So You Wanna Write a Book: Pacing Problems (Part Four)

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What is a Pacing Problem?

Have you ever read a book where you wanted to skim through long passages to get to the meat of the story? Maybe your mind wandered to the laundry that still needed to be put away. Or you remembered you hadn’t eaten dinner. All these little moments going through your head while the author prattles on and on about an itchy patch of skin on a character’s leg. Meantime, you’re screaming, “Get some cortisone cream already, lady!”

Or maybe an event occurs immediately following a scene that has nothing to do with the mentioned event. One moment, a character is wondering why the murder weapon is in her friend’s hand, the next, she’s tackling her and turning the weapon on this friend. It all happens so fast, we have to read the passage again to see if we missed a paragraph somewhere. But nope. The author put the cake in the oven without blending the ingredients.

Both of these situations point painfully to pacing problems.

Let’s discuss how to fix pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion.

Slow Sammy

A “Slow Sammy” is when the pacing moves at a snail’s pace. Let me give you an example:

Daniel’s heart hammered in his chest as he raced down the sidewalk to his apartment. He knew Jeremy was right behind him. Oh, sure, he couldn’t see him, but he could hear him. Jeremy’s breathing was like Darth Vader on steroids and the thump-thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on the concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. The hand was all hard muscle with all five fingers pushing into his soft flesh. It was similar to the days when Tim and Ben used to beat him up on the playground. They would grab him by the collar and push him to the ground just like Jeremy was doing now. Only Jeremy was bigger and angrier and would probably hurt him pretty bad. 

What’s wrong with those two paragraphs? They’re not terribly written. They conjure up some suspense. We get an idea that Daniel is scared. But…something isn’t quite right. It still feels, well, dull. Why? Because the sentences aren’t written to sound urgent. In fact, Daniel seems pretty preoccupied with his thoughts. Fear is overshadowed by detailed thinking.

So what can the writer do to make the pacing stronger for this passage?

  1. Shorten some of the sentences. (cross-out)

  2. Avoid misplaced humor.

  3. Get rid of the “conversational tone.” 

  4. Delete any “information dump.”

  5. Give us more of the five senses and some internal dialog.

Let’s take a look at some changes to the scene:

Daniel’s heart hammered in his chest as he raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, Daniel raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, heart hammering in his chest, He knew Jeremy was right behind him. Oh, sure, he couldn’t see him, but he could hear him. Jeremy’s breathing was like Darth Vader on steroids and the thump-thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on the concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. The hand was all hard muscle. with all five fingers pushing into his soft flesh. It was similar to the days when Tim and Ben used to beat him up on the playground. They would grab him by the collar. and push him to the ground. just like Jeremy was doing now. Only Jeremy was bigger and angrier and would probably hurt him pretty bad. The stench of Jeremy’s body odor overpowering. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

New and improved:

Daniel raced down the sidewalk to his apartment, heart hammering in his chest,  Jeremy right behind him. The thumping of Jeremy’s sneakers on concrete echoed through the dark streets. 

Just as Daniel reached the front door, a hand gripped his shoulder. All hard muscle. Fingers pushing into soft flesh. The stench of Jeremy’s body odor overpowering. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

See how much more immediate that is? You want to find places where Slow Sammy has arrived to sabotage your writing and quicken the pacing when necessary. It’s especially helpful to keep the pacing fast-paced during stressful, panicky, or fearful moments and when employing most flashbacks.

Fast Freddy

A Fast Freddy, however, is when the pacing moves so quickly that something is lost in the moment. An example:

Daniel raced down the sidewalk, Jeremy right behind him through dark streets. 

Daniel reached the front door. Jeremy grabbed him. I’m done for, Daniel admitted. Why was I so stupid?

We’ve lost an emotional connection with Daniel. The five senses are missing. We don’t know where he’s headed or understand how he knows he’s being chased. Jeremy grabs him, but we aren’t getting the full effect of it because there isn’t enough information, and certainly not the kind that keeps us glued to our seat wondering what will happen next. When a scene feels too rushed, consider adding to the subplot, including more details, or preventing too much from occurring all at once.

One place where I find writers often have Fast Freddy issues are in the denouement of the story. The climax has been completed. Now the loose ends are resolved and the story comes to a close. A writer might spend twenty pages setting up the plot, and now this same writer spends half a page ending the story. Most of the time, the writer is trying to tie everything up in a splendid tight-fitting package so he or she can type “the end” and get on with his or her life. But often here is where the novel can be stretched just a tad. Maybe something happens to show that the protagonist learned a lesson. Or maybe it shows the protagonist didn’t learn a lesson after all. Or maybe it’s just a poignant moment that lives in the reader’s heart long after the book’s cover has been closed.

Slow Sammy and Fast Freddy issues are two pacing problems that are easily fixable with some editing know-how. The best way to determine where your pacing has become too slow or moved too fast is to have someone read it and mark places where he or she’s lost interest or become confused about what’s happening. Or you can put away your work for a month or two and read it with fresher eyes. This works best if you read several well-written books in your genre in the meantime.

This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018.

Coming Up:

-Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened

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