What is pacing?
Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences. It is also the rate at which the reader reads and the speed at which the events unfold. By using specific word choices and sentence structure– scene, sequel, chapter, novel structure– we can tap the emotions of the reader so that the reader feels what the writer wants them to feel at any given point in the story.
Pacing is especially important in crime writing.
Almost everything you read on the internet deals with picking up the pace, because so many new writers pace their novels too slowly. But what if you’re like me, someone who writes at break-neck speed, never giving the reader a break from the action? I know when I’m doing it too. I’m literally on the edge of my seat, feeling like I just drank 40 cups of caffeine.
Why would too fast be a problem? People want to curl-up with a good book and be entertained. They do not want to wipe the sweat from their brow, the action happening so fast they feel like they’re on a never-ending roller coaster, and they need to unwind after reading your story. Honestly, sometimes when I’m writing my first drafts I feel wired — sweaty, hot, the muscles in my shoulders knotted into balls of pure stress. If that’s how my story makes ME feel imagine what I’m doing to my reader.
Picture this: A husband comes home after a long day at the office and sees his wife sweaty, hot, pacing the house to unwind after reading your story. What do you think is the first thing that will go through his mind? An affair.
“No, I swear,” the wife provided. “I was just reading Sue Coletta’s latest novel.”
“Yeah, right.” Husband rolled his eyes. “Sure you were.”
Divorce papers come by process-server the next day.
Do you want to be responsible for breaking up a marriage? I sure don’t. I want my reader to enjoy my stories, be entertained, not need to soak in a bath to unwind afterward, or go for a run to release the tension I put in their body.
My point is, slowing the pace is just as important as speeding it up.
To ensure the correct pacing of your novel let’s go through a few quick, easy fixes.
1. Word choices and sentence structure.
Language itself is the subtlest means of pacing. Think concrete words. Concrete words are nouns that you experience through your senses. Example: smoke, mist, iceberg. Use active voice and sensory information that’s artfully embedded. If you write long, involved paragraphs, try breaking them up into shorter ones.
Fragments, staccato sentences, and short paragraphs quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named. Example: sizzle, crash, scamper, lunge. Using these kinds of words quicken the pace. Staccato sentence examples are: She froze. Paused. Spun. One or two word sentences are easily digestible and therefore speed up your pacing.
2. Adjust your MRUs.
If you don’t know what Motivation/Reaction Units are see my post entitled The Importance of MRUs.
Let’s briefly review but gear the MRUs toward pacing.
Say you have a grizzly bear standing feet from a man at the end of his driveway. It’s dark and the man was about to take his dog for a walk when he encountered the bear.
To increase the pacing make your MRUs fast and short.
[Motivation] The bear rose up on his hind legs and roared.
[Reaction] The man froze. His eyes slid down to his dog, then back up to the bear.
[Motivation] The bear dropped to all fours and charged.
Jab, jab, jab, like a boxer who doesn’t allow his opponent to punch back. Motivation, reaction, motivation, reaction. Can you see the blood flying from a split lip?
To slow the pacing down… drag out the MRUs.
The bear rose up on his hind legs. In that position he stood almost ten feet tall. The hairs on his thick, coarse nutmeg coat hackled as if his entire body was ready for a fight. His massive paws were the size of the man’s head with four-inch long spikes for nails, able to slash open a human skull with one swipe.
The man froze, his eyes slid down to his dog and then back up to the bear. A sheen of sweat coated his face and his thoughts jumbled, not knowing whether to run or stand his ground.
The bear roared. Below a wet inky-black nose a pale pink tongue curled, and the moonlight glinted off razor-sharp bisque-white teeth. A ball of spit dangled off his left canine, and the man watched it fall to the bear’s chest.
The man’s heart soared to two-hundred beats per minute. The vein in his neck throbbed and the lateral muscles in his shoulders tightened with crippling fear.
The dog barked, his muscular legs pitched forward as he lunged at the bear. Then he let out a low guttural rumble in the back of his throat in a defiant display of protection. The bear dropped down to all fours, and right then a rancid odor hit the man in the face like a slap from a jilted lover. Gravel crunched under the man’s feet as he twirled around to bolt in the opposite direction. His grip tightened on the handle of the leash. Dragging his dog behind, he hightailed it toward the deck, three yards away.
By mentioning every little detail– reactions must be in the order they occur– you are creating tension for your reader and not speeding through the action. The reader can see the events unfold before their eyes, and feel the man’s fear. Your reader is right there with you, glued to every word to see what happens next.
In crime writing especially you want to drag out the suspenseful scenes to increase tension. You do not want to run through them quickly or you’ll lose that visceral response we all want from our reader. The only time you’d want short, quick jabs are when events occur in rapid succession. Then you’d want to keep your reader on the edge of their seat. This is especially effective when you are writing a chase scene. Your protagonist is being chased by the antagonist, for example. Then you’d want the action to move quickly to pull your reader along with you.
3. Short chapters and scenes.
Short paragraphs, scenes and chapters are easily digestible. By doing this you are increasing the pacing of your story. If anyone has read James Patterson you know he uses this technique in almost all of his books. Some of his chapters are only two pages long. I do this in my work too, only I never have less than five pages. Two page chapters seem a little short to me. Even as a reader of James Patterson I find myself wanting more than just two pages. It leaves me feeling a little ripped off. But hey, his career speaks for itself. Who am I to judge?
In my next post, we’ll look at cliffhangers, scene cuts, and other devices that aid in pacing your novel. Stay tuned.
Have you ever gotten a remark from an agent or beta-reader that said your pacing was off? What was the problem and how did you correct it?
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