Wednesday, August 3, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 23: Pacing

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Welcome to week twenty-three of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. Somehow I managed to catch up with my weeks, and I posted Chapter 23 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was Storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: Theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Week thirteen: how to write a scene.

Week fourteen: Where to start.

Week fifteen: Prologues.
Week sixteen: Dividing Your Book Into Chapters and Scenes Week seventeen: Write Fast and Free
Week eighteen: Dialogue and Thought
Week nineteen: Character and Author Voice
Week twenty: Action
Week twenty-one: Description
Week twenty-two: Exposition

A Reminder

We're getting close to the end of the #WeWriteBooks series, which means the CONTEST IS COMING! Eight weeks from now, we will open the contest on Wednesday, September 14. So keep that date in mind.

As promised, Stephanie is teaching about writing a synopsis. She did her first post this last Monday and will finish the series next week. Click here if you missed the first post.

A Confession

The ending of THIRST is not coming together the way I had originally planned. This isn’t uncommon for me when I'm writing a first draft. So, I had to take some time to brainstorm through the problems to find out what was broken with the story and how I could fix it. That showed me that I’m going to need to make some significant changes in the rewrite. Specifically, my pacing is messed up.

I was trying to build up to a major climax at the end, but it wasn't working. Right now the book is kind of rambling along, and I don’t like that. Also, my antagonist doesn’t appear in the story until past the halfway point, which is strange. So, I'm writing the climax anyway, and then later I'll go back and fix the middle, adding in events to help build to this climax.

I honestly think I might have two books here instead of one because I spend half the book trying to get my characters to Colorado. And then when they get to Colorado, it's a whole new world with new problems, goals, and even a new antagonist. I have the “discovery of the Pandemic” story. Then I have a separate “arrive in Mount Crested Butte and try to make a life of it” story. Feels like two books to me. We shall see whether or not editors agree later on.

I share all that both to give you an update on my story and to lead into today's topic. Trust your instincts. Most writers love reading enough to have a good sense of when a story isn't working. And if your story isn't working, take a look at the pacing.

Today's Topic: Pacing

Pacing is a literary tool that controls the progress, speed, and rhythm of how a story unfolds, how much time passes, and how fast or slow a character moves through the events of the story.

Genre influences pacing. Action, thrillers, science fiction, and mysteries tend to have a quicker pace than romance, literary fiction, or coming-of-age stories. No matter what genre you’re writing, you want to keep the reader engaged. The pacing needs to be perfectly balanced. Not so fast that the reader is exhausted, but not so slow that they get bored or frustrated.

Tips for Pacing

Tips for story structure
There is a reason why the three-act structure is so popular for storytelling. It gives stories a beginning, middle, and end; keeps them moving along at a good pace; and helps the action rise and fall at natural places. Act one should include the inciting incident and a major plot point. Act two should be filled with rising action, including a midpoint twist to help you avoid the sagging middle, and leading up to a second major plot point that leaves the main character at their darkest moment. Act three is all about resolution. The main character makes one final stand to save the day, which causes the pacing to rise in action until it reaches the climax of the story. What follows is the falling action, in which all loose ends are tied up. Outlining your novel can help you anticipate where your pacing might need tweaking.

Make them wait
Planting good questions in the reader’s mind is a great way to keep them turning the pages. It builds suspense, which drives the story continually forward. Oftentimes, the longer you prolong the outcome, the faster readers will turn the pages.

Tips for word choice
The words you choose can greatly affect the pacing of a scene. As you rewrite, take care to look at the words in each scene. Words evoke emotion, so make sure to choose words that create the desired pacing. Fast-paced action words like: slam, break, sprint, and knock create a different type of momentum compared to words like: saunter, whisper, float, and cradle. Also consider word length. Short words pack a punch, while long words create a more leisurely pace. The sound of words can also affect pacing.

Tips for sentence structure
The same rules that apply to word choice apply to sentence structure. Length, whether short or long, affects the momentum of a scene. Short sentences are simple. Sometimes fragmented. They convey intensity and speed. Long and flowing sentences, on the other hand, give the reader a sense of pause, forcing them to pay closer attention to something the author doesn’t want them to forget. If you’re writing a scary scene or an intense fight, take a look at your sentence lengths. It might help to shorten some and use more fragments.

Arrive Late and Leave Early
Writers often start a scene way too early, long before the action begins. Stories that jump the gun risk boring the reader early on. The same can be true of where you end a scene or chapter. Look for the perfect place to stop that entices your reader to turn the page or move on to read just one more scene.

Great novels have great pacing. This means balance. When you edit your book, look at your scenes to find a careful balance of exposition, action, dialogue, emotion, and description. Some scenes should race along in a rapid succession of action and dialogue, others should be introspective and meander. Alternating in some form helps keep your reader engaged. Too many fast scenes in a row can exhaust readers, while too many slow scene can bore them. Good pacing is all about variety and that you never remain on one extreme for too long.

Want to slow things down?

Add details
Details slow down the action. They are like a flag to the reader that says, “Pay attention!” If you want to slow your pace, find something in particular to focus on. This might be a clue, a subplot, a new character, a revelation, entering a new location, or having a disaster that forces your characters to stop and grieve.

Add description 
Description slows down a story because it is static and doesn’t move. You can describe in motion, but if you are looking to slow down your pacing, stopping to have your character describe something in full will get the job done.

Show instead of tell 
Working hard to show through an entire scene will add a lot of words and lengthen the scene. This happens sometimes in dialogue when a character is sharing something deep and personal that takes up a lot of space. It also could take the form of a character learning some new skill in painstaking detail. Just be careful to keep things interesting.

Flashbacks and backstory 
Both are typically no nos in fiction, but used carefully, they can slow down the pacing of a scene.

Switch points of view  
Any time you switch point of view, you slow the story for the reader, who needs to pause to adjust to the new character.

Want to speed things up?

Add dialogue 
Dialogue can move scenes along. When it's short and snappy, it gives the reader lots of white space so they can flip through pages faster. It’s interesting and creates conflict when it ping pongs back and forth. If you’re not careful, it can also be slow, so make sure to take into account what is being said, why, and how. Snappy dialogue can make the pages fly. I’ve often been so tickled by great dialogue that I instantly went back and read it again. I realize doing that takes me out of the story, but in a good way.

Tell instead of show 
If you need to get somewhere fast, tell. I do this often in epic fantasy. My characters have to travel the equivalent of a three-month sea voyage? I’m going to summarize that in a few sentences to save my readers from boredom. Reserve your scenes for all the cool and interesting stuff, and put the boring bits in narrative.

Skip description and details 
Just as adding long descriptions and extra details slow down a scene, leaving them out can speed things up. If you’re trying to keep the action swift, keep any description or details short and sweet.

Omit character thoughts 
Don’t let your point of view character ruminate about what’s going on in life if you’re trying to keep things fast-paced. Save these introspective thoughts for the slow-paced section.

Rewrite sentences that start with –ing words
Sentences that begin with a continuing action verb not only have the tendency to create physical impossibilities, they sound silly and slow when the author usually means for them to show fast, simultaneous action. Take this one, for example: “Throwing the ball to the Mike, I ran through the key, darted out onto the base line, and caught Mike’s pass to shoot a jump shot and win the game.” This character cannot do all those things simultaneously, and this sentence is so wordy it’s confusing. Better to write something like: I passed the ball to Mike and ran through the key. I faked left, then popped out the base line. Mike was ready. A quick bounce pass behind the defense, and I hit a nice jumper. We won the game.

Use cliffhangers 
Nothing makes a reader turn a page faster than a good cliffhanger. We’ve all been there. We’re reading a good book. We’re tired. We glance at the clock. Man! It’s past midnight already? We’ve got to go to sleep. Got work tomorrow. We flip through the pages top see how close we are to a good stopping point. Only two more pages? I can make that. Then I’ll stop. But when we get to the end of the chapter . . . Gah! Who was at the door? We turn the page to read the next few lines and before we know it, it’s past one a.m. So when you go back to edit those scene and chapter endings, make sure you have plenty of scene interruptions, mysterious surprises, unfinished actions, near revelations, challenges, threats, or unfinished conversations. Readers will love it.

Skip the boring parts 
In film or television, a jump cut is an abrupt transition from one scene to another. You can do this in fiction too. The team just found a hint of where the treasure is buried, but they need to drive across town? Jump cut! End your scene, skip over the drive, and start the next scene with the team arriving where X marks the spot. These types of things will keep the action moving along.

Write short chapters and scenes 
Books with short chapters and short scenes just seem to be faster to read, even if they’re over five hundred pages long. Such short portions of text are easy to digest. Something important happens in every one, so the reader blazes through them, learns what they need to know, then flips to the next. Click here to read my post on how to divide your book into chapters. 

Lengthen the calendar 
How much time passes in the course of your book? Books that cover months or years tend to seem like time is passing more quickly than a three hundred-page book that takes place in a single day. Play around with your timeline to see if changing some things might help your pacing.

More posts to help

Assignment time

What does your pacing looking like so far? Have you utilized any of these techniques? Which ones work best for you? Which ones would you like to try? Share in the comments.


  1. I have a feeling this post is going to be very useful in my editing... I DEFINITELY need to quicken my pace in some places, and generally shorten many of my points. The second draft for my first book ended up with a little under 300k words, which is WAY too long (especially if it's going to be book one of four). I think the beginning of a story is the easiest place to have the pace too slow, because the characters are still coming together and starting their journey. Thanks so much for this!

    1. Since I have five POVs, I can attest to the fact that bringing characters together can be difficult. Especially when setting up for a series because of all the foreshadowing.

    2. That's true, Charlotte. Especially in the fantasy genre where there is so much to set up. Maybe look for a scene that involves your hero and at least one other main character doing something that reveals both an important aspect of the storyworld and gives you a chance to strongly characterize your hero. A scene like that can be a great way to draw readers in.

  2. I have heard that bad pacing is the mark of a beginning author.

    1. It can be, though many things can be the mark of a beginning author. *grin* Bad pacing can also be the mark of a first draft that needs to be rewritten. The more time an author puts into a book, the better it usually is. Too many books get rushed to print these days.

  3. Thanks for this post, I think that the slowing things up and making things faster is what makes the pacing work for me. I also think that the more I write, the better and more naturally the pacing comes. For the first book I wrote everything went by waaaay too quickly and now on my third novel, everything seems just about right. 'Course I haven't finished it yet so we'll see how that works. Thanks for the post! I'll definitely be using the tips in here more consciously :)

    1. This is a fabulous point, Emma. The more you write, the better you get at it. So many authors beat themselves up because they aren't producing a perfect novel on their first, second, or even third try. That just isn't a fair or realistic expectation. If I decided to start piano lessons, should I be upset I'm unable to play Mozart yet? Nope. Because proficiency takes time and effort. So the fact that you're on your third novel and things are shaping up nicely is a well-earned fact. Your hard work is paying off! So proud of you, Emma. Keep it up! :-)

  4. Wonderful post! I just discovered a pacing mistake I made while writing my synopsis before my second draft (that being said, the thing wrong with my original synopsis was pacing). So glad I caught it. I was able to combine three or four singular events and string them together. It makes more sense now, and my WIP will be much better for it.

    1. That's awesome, James. It's always exciting when stuff like that falls into place. Good job!

  5. My pacing is very off, I realized. This post will really help in the rewrites! My slower scenes go too quickly, and I don't build enough tension. Thanks for the post!

    1. You're welcome! So glad this helped. :-)

  6. I think my pacing is a bit fast in the beginning, but slow in the middle. This info will be really helpful. Thanks for another great post Jill!!!