Keep it Moving: The Importance of Pacing


“When you write, try to leave out all the parts the readers skip.”

This very popular quote by Elmore Leonard isn’t just an amusing quip; it sums up the essence of good writing. Fiction is about entertainment, and stories that are sluggish, repetitive, or pedantic simply aren’t entertaining. At best, they’re boring, and that is the ultimate kiss of death for a story. You never want to bore your reader, even for a paragraph.

Good pacing, on the other hand, keeps us turning the pages. This is not to say that every work of fiction needs to be a mile-a-minute thrill ride. Pacing isn’t about the speed with which your story moves along; it’s about keeping your reader engaged as the story moves along. A long novel with gradually unfolding events can work brilliantly if it resonates with emotional depth, especially if there are some intriguing story questions woven through it.

When writing any kind of novel, it’s critically important to keep the entertainment imperative in mind with every sentence you craft. Put yourself in your reader’s place. Imagine the story evolving in his or her mind, and ask yourself why she should finish that page and continue to the next. What’s in it for her? Is it moving? Amusing? Suspenseful? Absorbing in any way whatsoever? If it doesn’t do anything for you, it won’t do anything for your reader.

In fact, when I’m reading a novel and I come upon a passage, or a page, or God forbid, an entire scene that’s tedious, or that smells like filler, I’m not just bored; I’m insulted. My time is precious to me, especially my reading time, and it always strikes me as kind of high-handed for an author to expect me to spend any part of that time slogging through the dull, non-story parts in the hope of “getting to the good stuff.” To my mind, if a writer can’t be bothered to make every page entertaining to me, I can’t be bothered to finish his book—or to ever buy another one with his name on the cover.

Novelists sometimes make the mistake of bloating their work with information that isn’t particularly enjoyable to read—or to write—but which they feel obligated to include, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s historical background, description, backstory, internal narrative, whatever. If it feels maybe a little slow-moving or dense to you as a writer, trust me, it will feel that way many times over to your reader.

If this information is truly relevant and necessary, think of a way to incorporate it in a way that actually enhances the narrative rather than making it grind to a stop. “Show, don’t tell,” that ubiquitous writing axiom, is key here. Chances are you can convey this information through action and dialogue, hopefully by salting it into a scene that exists to serve other purposes as well.

We research sluts tend to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to story bloat. Having put all that time and effort into learning all about, say, the FBI, our inclination is to shoehorn as much of that information as possible into our novel. If it’s so fascinating to us, we just know our readers won’t be able to get enough of it. The problem is, that information isn’t STORY. It’s RESEARCH. Research exists to serve the story, not vice versa. If it doesn’t pertain directly and substantively to the events you’re writing about, it doesn’t belong in your novel; in fact, it’s likely to look as if you’re simply showing off what you know. If it does pertain, find a way to include it without it reading like nonfiction. For examples of how to do this well, I recommend Thomas Harris’s Hannibal books, in which details about the FBI are seamlessly incorporated into fiction that couldn’t possibly be more gripping.

Often, we don’t recognize listless pacing when we’re writing it, which is one of the reasons it’s a good idea to put your finished manuscript aside for a while—a couple of weeks, at least—so that you can re-read it with fresh eyes. It’s during this all-important self-editing phase that you’re likeliest to recognize problems that had escaped you until then, and the sense of distance that you’ve acquired from the story will help you to slash and burn the excess verbiage that’s getting in the way of all the good stuff.

It’s a lot like creating a really beautiful perennial garden. You set out your seedlings in the first warm days of spring, probably planting too many too close because you’ve nurtured them from seeds and you hate the idea of not using them all. Maybe you’ve planned the garden with excruciating care, determining the placement of the various plants according the size, color, and so forth, or maybe you’re basically winging it. In any event, the weeks pass, the plants grow and blossom, and the garden starts looking like, well, a garden—but not quite the one you’d had in mind. The ornamental grass in front that you’d expected to grow about eight inches tall is already two feet and counting, your “blue paradise” phlox is Kool-Aid purple, and what, exactly, were you thinking when you stuck that gigundo mass of daisies in the middle of everything?

You know what you have to do, but you put it off for a week or two, hoping the garden will somehow magically improve on its own. When it doesn’t, you finally man up, pull on the gardening gloves, and go to work. Some of the plants you dig up can be transplanted elsewhere; others were just bad ideas to begin with and get tossed into the compost. It’s an emotionally grueling task, culling out your beloved babies, but when it’s done, and you step back…

Wow. Now, that’s a garden.

The writer’s equivalent of transplantation is a word processing folder in which you save the parts you’ve had to cut out of your manuscript, not because there was anything inherently wrong with them, but because they didn’t belong where they were. No matter how beautifully written, if a chunk of narrative slows things down, feels extraneous, or otherwise negatively impacts the pacing of your novel, it’s got to go. By saving the offending bits of business in a folder, you have the option of utilizing them elsewhere in that manuscript, or even in a future book.

Get into the habit of editing out nonessential words and phrases, not just during the revision process, but as you’re writing your first draft. Weed out repetition of information (fiction readers tend to be smart and don’t need to be hit over the head), unnecessary explanations (show, don’t tell applies here, too), self-indulgent narrative passages, laborious descriptions… anything that interferes with the rhythm and pace of your story.

Once you’re in the habit of using fewer words, your writing will naturally become cleaner, more streamlined. This is a learned process, and of course, the way to learn it is to write a lot. It’s one thing to be told something, another to actually do it. Practice sears good habits into our brains, and then we don’t have to think about them as much.

Self-editing applies not just to words and phrases, but to whole scenes. Everything that happens should serve a purpose. Every scene in your novel should enhance its entertainment value by advancing the plot, telling us something significant about a character, or conveying impor­tant information.

While you’re editing for pacing, be aware of the connective tissue that leads from one story event to the next. Make scene transitions crisp. Don’t write about everything that happened during lunch if it isn’t integral to the story, just because you can’t figure out how to get from when they sit down to when they get up. Figure it out. Lunch flew by. Or: They barely talked during lunch. Or: They talked nonstop during lunch. Or: When lunch was over…

Likewise, don’t get all involved in the mechanics of how people move around, go from room to room, etc. I recently gave up on a book because I’d gotten fed up with reading about the protagonist waking up, washing his face, getting dressed, pouring orange juice, making coffee… Blow off this stuff with few or no words and move on to what your reader wants to read and you want to write.

In other words, if it isn’t STORY, leave it out.

Louisa Burton
November 2009

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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