing spaces.

What I try for ultimately is the sense of falling down a steepening hill with a cliff at the end. There's that first moment of shifting from calm stasis mode to the panic of falling to get things going with a bang. Then there's the awareness of sliding while you try to arrest the fall. Ideally there are full breath moments as you catch a branch or jutting rock. Sometimes I'll let those moments hang on long enough to give a false sense of safety, then the branch breaks and its down again. Finally, there's the slip out over the edge of the cliff and into the empty space of the drop that's the climax of the book. The sudden stop at the end can be can be deep water or a puffy airbag or sharp rocks. The trick is to hide it in mist so that the reveal comes with impact.

Janet said...

As to pacing... I didn't know that that is what it was called and it might be the reason that I just don't catch the wave of some authors.

I have a confession:

I WANTED ... WANTED to love JD Salinger's Cather in the Rye. I even read it several times at different times in my life.

And I think it's the "pacing" or lack of it. It drones on. I get the feeling that he's re-telling the story quite possibly from a shrink's couch to himself. I never could "catch" the intensity of the story - that clearly was there on many levels... but it was the telling of it that seemed so automatic and lifeless - no ups and downs - to me that I could never claim it as a treasure I had read.

I know! Everyone is supposed to LOVE that book. For me, there was always something terribly lacking. The rollercoaster ride of the pacing was not there. There wasn't any emotion shared between the author and the reader(?) I didn't hate the book either. But I always felt Catcher in the Rye cheated itself.

I like authors who take me on an emotional trip. Valleys of action and then time to reflect or catch your breath as you stated.

I LOVE Chuck Palahniuk pace/style!!! Most of his stories start off by the main guy recounting the events... aka.. telling YOU ... HIS story and usually at different times. He goes from one violent scene to one where there's soul searching... . He picks up momentum. Dives you down a bit and then jerks you around and hits you again. And then cuddles up with you and whispers a passage to you... then stops... and screams. Up and down. Diversity in his way of telling you a good story.

Some call him a "shock author" but I think he realizes that his readers aren't of the "easily offended" crowd and treats them as if they had a brain and aren't easily amused either. He has to work his humor and almost make you feel bad for laughing. :) Rather the authors who KNOW their readers are sheep or lemmings.

I never know what to expect from the next page of his. Whereas books I don't seem to like are the ones where I know I can skip a few pages because you know how long they will go into a particular scene and it's just starting to fizzle out.

And... I like it when authors go on tangents... :) As you can tell. But... what do I know....

Good night :)

AndiF said...

I think that pacing is something only registers when there are problems with the novel -- then we notice the bounce through chuckhole or the sudden lurch to avoid unexpected obstacles or the skid on a slick spot. Oh these same things might all happen in a book that is really done but when they do, we tend to just accept them as a part of the design and say to ourselves "How clever of the writer to put a chuckhole there".

Morning all.

Lisa M said...

I stumble into pacing. Heck I missed the think time.
Nancy, you have captured the essence of pacing with the daily solar/lunar rhythms.
Thanks Andi for inspiration.

For me, pacing is what keeps me turning those pages. Nancy, you're quite right that there must be some ebb and flow. When I read Twilight--the teen vamp phenom--I felt it lacked the pacing to really engage the adult reader. The emotional/angst level seemed to remain the same for 200 pages. Because I was studying the book I kept reading not because it catapulted me forward.
Action, I want something happening but that can't be in a vacumn. So I think Janet's point is a great observation.
I think the best word is ANTICIPATION.If you keep the reader anticipating what will come, ya got em. The action doesn't have to be gun battles and sex scenes. If I care about characters and what will happen to them, ya got me even stronger.
Pacing--so many elements woven together to create it.

Terrific Tuesday to All.

Maria Lima said...

Morning, all. Great topic, Nancy!

Pacing is key to any great storytelling. I find myself, like Janet, wanting to love certain books, but then unable to slog through the molasses of the writing pace.

Others, like say, a certain Ms. P, hook me in at the first, and keep me engaged. Pace is like a great amusement park ride - for thrillers, it's a roller coaster; for more thinky books, it's the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot--slower, but still hiding reveals at specific turns.

I agree with Kelly, it's a tough thing from a writing standpoint, but I also think that it's ingrained in us in a way. We *think* in scenes, in action, in "where does this fit". The key is to balance the thrill with the quiet...sometimes harder to do that other times. :)

* disclaimer *
I am still on sinus drugs and fighting the germs. So if any of this doesn't make sense, blame the meds. ::g::

Anonymous said...

A friend recommended that I read Dean Koontz to study pacing - specifically, "Intensity." Next on my reading list (just because I wanted to read it) was "Virgin of Small Plains," and my friend cautioned that perhaps I should have picked a different book, because the pacing is so different. And it's true - I felt as though I'd been thrown through the windshield of a car when it suddenly stopped.

Koontz makes me hold my breath from start to finish, and I close the book exhausted. Nancy is much more subtle - her pacing ebbs and flows; when you're done, you don't feel like you're staggering off a carnival ride. Instead, it's like a road trip, filled with twists and turns, but also long pretty stretches to watch the scenery and catch your breath before the road suddenly turns to gravel and potholes and enters a very dark forest...

maryb said...

Great discussion. I really don't have much to add. Like Andi I notice pacing when it's not working. (And I didn't like Catcher in the Rye either Janet, I never felt like it "went" anywhere.)

I tend to like really long novels - which have their own type of pacing. Generally it's two layers of pacing - the overall pacing of the novel and the pacing of the particular section (I find long novels tend to be either actually divided into sections or divided into sections for practical purposes.) Long novels require the author to give the reader a "breather" - you can't keep up the same pace for 1000 pages. And it always seems to me that the real talent lies in figuring out how to draw people into the next section while still moving back down to the slower pace. If that makes sense.

Kimberly Frost said...

I never know if I've got the pacing right. I tend to like long scenes with lots of dialogue, but I can go on for a beat or two too long. With Would-Be Witch, I decided to never let poor Tammy Jo get a break. I figured...she's 23. She can handle running flat out for 90,000 words. Since that seemed to work out, she needs her jogging shoes in book 2 as well.

But I will say that I sometimes love books that have a slow pace. It depends on how good the writer is at keeping me engaged. If someone entertains me, the grass can grow faster and I don't mind. :)

AndiF said...

Because they think this discussion is way too complicated, Sniff and Bebo would like to offer a how-to on pacing. [LINK]

Lisa M said...

Andi I liked your chuckhole idea. That's not a term I'm familiar with but it's a nice one.
Thanks for the touchstone of reality Bebo and Sniff.

maryb said...

Andi - Does the butt to butt picture of Bebo and Sniff mean that that they are now pals? Or that at least Sniff accepted that Bebo isn't leaving?

AndiF said...

Lisa, you never heard of chuckholes? Wow, I want your highway dept to move here.

Mary, Sniff says payback isn't a bitch, it's two dogs shedding on the couch.

(Okay, okay. So Sniff couldn't resist a snarky remark. The truth is somewhere in between pals and resignation.)

Lisa M said...

Andi, Ah---Potholes here. I was thinking holes in a pasture. Why prarie dogs are so unpopular.
I just love hearing the slang from other areas.

That picture reminds me of Atticus and Kip. They had a big fight a few weeks ago. Kip was not a happy camper to have to share his adoring family. They were supposed to spend all their time adoring him. Kip got his nose a bit torn up and was depressed for a couple of days. Tolerant is the best they do.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Excellent analogy, Nancy. And I've found a wealth of information in the comments as well, thank you all.

I struggle with pacing in my novels. I believe it's because I have written so many short stories for so long. Many times my w.g. has mentioned how the pacing in my stories can stop being paced and start roaring toward the finish line. In a short story, it all has to GO FAST.

FARfetched said...

Thanks for all your comments, folks. I think I've learned a few things.

Conda, could you expound a bit on your experience? I'm coming from the same background (short stories) and that's where I'm struggling too. The trick is to enrich the story, I guess, without obviously padding it out to novel length.

One example, perhaps, was Asimov's Nightfall; a classic short story that was later expanded into a novel. (Quite appropriate, as Nancy talked about "24-hour high-noon sunlight" — that was exactly what that world had, except for a short time every 2000 years or so.) The short story ended with everyone going mad in the Night; the novel mostly was about the aftermath but did expand on the lead-up as well.

Again, I really enjoyed this one. Thanks all.

boran2 said...

Hi all. I'll have to pace myself and think about this. ;-)

Nancy P said...

And with that chuckle from B2, I'll say thank you to everybody for all the thoughtful, interesting, valuable insights.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Farfetched--sure--my main problem with the pacing (and I'm not surprised you're have troubles too, oh fellow writer) is not having events move forward at a breakneck speed--bang, bang, bang.

The first Murder in the Grove Conference when I attended, I met with Sara Ann Freed the fabulous editor and she told me: "I'd know you were a short story writer even if you hadn't told me. In the 10 pages I read of your novel, you had more events than many entire novels do! In a novel you have time to expand, time to fill in the details."

Hope this helps!