Posts Tagged ‘pacing’

Common Writing Mistakes: Pacing and Plot Flow

Back to it, squiders!

Also, a reminder that we’ll discuss Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead next Thursday, if you’re planning on reading that along with me. (Have you been reading it? Once again we have a future where all the scientists are men and who knows what the women are doing with themselves. It’s pretty sad in ’60s-era scifi, but this is mid ’80s and he should know better.)

(Also, I kind of want to punch the main character in the face, but we’ll get to that next week.)

Today we’re going to talk about issues with pacing and plot flow. Pacing is the speed of your story, and everything affects it, from how often you hit your plot points to your dialogue, your description, and even the length of your sentences. Plot flow is related, but is essentially the order your plot happens in and whether or not things make sense.

Have you ever read a book where you realize you’re halfway through and nothing’s happened? Or where things happen so quickly you’re exhausted just thinking about it? These are pacing issues.

The range of what is acceptable for pacing varies widely, with some genres tending to be faster (a lot of thrillers, for example) and others slower (romance). Some readers are willing to accept a slower or faster story pace than general as well, so you may find that some of your readers are fine with your pace while others are yelling at the book.

Pacing is a hard thing to work on. To some extent it’s instinctual, and it can help to read books to use as an example. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get pacing to work better is to make sure you’re hitting key plot points when you’re supposed to. Too spread out, or lacking them early in the book, and your pacing is too slow. Too close together or bunched in weird places, and you get other problems.

Plot flow is directly related to pacing in that if your flow is messed up, your pacing is probably also messed up, and vice versa. If you have five things happen within a chapter and then another five chapters pass before anything else of note occurs, well.

But plot flow issues can also include what’s happening, and in what order. Is your character learning things before they should? Are they doing things and then doing them again because you forgot they’ve already been there, done that? Are you skipping key scenes that will help explain what’s happening? Are you forcing things to happen because you feel like they have to, not because they flow organically?

Plot flow issues can be hard to see while you’re writing as well. Some are obvious, such as when you get your character into a situation with no way out except some deus ex machina that stretches disbelief. But it might not be until you start getting feedback from your betas that you realize that you never showed your characters falling in love.

Perhaps the best way to avoid plot flow issues is to outline. If you know how your story is supposed to go, and what steps you need to go through to get there, it’s harder for things to sneak in (or get left out).

(See posts about outlining for more information on the subject.)

Thoughts about pacing and plot flow, Squiders?

Another nonfic post on Tuesday, and then the Dream Thief on Thursday. I hope everyone has a lovely weekend!


What is Pacing?

I wrote up this pacing info sheet to use for discussion at my writing group’s storycraft meeting the other day, and I thought the rest of you might enjoy it as well. Pacing is interesting–it’s mostly organic and instinctual, and even understanding the theory behind it doesn’t really help translate into actually being able to do it. (As evidenced by the many, many examples we came up with during the meeting of traditionally published books that were too fast or too slow on their pacing.)

What is Pacing?

The pace of your story is the rhythm of your story. It is an indication of whether things are proceeding at a proper speed, or if things are moving too fast or too slow. Your pacing needs to be correct to keep your reader properly engaged. Too fast, and your reader loses key information; too slow, and they lose interest and may put your story down, never to be picked up again.

Is Pacing Always the Same?

No, pacing varies between types of stories and can also vary at different points within the same story.

What Affects My Pacing?

Your pacing can be affected by many things, including:

  • Sentence length
  • Scene length
  • Chapter length
  • Word choice (long or short words, adverbs and adjectives)
  • Scene depth
  • Telling vs. Showing
  • Amount of description

Some of these are common sense. In the middle of a fight, you don’t stop to describe the colors of the wall or the emotions of your main characters. When your main characters spies their fated love across the street, you don’t cut their emotions short. Many short chapters drive a story faster, which can be good for thriller or adventure stories. Longer chapters with multiple scenes can be better for a story where you want the readers to dwell more in the action.

Isn’t Going Faster/Slower Better?

Most stories, especially longer works, need a variety of pacing. If you’re constantly using fast pacing, you might make your reader anxious, like they feel like they can’t get a break. They might not get bored, but they might put the book down in order to catch their breath.

If you are using mostly slow pacing, your reader might feel like nothing is happening, or that you lack a plot. Even strictly character-driven or introspective pieces occasionally have bits of faster pacing.

What is Slow Pacing Good For?

Slow pacing emphasizes something. It can be a good way to sneak in foreshadowing, or to indicate that something or someone is important in some matter. It can be a good way to hit on emotional reflection that might be necessary just after something major has happened. Romantic scenes tend to be slower to allow the reader to dwell in them. Slower pacing also puts more of an emphasis on character over plot.

What is Fast Pacing Good For?

Fast pacing drags your reader along for the ride. It raises stakes and emotional intensity. And it can be a good way to help readers feel what your character is feeling, especially if things are going horribly awry. Faster pacing puts an emphasis on plot over character.

How Do I Slow Down My Pacing?

The following things slow down pacing:

  • Description
  • Longer sentences, scenes, chapters
  • Flowery or descriptive language
  • Relaxed dialogue
  • Character self-reflection
  • Flashbacks
  • “Show”

To create relaxed dialogue, your characters can wander from their point, exchange pleasantries, and tell stories. But be careful, because too much of these can get boring pretty fast. You can also have you characters doing things in between lines of dialogue. (So, instead of just ‘“I’m fine,” she said, “why do you ask?”’ you can have ‘“I’m fine,” she said, dropping heavily down into the armchair and crossing her arms across her chest. “Why do you ask?”’)

How Do I Speed Up My Pacing?

The following things speed up pacing:

  • Shorter sentences (scenes, chapters)
  • Can use short, choppy sentence fragments
  • Cliffhangers
  • Foreshadowing
  • Lean writing without many or any descriptors
  • No or limited internal thoughts
  • Quick, snappy dialogue
  • Limited focus on things outside what’s immediately happening
  • “Tell”

To create fast-paced dialogue, you want to avoid using a lot of descriptors or intermediate actions. Only include pertinent information, and start and stop the dialogue at places without any excess. (Start at “James left me!” as opposed to “Hey, Barb, how are you?” “I’m feeling terrible–James left me!”) You can also have people talking over each other to get more information out at once.

(A note on foreshadowing: Foreshadowing generally increases the pace, because it causes the reader to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen, but it’s best to introduce the foreshadowing in a slower paced section where a reader is more likely to take note of it.)

So there you go, Squiders. Do you have anything to add? Examples of good pacing? Examples of bad pacing? Cheez-Its for the Landsquid?

An interesting thing that we noted at our meeting was that, while we tended to read equal amounts of mostly-fast and mostly-slow paced stories (as well as ones in the middle), the stories that we really liked and that stuck with us were almost universally slower paced.