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.
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Art: Mail Coaches on the Road by Charles Cooper Henderson