Are We There Yet? Setting the Pace

It’s day 10 and counting for Nanowrimo participants. That means as of the end of today, you should be about a third of the way through your Nano novel. Which brings me to pacing, and pacing is a vital part of storytelling, no matter if you’re writing a novel in a month or over a year.

Pacing is just what it sounds like: The speed at which you move your characters through the story — and your readers along with them. So what exactly determines the pace of your story? Just about everything you write.

Big-picture pacing has to do with the nuts and bolts of your story. Do you kick off your book with an action-packed scene, or do you introduce your protagonist and set up their current situation before you throw them for a loop? Do you introduce supporting characters soon or gradually? How soon do your characters set out on their journey, whether it’s literal or figurative?

How swiftly do you build suspense? If you kill someone in the first few pages and set up a scenario that points toward a body count, the deaths might come with fewer pages between the farther you get into the story. The killings might be more brutal and/or more personal. Is the protagonist a potential victim? Their significant other? Are people getting kidnapped before turning up dead?

In a romance, the couple’s exchanges get more tangled as the story progresses. As you ramp up their attraction and sexual tension, you also want to push more obstacles in their way. The harder and more complicated those obstacles are to overcome, the faster your reader will push forward to read what comes next, to see how you solve everything and create that happily ever after.

Fantasy stories are often about quests or adventures, where the characters undergo rites of passage and trials along the way. Weather and the landscape serve as obstacles, along with minions of the antagonist, tricky magic, and sometimes their own poor choices.

A good thing to keep in mind while you’re building suspense and moving your characters forward: Obstacles can be both physical and mental. A mix of both is the most effective and realistic scenario, and the mental obstacles will often last over the course of the story and tie in with your resolution. But watch out for letting characters get too “thinky” about their internal issues. Long internal monologues can bog down a character and the story pacing along with them.

Page turners are just what they sound like. You create a story that has readers anxious to find out the next step in the journey. But plot points aren’t the only way to increase tension and push readers forward. Remember that sentence structure and word choice can convey a sense of urgency. Used sparingly, techniques such as reducing paragraphs to short, tight sentences can help to build tension. Read your narrative out loud and hear the difference in your word choices. Hard, clipped consonants make for a staccato beat, moving the reader’s attention forward. Listen to the rhythm of your sentences.

Brief exchanges of dialogue between two characters that have the bare minimum of attributions — the he saids and she saids — can convey a variety of tense moments. Perhaps one character is pressing the other to give them information, or a character is too upset or traumatized by a recent experience to speak swiftly despite the fact that time is of the essence. That feeling that the information being withheld, intentionally or not, can ratchet up a situation for readers as well. In this case, both the style of the writing and its content help set the pace of your story.

We’ve all seen the diagram of a story plot. It looks like a long climb up the side of a mountain, until you reach the pinnacle, and with it the climax of your story. The downward slope on the far side is generally far shorter, as your resolution ties up the end of your story. But you’re the judge of how steep that initial climb should be. Too flat and there’s no challenge, and you’ll lose your reader’s interest. Too steep and you’ll wear them out with your acrobatics, or else they’ll get confused by the twists and turns and give up entirely.

Finding the pace for your story is more than just getting the words down. For Nano participants, churning out the sentences is the main concern at this point, but building the initial climb — that ramp constructed of tense moments and thrilling plot points — helps to create a strong skeleton of a first draft for any writer. If your story keeps you writing, if you’re excited to see what comes next and to push forward and write it, there’s a good chance your reader will be just as anxious to share the journey.


2 thoughts on “Are We There Yet? Setting the Pace

  1. Wow! There is a wealth of fantastic advice in this one post.

    For me, your comment about obstacles, both physical and mental, was both a reminder and affirmation. During my second re-write, I was so focused on limiting the internal dialogue I went the other way on this version. As a result, my scenes are lacking in internal commentary and I’m having to rework and insert a bit more here and there. The good news is, I find that easier than cutting it out. It’s gratifying to see my characters coming to life as I add texture and depth with a splash of internal commentary.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you’re finding it useful. That balance between internal and external can be tricky, and of course it’s going to be different from project to project.

Comments are closed.