3 Things to Think About when Pacing Your Novel

Guest post by author Robison Wells

Just like there’s no one “right” way to write a book, there’s no one “right” way to pace a novel. Sometimes you need to move slower and sometimes you need to move faster. It’s a balancing act that depends a great deal on your genre, style, voice, and intent. I tend to write thrillers, which are very fast paced, with only the occasional pause to catch your breath. On the other hand, historical fiction and epic fantasy might move at a much slower pace. In this article I want to talk about a three tools you can use to speed up or slow down your novel.

#1. Adjust your sentence length.

There are a lot of things that you can do with the length of your sentences. If you’ve ever read Victorian or Dickensian literature, you’ll know that sentences tended to be quite long and complex. This can convey a lot of information, tone, and voice, but it also takes the brain longer to process and therefore slows down the reader. Take, for example, this paragraph from Pride and Prejudice:

“Elizabeth passed the chief of the night in her sister’s room, and in the morning had the pleasure of being able to send a tolerable answer to the inquiries which she very early received from Mr. Bingley by a housemaid, and some time afterwards from the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters. In spite of this amendment, however, she requested to have a note sent to Longbourn, desiring her mother to visit Jane, and form her own judgement of her situation. The note was immediately dispatched, and its contents as quickly complied with. Mrs. Bennet, accompanied by her two youngest girls, reached Netherfield soon after the family breakfast.”

That’s 110 words, and only four sentences, and each sentence has multiple clauses. Compare that to this to sample from David Baldacci’s FBI thriller Long Road to Mercy:

“Andersonville, Georgia,” he mused. “Lots of deaths there. Confederate prison in the Civil War. The commandant, Henry Wirz, was executed for war crimes. Did you know that? Executed for doing his job.” He smiled. “He was Swiss. Totally neutral. And they hanged him. Some weird justice.”

That’s only 46 words, but 11 sentences. It moves forward at a much more rapid clip, pulling you quickly through the paragraph. You lose out on some of the beauty of language, and the complexity of structure, but you get a lot of information quickly–and you get some characterization along with it.

#2. Give your readers a chance to catch their breath. (Or don’t.)

I recently had the experience of co-writing a book with James Patterson (The Warning, to be released in August) and one thing Patterson—the bestselling author in the world, who obviously knows how to grip readers—says is to never give the reader a break. He told me “I want every chapter to have a big cool thing. One on top of another, never let up.” If this sounds a little bit like the literary equivalent of a Fast and Furious movie, it should. He wanted action on top of action.

On the flip side, there are pacing techniques like the Dwight V. Swain “Scene and Sequel” method: a scene, Swain says, is action that does not have a jump in space or time. A sequel is the reaction, dilemma, and decision that links two scenes together. The sequel is where you have most of your exposition, character exploration, theme and introspection.

So, in the Patterson book, we had a lot of “scene” but very short “sequels”. In a Regency romance—a novel with typically much more introspection—you might want the opposite: a short scene and a long sequel in which you can react, explore, introspect, or breathe.

#3. Add or decrease description and imagery.

In my debut novel, Variant, Publishers Weekly referred to “taut, sparse prose”. Effectively, that meant that I don’t use a lot of description, and hardly ever use metaphor or flowery language. It makes the story (a YA sci-fi thriller) move very quickly, at the expense of getting detailed pictures of people and places.

This is all the description that we get in the first chapter of the building where most of the story takes place:

The building was four stories tall and probably a hundred years old, surrounded by a neatly mowed lawn, pruned trees, and planted flowers. It looked like the schools I’d seen on TV, where rich kids go and they all have their own BMWs and Mercedes. All this place was missing was ivy on the stone walls, but that was probably hard to grow in a desert.

Compare that language to Tolkien’s description in The Two Towers:

All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

Tolkien conveys far more imagery and metaphor in his prose than I do in mine, but mine moves at a much more rapid pace—it gives you just enough information to keep up, and then we move on with the story.

In all pacing techniques, there will be a trade off: when you move faster, you lose some description, imagery, introspection, and a chance to breathe. Choosing what is right for you, your style, and your genre is a decision left up to you, but hopefully these three things will give you something to think about.

Robison Wells is the author fourteen novels, published in nine languages. He also holds an MBA from BYU’s Marriott School of Business, and trades his time between writing and marketing. He’s a graphic artist of the old school—pen and ink, not fancy computers—and in his spare time, he builds and paints models, reads voraciously, and always has a business idea up his sleeve. He is schizophrenic (among other things) and is an outspoken advocate for those with mental illness. He has a wife, three children, and a black Lab.

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