Pacing…in Writing…Is…Everything

stopwatch Image from clipartpanda.com free imagesPacing in writing is essential. It can make a story or break it. Good pacing can tune a good story into a masterpiece, or bad pacing can reduce it to caterwauls.

Some months back, I read a new book by an author I like. I expected good things. Unfortunately, the pacing of the story left me frustrated and just anxious to get the durn thing over with. The protagonist, an investigator, was frequently approached by a mystery woman who may have had information he needed. The meetings usually consisted of her appearing suddenly, saying she needed to tell him something, then leading him to a small café or down a deserted alley. She spoke cryptically; he asked questions which she danced around, they both became angry and she rushed off. Over and over.

The author may have thought the emotionally-fraught meetings were adding tension to the story, but they added little else. They added no additional information. They did not move the story forward. Their only purpose, that I could see, was to frustrate me and make me less inclined to care if I finished the book or not.

Our job, as story-tellers, is to parcel out bits and pieces of the story line all along the length of the story. We do this not only to let the story build in an evolving, suspenseful way, but also to reward our readers. Sure, we don’t want to give away too much too soon, but we need to give the readers something as they go along. That book I was talking about was giving me nothing. I felt like I was doing the hard work of sticking with it to try to figure out the mystery, but I was getting nothing in return. It didn’t feel like a fair deal.

Just recently, I picked up a crime thriller that was free on a promo. I don’t normally gravitate to crime stories, but this one sounded interesting and had a ton of good reviews, so I tried it. I’m glad I did. The story began a trifle slowly, primarily because there were a lot of characters to be introduced to, but then quickly ramped up. I was almost halfway into it when I realized that I was really getting anxious about the turn of events. I suddenly realized that the author had completely pulled me in, and had moved me forward with rewards of revelations as the story unfolded. The story is told not only from the point of view of the investigator, but also from the POV of the bad guy, giving me inside knowledge about the crime and how it’s being carried out. That inside information, while not revealing too much about motive, still gave me more kernels of story than the investigator was getting, so while the police side was being stymied, the story was still moving forward fully and inexorably. The author was a master at turning the screws minutely but continuously. Once the police caught a break and began to put the pieces together, the story became two vectors moving rapidly toward a point of intersection. And I wasn’t going anywhere except along with them.

Right on the tail of this book, I picked up another free promo, a paranormal, which I love. It was about a medium in 1800s London and the male ghost she connected with as they tried to contain a demon, and it was great. The pacing of the story was perfect and the relationship tension built at a rate that pulled me happily along. As with the crime thriller, I was anxious to see how it all played out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. When I reached the end, one story line was resolved, but the relationship issue was not. That was going to continue into the next book. I was rather disappointed in this, but dutifully bought the next book in the series. That’s when things began to go downhill in a hurry.

The new story line was fine, but the push-pull of the relationship issue was getting tiresome. How many times can characters move toward each other, have second thoughts, and move away? How many times can they almost succumb to the overwhelming love they feel, give in to the doubts that fill their heads and back off? I quickly realized that the pacing of this dance was perfect in the first book, but had become contrived and overdone in the second. Rather than being fed a few tasty crumbs to keep me going, I felt like I was being tempted by a yummy cookie that was unceremoniously yanked away whenever I got too close. Because in the first book the couple had come about as close as they possibly could to consummating their relationship, they had already progressed from point A to point Y and only Z was left. There was no place to build to except full intimacy, and in order to maintain the tension of the story, that promise of resolution was never being kept. Again, it felt like a raw deal. I knew I wasn’t going to get the cookie until I got to the end of the book (maybe—there might be a third book!), but there were no crumbs left for me in the meantime. If the author had added the second book on as an afterthought, she had not taken pacing into account. If she had planned the series from the get-go, she still had not taken the pacing into account. As a writer, I found it interesting that a first book could be almost flawless, yet the second book was, in my mind, a total toss-off. And it was all because of the pacing.

So what is pacing? It’s rationing out bits of information a little at a time to move the story forward. It’s developing the characters so their personalities and relationships evolve in an ever-expanding way. And it’s rewarding the reader with “ah-ha” nuggets that keep them interested. Failing to find the correct pace in any of these areas can make the difference between compelling and contemptible, between fascination and frustration. And obviously, even the best authors can find the right pace … or not.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

18 thoughts on “Pacing…in Writing…Is…Everything”

  1. Excellent post Melissa! Here’s why. You are describing books with cliffhangers. Authors are tricking and disappointing the readers to entice that second book buy. Lorrie Farrelly just posted an eye-opening blog about cliffhangers
    Here. You are so on target.

    1. Thanks, Jackie; I’ll check it out. I think if an author is going to use this device, they should do two things: (1) let the reader know, up front, that the story continues and does not resolve fully at the end of the first book and (2) make sure the pacing is regulated over the entirety of the series. Otherwise, there are bound to be a lot of unhappy (like me) readers, and that pretty scotches the chances of buying another book.

  2. A great article on the importance of pacing, Melissa. I came across a crime novel where the clues and red herrings are well paced (and well placed) for most of the book then it’s as if the author feels they’ve done enough (or maybe they were told a novel had to be X thousand words) and there is a headlong rush to the grand finale. In romance novels where we expect there to be a certain amount of getting close and pulling back for one reason or another it can become tedious if the pacing isn’t right.

    1. Thanks, Mary. I totally agree. I hadn’t thought about the author writing to a page count, but that could be an issue, as you point out. (Maybe that’s why I never even consider page count as I write.) And as for the romances, many of them get that tedious push-pull and have nothing else working for them. If they have a very strong parallel story (as they should), it helps to alleviate this predictable two-step. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  3. I wonder whether the author of the paranormal book wasn’t taking a cue from various TV series, Melissa. I’ve seen some of these shows milk an all-but-consummated relationship for *years*. While that can work for viewers of a TV show, I think readers expect a payoff for the time they’ve invested in reading.

    1. I think so, too, Lynne. Like I say, if there’s something in the description to tip you off that this is an on-going situation, that’s one thing, but dangling that cookie out there over three books is just excessive and frustrating. (And I guess that’s why I watch very little network TV!)

  4. This was so timely for me because it’s the issue I am thinking about with my current WIP. So far I am 10000 words in and was worried that the pacing was too slow, that the plot was too linear. Fortunately two readers have told me it’s OK. Still, it’s something we all need to keep in mind throughout the process. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. It’s always a worry for us writers, I think, because WE know the whole story and it’s hard to know if we’re parceling out enough along the way. I guess the best indicator is the old “couldn’t put it down and couldn’t wait to get back to it.” That way we know we’re giving the reader enough to keep them interested, but not too much to give away the ending.

  5. When advising my clients I use the rollercoaster analogy: Think of your storyline like a rollercoaster. You build suspense to a point of crisis/revelation/aha!and then you slide downhill. Knowing that only makes things MORE complicated. They you beging another climb, another build another aha! then you throw them a few breathtaking curves and build again, and so on to the climax the pinnacle of revelation, then ease off and slow down a bit as all the remaining bits and stray threads are resolved. The MOST important is that EVERY peak should not only reveal something new to the reader, but something to the protagonist about themselves….

  6. “Our job, as story-tellers, is to parcel out bits and pieces of the story line all along the length of the story” –

    Great post Melissa. Especially liked the varying examples. Even not knowing the titles, I could envision what you were talking about. Glad you caught a the crime story and the first book of the paranormal series. Those make reading, and writing, so worth while! Thanks so much 🙂

  7. Great post, Melissa, with some excellent points. I can think of quite a few authors who could do with a lesson or two on pacing (not milking plot points to the agony of some readers: me for instance). And cliffhanging is definitely an art form, not everyone can do it, but cliffhanging the end of a book, in most cases, is a rip off.

    1. Thanks, TD. Pacing is something not always easy to grasp, but it’s like quality: you definitely know it when you see it, and you can tell when it’s not there. Cliffhanging has its place, as well, but I agree with you–not at the end of a book. That just feels like a cheat to me.

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