Good Novel Pacing: Better Than a Solid Pair of Spanx

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By Rachel Beck

Truth: Anything that is written has a pace. Just like anything in motion has a pace. And it is always being noticed and taken in—maybe not consciously, yet pacing is still ever-important in anything from an email to assembly instructions to a novel. With instructional types of writing, like how to assemble something, the steps have to be listed in the correct order; otherwise the pacing will be off, and you’ll never get your product put together. Applied to more creative channels of writing, a certain pacing is understood and expected. 

Think about communication with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. You’re not going to dump something huge on them in the first paragraph of your message—Hey Jen! It’s been so long! This year I got fired from my job, divorced from my husband, and my dog died too. No, this goes against everything we know about social etiquette, but it’s also a pacing issue. You’re going to spend the first paragraph making small talk, sending out well-meaning sentiments that you hope things have been going well for her in all this time you haven’t talked, and asking some rhetorical questions. Then you’ll lead her gently into the misery that has befallen you. This gentle leading can otherwise be called pacing.

In the above examples, if pacing is not properly observed, you’ll wind up with a head-scratching friend or a frustrating experience assembling a household item. But in the case of a novel, you’d probably both confuse and permanently lose your readers if you dump several depressing, Major Life Things on readers on page 1, before you’ve properly introduced the characters and set up the story more gradually. Pacing is like the foundation for your story, the layer of cement that holds two levels of a building together without being seen or even consciously observed most of the time—if the pacing is on! If it’s off, that’s when it gets noticed. So you want your pacing to be like good dental work, or the Spanx under your clothes: supporting and holding things together seamlessly, without being apparent.

So how to make pacing work for you? If you’re writing a romance novel, nailing strong pacing can be a bit trickier—the pacing is more transparent, for one thing; more on-the-page than in other genres, since the characters are meeting, going on dates and falling in love. Yes, as unromantic as it sounds, falling in love is a process. But just remember that as long as a pace is applied to that process, readers will stay with you. You can’t have the characters declaring their love for each other at the end of the first date, and getting engaged on the second. That’s just not reasonable or relatable! Furthermore, the book would end at the second date.

Another element that plays a role in pacing is conflict—in any genre, strong conflict must, must be present. If there’s insufficient conflict to keep the story charging forward, the pace will begin to feel sluggish, drawing reader attention to it. Further, where’s the hook to keep reading? Something needs to be at stake. Not only must the proper pacing be established while introducing the characters, their backstories and goals, so too must pacing be observed in the conflicts and obstacles—both plot-wise, externally, and within the characters themselves, internally. These are the juicy bits of pacing, the bumps on the road that keep a story from getting predictable, and keep the reader wondering what’s going to happen on the next page? If you can make a reader question everything she thought she’d predicted about a story’s next move, then you’ve done a fabulous job with pacing!

Rachel Beck is an agent with Holloway Literary. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_C_Beck.