One of the very most difficult elements of writing a novel to master is pacing.
Much like music, novels have a rhythm — you sort of expect things to unfold at a certain speed, things usually pick up at the end, and in the middle, if you’re ever thinking to yourself “Wow, this is getting slow,” by “slow” you mean things are not happening at the pace you expect as a reader.
Aside from plot, I’d say pacing is probably the second most important thing I used look for when I was reading a novel as a literary agent, and it is one of the very most difficult elements of writing to describe, let alone master.
BUT. Pacing is really important. Readers depend on pacing, especially in commercial fiction, even if they’re not even aware of it. I’ve seen a lot of people people malign The Da Vinci Code, but wow did that novel have some of the best pacing I’ve ever read. Dan Brown is a master of pacing — I seriously couldn’t put The Da Vinci Code down (when I wasn’t holding it up to a mirror).
So what, really, is pacing?
Pacing is the length of time between moments of conflict.
Here’s some (mumbo jumbo) human psychology (that I completely made up) for you: the human mind craves order. When a conflict arises in a novel, the brain wants to find out how it is resolved.
- When someone commits a crime, the brain wants to know if they are going to get caught.
- When someone has a fight with another character, the brain wants to know if they’re going to make up.
- When a character is walking toward a banana peel on the floor, the brain wants to know if a monkey put it there. (ha! Did you think someone was going to slip and fall? That’s called a reversal. Learn it. Also the monkey sees dead people and is Keyser Soze.)
So conflict creates an unanswered question, and you turn the page to find out the answer.
If you were to take out a novel and tick off instances of conflict, you’d find that in most novels there’s a certain rhythm to the way things unfold. In the beginning there’s a big unanswered question (the BUQ, if you will), and then as the character heads toward answering that BUQ, things happen at a certain pace.
Conflicts happen quickly as the author builds toward climaxes, and then usually there’s some room for the reader to catch their breath with a slower pace. New conflicts are introduced just as old ones are resolved.
When novels get slow
If there’s a very slow part in a novel, it’s often because there is no conflict — things are just happening. A reader craves the unanswered questions in order to keep on going. This rhythm of the novel is something that separates professional writers from amateurs — some people have that rhythm in their blood and don’t even have to think about it, other people have to really work hard at it.
So the next time you read a book you can’t put down, think beyond what is happening on the page and pick apart the rhythm of a novel. Mark down the moments of conflict and see how the author plays with that rhythm.
And who knows, with enough practice, maybe you’ll win that contest that I didn’t start.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Mail Coaches on the Road by Charles Cooper Henderson
I know there is the-‘this is too slow and I can’t keep my eyes open’pace and the perfect- ‘can’t put it down’ pace, but there is also the -‘this is way too much too fast’ problem. I lean towards this one with my work. I want to keep everybody busy and entertained- maybe too much. So I totally get your music and melody comparison. ie- the right tempo. ^_^ thanks for your thoughts.
Nathan Bransford says
Thanks so much for posting that, because it’s something I forgot to address (but meant to). Too-fast pacing is just as much of a problem as too-slow pacing.
I would call that pacing at the macro level. But there is also pacing at a much lower level. Events of importance should not flash by when we blink. Adding extra sensory detail is often an effective way to slow a scene down and give it greater weight.
There is also a rhythm to sentences, created by sentence length and structure. If there is too little variety, it comes across as monotonous, which can sometimes be useful as an alienating effect. But most of the time, an almost random variation in length and structure creates a much more pleasing and readable effect. I’m not sure if you call this pacing, but I’ve seen it called this by some authors.
Great take on this subject! Thanks.
Also the monkey sees dead people and is Keyser Soze.)
I scared my cat laughing out loud at this line.
And it’s important to note that different people have different tastes in pacing. One problem I have with the Dan Brown, James Patterson style of pacing is that it goes too damn fast for me. I want to slow down a bit, feel the tension mount. Not everyone has to be Anne Rice or Stephen King, where the author feels free to stop dead for a hundred pages of back story, but personally, I prefer a slow simmer to a quick broil.
Seems that pacing has quickened over the years. I often wonder if that is a reflection of our need for ‘instant gratification.’
I’ve noticed this in everything from books to movies to TV dramas. The slow reveal has died a quick death. Readers and viewers want and maybe even expect to be grabbed by the throat now. Some books read like those 30 second roller coaster rides, thrill after thrill with no time to catch a breath. TV shows and movies often subscribe to the same technique. Just note all the camera angles in an episode of CSI…short, quick shots.
I’m just not sure if the frantic pace is a good thing. We don’t get to savor a lot when we are being pulled through a plot.
Nathan Bransford says
I’ve noticed that as well. My girlfriend and I rented Dallas on DVD, and it was amazing how slowly everying was revealed in the first season — it was great, and the slow reveal is sort of a lost art on TV. There may be something to the fact that we are more used to instant gratifcation and tighter, quicker pacing.
bran fan says
For sure things are faster now. Compare the pacing of Disney’s “Aladdin,” especially the first song that Aladdin sings (where he has to stay one step ahead of everyone) to the pacing of “The Jungle Book” from 1967, where the snake sings “Trust in me” for what seems like twenty minutes.
Donald Maass talks about tension on every page. He says that this is a must. Every single page of manuscript must have tension. Now, this does not necessarily mean conflict on every page, but tension of some kind. For better or worse, this is what readers expect now.
However, this essential rhythm can be learned, just as music or dancing can be learned. With practice, it becomes–not effortless–but very natural.
A Paperback Writer says
I agree that the pacing of everything has gotten faster. Try watching “North By Northwest” after even something as “old” as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Whoa.
So, Dan Brown doesn’t read like Sir Walter Scott. That’s for sure.
Fast pacing to me means the reader has to take a break once in awhile just to rest as the author has worn him out with the story’s action. Also, I must be the only reader on the planet that had to force myself to finish the DaVinci Code. What a yawner. (plus, Brown screwed up the aircraft procedures of flying from France to the UK)But, what do I know? Brown has a gazillion copies of his book in print and I have but one well worn manuscript.
Thanks for bringing up the subject, Nathan.
I was amazed to learn the length between most movie edits is around five or six seconds. Grab a DVD and check it out.
Nathan Bransford says
Also, I want to clarify that although I think the pace of novels on average is quicker than it used to be, I don’t mind novels that have a slow pace. The most important thing is pace consistency. If your novel has a slow pace it all needs to be slow. If it’s fast it needs to be fast. There’s nothing to jar a reader like reading a slow first 50 pages and then get to multiple action sequences, or having a quick first 50 pages followed by slow character development.
Whether it’s fast or slow, consistency is most important.
good post, thanks.
After reading this topic I decided to open the first chapter with a conflict.
However the first chapter has two parts. The first part opens with a conflict that has a resolution and introduces the second conflict that isn’t completely resolved.
I hope it’s effective.
Steve Axelrod says
Umberto Eco makes an interesting point in his Harvard lectures about what he calls ‘lingering’ — intentionally slowing things down. It can be effective, but it assumes some good will and a healthy attention span in the reader. It’s a tough balancing act: you want to show the interior life of your characters and explore their world, but too much of it brings everything to a crashing halt. Not enough and you’re just writing a screenplay in prose. Patterson is one extreme;at the other end of the spectrum there’s Eco himself, who manges to dawdle through the murder mystery in The Name of the Rose and still keep yopu turning pages. Monks are drwoned in vats of blood … and you get to lern about the Donatist heresy! Best of both worlds.
I think pace is also dictated by genre. For the past three years I’ve judged first chapter contest entries for a local RWA chapter.
My first year I judged historical romances, then paranormals and this last year YA.
I am much more apt to appreciate a slower opening in a historical entry than a paranormal or even a YA.
I still expected to see conflict, both internal and external, in that first chapter. However, if it was a tad delayed in a historical I was okay with it. If it was delayed in a paranormal, the story often wasn’t working.
Seems to me that I’ve come to expect certain pacing from certain stories. Thoughts?
bran fan says
I’m sure that genre has everything to do with it. They are called “thrillers” for a reason. In general (and this is VERY general) literary fiction is slower, and–like Nathan says–consistently so. Thrillers are fast. Other genres fall somewhere in between.
I was amazed to learn the length between most movie edits is around five or six seconds. Grab a DVD and check it out.”
And then turn off the sound and watch how slow the edits appear to be.
I love a well-paced book, and Nathan you’re right – it can be slowly paced as well as fast-paced. If the writer is successful, it works.
Someone mentioned Patterson. I love reading him EVEN THOUGH he’s artificially manipulating the pacing by his short chapters, pov jumps, etc. I enjoy some of his work more thank others (the Cross books, naturally), and there’s a lot to be said for the single author head. The collaborations aren’t as strong for me, even the numbers books which are very popular.
The best paced books do have a lot of conflict, with something opening as another problem is solved.
North By Northwest is one of my favorite movies. I hadn’t seen it in a few years, and we rented it about a month ago.
It did seem slower than I’d remembered, and my memories of it were that something was always happening.
Hitchcock was great for pacing, and I recall somewhere he commented that that was how he edited. Interesting how even a master can be dated against today’s standard.
My favorite writer, WEB Griffin, has an interesting pace consisting of spates of fast and intense action in the midst of multiple chapters containing slow story developement.
Ohmagawd! I’m trying to work my way through the blog, but had to stop and comment. I laughed so hard at, “Also the monkey sees dead people and is Keyser Soze,” I had tears rolling down my cheeks! I pity anyone who doesn’t get the reference.
OK, back to reading – I am learning so much! Thank you!
There was one book that kept me glued from the first page to the end of the novel: Neuromancer.
I think I sort of have an idea why. its something I always liked: Its simple sentences, you don't notice the writing, and when you do its written like people talk.