Pacing, the Toughest Hurdle
by Vaughn Treude
When we begin writing fiction, a number of issues confront us as novices. Issues of technical proficiency such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation are first on the list. Then come dialog, plotting, and the creation of believable characters. Yet the biggest challenge, in my view, is pacing. Writing on FictionFactor.com, Dr. Vicki Hinze calls pacing “the rhythm of the novel,” which affects the rate at which the reader reads. Good pacing can propel a mediocre story to greatness, and bad pacing can doom a great idea to obscurity.
Why is pacing so difficult? It’s partly because it’s totally a judgment call, and I haven’t come up with a good rule of thumb to measure it. Pacing consists largely of the details the writer chooses to include or leave out. Assuming the characters are human, they will eat, sleep and walk one step at a time, like real people do. Rarely are these routine activities crucial to a story, though if used sparingly, they can help make the story more realistic.
An appropriate pace varies by genre. A Gothic romance will include lots of description, dialogue, and the characters’ internal monologue. A science fiction military adventure, however, should move along rapidly. Furthermore, tastes have changed over the years, as well. If you read classic works from the nineteenth century, you’ll see that readers were more patient in those days.
Recently I read novels by two different self-published science fiction writers. One had a great concept, including a revolutionary “smart drug” which was the center of a number of cloak and dagger conspiracies. The story should have been great, but it also included dozens of characters, each of whom the author felt obliged to introduce, name, and describe physically. I wanted to shout “No!” On the other hand, a different author had written a steampunk adventure with a premise that wasn’t particularly creative, yet he kept the action moving right along with only as much description as he needed. The pacing literally made the story.
When I first began writing fiction, I had a hard time getting the pacing right. Especially in writing science fiction, if I had a great concept, I wanted to describe it in the minutest detail. Then if I wanted to get the characters to a certain situation and place, I’d gloss over the transitional scenes. My pacing was inconsistent, which is perhaps a greater problem than writing it too fast or too slow.
A case in point was a Western by an author with several books under his belt. It had one of the strongest beginnings of anything I’ve ever read, as the protagonist faced a sudden threat to his life. In succeeding chapters, the story slowed dramatically as the hero prepared to start a new life out West. It was obvious the author had done meticulous research about the period he wanted to share. I could forgive the discussions about firearms, because that was the lead character’s stock and trade. We didn’t, however, need to know all the details of horses, wagons, foodstuffs, etc. Thankfully the book picked up later, as the main character and his companions encountered crooked riverboat gamblers, roadway bandits, and hostile Indian tribes. If I weren’t a compulsive finisher, I might have abandoned it before I got to the good parts.
Every good rule has an exception, however. My wife and I are big fans of Japanese animation and recently watched a series called Flowers of Evil, a drama involving teenagers with some serious psychological issues. In one episode, a boy and girl sneak into school at night and vandalize their classroom. After their frenzy of destruction, their walk home seems like a crawl. It builds tension. You can literally feel the anguish of the conflicted male protagonist as he agonizes over what will happen if they get caught.
In short, pacing is critical to fiction. Unfortunately, I have no magic bullet or even a good rule of thumb; I rely on feedback from my beta readers and fellow writers. Reading extensively has helped me see what works and what doesn’t, as I’ve tried to illustrate in the preceding examples. The most important thing is to be acutely aware of pacing, particularly during the editing process. Are these details appropriate or not? To sum up, though, pacing is more of an art than a science.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota where the isolation of his home made books a welcome escape. He has been reading sci-fi as long as he can remember. In 2012, he published his first novel, Centrifugal Force. Since then he has concentrated on Steampunk, writing Fidelio’s Automata and coauthoring the “Ione D.” series with Arlys Holloway. See Vaughn’s blog at steampunkdesperado.com.