Deb: Making a Run for It

Narrative pacing is
the novelist’s biggest challenge.
~Donald Maass
Pacing sounds like the easiest thing in the world: speed up,
slow down. You know, like an accelerator.
Au contraire, my dear writers. Pacing is hard. Let’s start
with the fact that as readers we take it for granted. We know when an essay or
story or book pulls us along, when we can’t put it down. We know when it drags
and we set it aside. But even in literature classes, we don’t analyze pacing
the way we do characters or themes or syntax, unless it really falls flat, as
in the second half of Twain’s Huck Finn.
Yet it’s one of the most crucial considerations for the writer.
Pacing is often mischaracterized as having to do only with plot
or excitement. It’s actually about tension, which has as much or more to do
with character and emotion as with plot. Pacing also has to do with arcs and
how we move forward and back within time, sustaining disbelief, interest, and
empathy. And it has a whole lot to do with summary and scene and with set-up
and backstory as well as withholding and the way we set up endings.
I learned about pacing while revising my first novel for
publication. “It feels like you’re racing to get to the end,” my editor said.
And I was. I was excited to see that there was
an end, that it was all coming together in a satisfying way, and I couldn’t
wait to get there.
Pacing is like driving into a curve – you slow down as
you’re approaching the important parts, where the action, the characters, the
ideas will turn. You accomplish this through finely wrought details, engaging
description, and syntax – longer sentences with multiple clauses. But that’s
only the beginning.
“Pacing and progression are the most cumulative, most
far-reaching elements of writing and thus demand the greatest long-term
concentration,” says literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel. You have to be able to see whether the
big building blocks of your project are working right, and often you’re simply
too close to the project to be able to judge this for yourself.  A reliable reader can identify problems with
pacing, and your own ability to spot problems will increase with some time away
from the manuscript. You have to be able to pick out the major milestones in
the narrative, Maass points out. “When one goes by, things ought to feel
With regard to pacing, Maass warns of two major traps: set-up
and backstory. “So fatal is the business of ‘setting up’ something in a novel
that I believe the very idea should be banned,” he says. Backstory must be held
for the right moment, when the readers care deeply. Another bit of helpful
advice from Maass: the scene after a high point
is a good place for subplot action, because it provides a change of page.
“A manuscript must give us a satisfying sense of
progressions – but not too easily,” says literary agent Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages. “It must make us
work – but not too hard. It must keep us turning pages – but not leave us
feeling it is too much of a breeze.” Lukeman likens pacing to the central
nervous system of a book. It’s difficult, he notes, because in order to fully
assess the pacing of a project, you have to maintain the whole book in your
head at once; in fact, you might find you have to re-read it all in one
Where you find it’s moving too slowly, Lukeman suggests there
may be not enough at stake, or you may be using scene where summary would be
more appropriate. Where it’s moving too fast, ask yourself – as my editor asked
me with that first novel – what’s the rush?
Try This: Noah Lukeman suggests taking one page from your
manuscript and expanding it into a full-fledged story. Or try the reverse –
condensing a full story into one page without reducing it to mere summary.
Either approach will force you to consider matters of pacing.

Check This Out: For everyone who wants to stay out of the
rejection pile (and who doesn’t?), there’s Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. No gimmicks here – simply straightforward
explanations, solutions, examples, and exercises in the areas that cause
problems for writers.

1 thought on “Deb: Making a Run for It”

  1. Really useful post, Deb. I'm looking at just these issues–pacing, backstory and subplot–right now.

    And I appreciated the comment about the last half of Huck Finn. I just read it for the first time and could barely get through it. It was such a disappointment after the delight of the first half.

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