Writing Matters #2 – Pace yourself
Our stories attempt to reflect a version of reality with which the readers can identify enough to suspend disbelief. In order to do so, we must strike a balance between the moments of narration, introspection, dialogue, and pure action.
But it isn’t easy, making one’s creations ebb and swell in a seemingly natural fashion. We do know that, like in films, there should be 3 peaks of intense action; that each chapter should end in a cliff-hanger of sorts; that dialogue should be entertaining; and that there must be enough background story to make the events logical, yet not so much as to bore the audience.
And there’s the ticker, that in most cases we lean too much to one of the four: either we create a manic whirlwind of action; a series of independent short stories; a constant set of babble; or a philosophical/historical/scientific/(fill in the blank) ramble. If we’re lucky, we will be smart enough to turn these lags around after the first draft, listening to our betas and editors on the subject as often as needed.
Why does this happen, and why is it important?
Oh, so many things have to happen in our story! It’s all essential for the whole of the tale. The reader must have all that information, all the details, they cannot miss a thing!
Our mind is bursting with moments, pure technicolour and multidimensional images superimpose themselves. The readers won´t have time to breathe. But, wait, we also have to get the readers to “see” alongside the characters, right? We have to describe what they see, what they feel, what they think. Plus, we cannot forget to explain why things are as they are, how history brought us to this point, who is who, where, what, when.
This all may appear to be the result of a benevolent perfectionism, yet it is actually lack of trust in the reader.
An author who cannot trim, cannot balance the elements of their tale. Just like we have to keep our love for our protagonists in check, writers must learn to let readers develop their own understanding of the work. Otherwise, we will kill the interest of the readers, who must wade through sections they have no interest in to reach the ones they care about. They are being kept away from the full reading experience, which will know, and for which we will pay in the long run.
Examples at work
Many things may be said of Dan Brown, but love them or hate them, his works are textbook examples of pacing. His bestsellers Angels &Demons and The Da Vinci Code are gripping for that skill alone. Let’s face it, conspiracies, symbols, and shady religion are nothing new. It is the way Brown manages to intersperse the titbits of knowledge, the length of the dialogues, the build-up of action, that make his works so effective. The reader is given no time to get overloaded, let alone bored, with any one element. As a result, the books are successful.
Now, this may be controversial, but an example of terrible pacing is The Bible. You have the chaos of creation, lines of royal shenanigans, sets of rules, philosophical parables, epistolary exchange, even a psychedelic apocalypse. All of these could make excellent books in themselves. However, because these sections are badly paced, both within and among themselves, the overall effect is patchy. It is not the length or archaic language, but the broken cadences, that make Bible reading so challenging.
How can you make sure your work avoids the trap, or how to fix it?
Pacing relies very little on the writing itself, while being heavily dependent on thorough planning. Of course, some writers have a more intuitive ability to insert pacing in their works, similarly to how some people can sing in key, or move more in tune. They can write in flow, needing only some tweaks during revisions.
For most of us, however, it is a matter of following steps. They must become so ingrained in our writing process, that they end up seeming a natural skill. The steps must also follow a specific order, to prevent large rewriting:
1. do all the research/imagining before setting down the plot;
2. calculate where the peaks and breaks must happen;
3. superimpose them to match the chapters and length of the narrative;
4. set down the plot progression in a chart;
5. identify the characters and their progress/placement on the plot (ensure they all have a presence in the story proportional to their relevance).
6. Then, and only then, write the first draft.
Although pacing may not be sexy to master, spend the time and effort on its curves and dips. Pacing well done will make any work desirable, leaving your readers begging for more.