Pacing is difficult for a lot of authors to get just right. Even when they do get it just right (for the reader) they often still worry about it. They worry whether their pacing in a given story or scene is too fast or too slow. They worry that if they show the thoughts and feelings of the characters they will slow the pace and the story will drag. There is some legitimacy to these concerns. One can have a story in which the pace drags or a story in which things happen quickly and yet the reader isn’t really vested in the outcome.
A lot of the worry about pacing stems from how we think about it. Most authors think about pacing in terms of how much action is happening on the page. They mistakenly think that a lot of action equals a fast pace and not much action equals a slow pace. But this is not really the case. Pacing and action are not the same thing.
The thing that really determines whether the pace feels right to the reader is whether they are engaged in what is going on in the story. If they are engaged the pace will feel right. If they are not engaged they will feel like the pace is slow because they are waiting for something important to happen. So, in a sense, pace is really about keeping the reader engaged, keeping him or her vested in what is going on and curious about what will happen next.
Since engagement with the reader is important to pacing it makes sense to think carefully about what engagement is.
I think of engagement as the reader caring about what is happening and/or what is going to happen next in the story. Caring isn’t a one size fits all thing though. There are different ways of caring, or engaging with a story. Readers can care or engage emotionally. When they are emotionally vested in the character’s feelings and they are rooting for things to happen in the story that will make the character feel happy or will continue the character’s happy feelings they are emotionally engaged. Caring can also occur in a mental framework wherein the reader is curious about what will happen next in the story. The reader might be heavily vested in what clues to solving the mystery the character finds when visiting his deceased aunt’s attic. This is mental engagement. Sometimes the reader cares about something that happens in the physical context of the story. For example, the reader might care about who wins a physical fight between the hero and the villain, for example. This would be engagement in the physical or action elements of the story.
I tend to think of the story as a series of important scenes which are interconnected. I see them kind of like a stepping stone path that leads from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Pacing is determined by the arrangement of the scenes (the stepping stones on the path). The pacing is partially determined by how close together the stepping stones (aka the important scenes in the story) are placed. It’s also determined by how vested the reader is in each stepping stone and the events that occur there and the outcome of those events.
One of the important factors related to pace is the cohesiveness of the stepping stone path. Stones are separated. But though there is a separation between stones (events) there is still a sense of cohesiveness and direction that allows the reader to follow from one stepping stone (event in the plot) to the next stepping stone (event in the plot). The degree to which the stones (events) connect is important in terms of the reader seeing how events in the story connect together. This is important to their sense of pace. If the reader doesn’t see the events on the path as important to the developing storyline then the pace will seem to drag because it will not feel to the reader as if anything important is happening…even if people are jumping out of helicopters and are racing across deserts and there is a lot of action occurring.
It isn’t action that creates pace. It’s MEANINGFUL action. Meaningful action is action that is motivated by the character’s thoughts and feelings and by his desire to achieve some goal which is reflected in the stepping stone path through the story.
It is the character’s goal which provides a sense of focus for the reader…the goal tells the reader what is important…to the character and the story. Generally characters have goals that come with some stakes. It’s not enough that the hero wants to find out who killed his best friend. There need to be stakes associated with not finding out who killed his friend. In other words, something very bad will happen if he doesn’t find out who killed his friend. Perhaps something about the murder makes it clear someone else close to him will die if he doesn’t find out who committed the murder.
The goal–finding out who killed his friend–provides a goal for the character and a sense for the reader of what is important–what they should be looking for and what they should care about.
The character’s actions then need to be things that are meaningful given his goal and the stakes associated with the goal. Him having a leisurely cup of coffee at Starbucks where he watches people, thinks about the cost of coffee, but speaks to no one and sees nothing that leads him any closer to finding out who killed his friend would slow the pace. On the other hand, if he sits down and Starbucks, and he overhears a crime beat reporter who’s talking to someone who knows something he doesn’t know about the crime then sitting at Starbucks is an important scene…and it doesn’t slow the pace.
Pacing is about staying on topic. About keeping the focus on the characters’ goals.
Going off topic and losing focus will slow the pace.
WHICH details to include is a balancing act. Details which don’t MATTER to the story DO slow the pace.
In a lesson from the Clarify Your Writing Class which I taught last month I talk about the arbiters of what gets into the story. In that lesson I lay out several factors that determine what comes into the story.
Essentially, the first thing that determines whether a detail can come into the story is whether the viewpoint character experiences it. In order to experience something the viewpoint character must be aware of it. If the character is not aware of it (because he’s not paying attention, can’t see it, can’t hear it, is passed out or asleep) then it can’t come in through that character’s point of view. Period. No exceptions. It could, however, potentially come in through another character’s viewpoint.
The next thing that determines what can come in is the character’s focus on it. The character acts as a filter which focuses on the important letting the unimportant slide through unnoticed…and unreported to the reader. The character wouldn’t focus on the relaxed time at Starbucks where nothing happened because it isn’t important to the story. On the other hand, if he had coffee at Starbucks and overheard something important, then that would be important and he would focus on it…so it would come into the story.
The third thing that determines what can come in is what motivates the character. Generally, most of the time the character is going to be peripherally aware of a lot of things in his world. Things like food, clothing, decor, fall into this group. But only a few of those things are going to be important enough in the immediate moment he’s in to gain his focus. Of the things that gain his focus a high percentage of those things will be things which motivate his next thought, action, or feeling. You can keep the pace moving along at a good clip by making sure that most of the details in some way contribute to his next thought, action, or feeling.
Pacing is really about the focus of a story, and keeping the reader focused on the important parts of a story…those that relate in some way to the character’s goal and to whether he ultimately achieves that goal or not.
It’s really the turning point events that make up the stones on the stepping stone path. The material in between the turning points is connective material. You need some of it to make the path hold together…but generally, it’s just a binder…like egg in a meatloaf. It helps keep the path of the story cohesive. But if nothing important to the outcome of the story is happening then you need to lift, pivot, and move to the next important thing in the story in order to keep your reader focused and your pacing humming along.