Pacing is important with any work of fiction, whether it is a novel or short story.
If it’s too slow, readers might get bored and stop reading. If it’s too fast, they might get lost and stop reading. However, thinking too much about it when writing your first draft won’t really help. Work on the pacing when you start revising.
Finding the right pace for a story is part of the writing process. I go through several rewrites and revisions before I get it right.
Back when I was drafting my first two novels, I thought I had to more or less write out every second of the character’s life during the time frame of the novel. Thankfully, with both books, the whole plot took place over a few days. As it was, I ended up with a 130,000 word first draft of a young adult novel, and over 200,000 words for my adult novel.
When I had a friend read the YA novel, she got bored quickly while following the character through 30 or 40 pages of school. Stuff only happened on maybe five of those pages. She told me the descriptions of every hallway, desk, and teacher really weren’t relevant.
She was right. Irrelevant descriptions and conversations bogged the pacing down so much that she lost interested before anything happened.
It took over ten revisions to get the pacing (and other things) right.
First, I went through and cut out scenes that I wrote for me as I was getting to know the character. I cut descriptions of places that appeared once and never came back. I made sure all the description and imagery I kept added something to the overall mood and revealed something about the narrator even if it was very subtle.
However, the most important step was making sure each chapter had a hook at the beginning and end, as well as its own complete arc. I did one revision that just focused on this. As I read each chapter, I summarized it in a few sentences and explained what it contributed to the plot. This helped me see the picture and plan what I needed do to each chapter.
I ended up cutting entire chapters, removing characters from the story, and moving the climax so it happened sooner and just scrapping a whole sequence of unnecessary fights from the end of the book.
To test my work, I asked critique partners and beta readers to let me know when they got bored or bogged down.
Eventually, I got the novel down to about 71,000 words. Each chapter had an arc. There was enough description for the reader to picture the setting without slowing the action. That description set the mood and even helped readers get to know the character. All that meant that the readers stayed hooked. They didn’t get too bored or too lost.
The process of starting with too much happening to slowly, then cutting back and changing things worked well. That novel is under contract with NineStar Press and scheduled to come out in October.
However, it was slow, tedious process, and I’m an impatient person. Now, I seem to have the opposite problem.
My last two novels started as drafts I banged out in four to six weeks for NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. They short and rushed, skipping over descriptions and the types of scenes I thought I’d just end up cutting.
Having to go back, add more details, and slow things down was the same amount of work, if not more work, than having to cut thousands of words from the manuscript, and during the process, I was not nearly as invested in the characters and world as I had been with my earlier works.
Currently, I’m submitting pieces novel-in-progress number five to a critique group. Even though I go through each chapter and fill in the gaps I see before sending it, I’m still getting feedback from readers saying it moves so fast they struggle to follow transitions, can’t fully picture things, and don’t know the characters enough to really care much about what happens to them.
In early drafts of books four and five, the overall plot and arcs are much clearer than they were in books one and two, but that doesn’t matter if the readers don’t care about the characters and get lost in the transitions between scenes.
Thinking I learned enough from my first books to know what scenes will get before I write them was a bad idea. All it accomplished was producing a book that moved so fast readers couldn’t get into instead of one with fully fleshed characters moving at a snails pace.
After drafting and revising five novels, I’ve learned that pacing isn’t something that I should think about while writing my first draft. It’s something that happens in revision when I have a concrete grasp on the characters, plot, setting, tone, and story. The pacing develops as I examine each chapter under a microscope and then look at how it fits in the big picture. Seeking feedback from critique partners and beta readers, and then listening to them when they say where they got lost or bored hones the work’s pace.
In order to have a well paced novel, writers need to be patient. They need to trust their process and not rush it.