Thursday 27 May 2010


Let's talk about pace. The word is fairly explanatory. Speed. How quickly the plot develops. But it’s not as simple as that. For a start, not all types of book need to be “pacy” (fast) and not all types of reader require the same level of pace. “Pacy” is not necessarily a value judgement, either, simply a statement that this book moves quickly. Yes, many (most?) readers like a story to move sufficiently fast, but not too fast and not all at the same speed. Your reader needs to be able to breathe.

You must vary the pace, otherwise three things will happen:
  1. Your story will be monotonous and less enjoyable.
  2. Your story will be monotonous and you will look unskilled.
  3. The moments of climax and greatest tension and power will be less powerful.
The most important thing to say about pace is this: you must control it. This means that you must:
  1. Know what you aim to achieve with the overall pace of this book.
  2. Decide at which points in the story you want to speed up and where you want to slow down.
  3. Know how to achieve those effects.
Regarding the first point, this is a decision you have to make on your own, based on your understanding of your readers’ needs, the requirements of your genre and what is right for this book. Some types of book allow a slower build, and attract patient readers who are happy to delve into details; whereas others need a car-chase or murder every five pages. If you don’t know this about your genre and your book, then you have a problem which I can’t solve. So, bugger off and go and do some more reading.

WHEN to vary pace
You will need to build this into your plan. If you are a formal planner, you can make a physical note of the places where you want to create a change of pace. Or, if you’re like me and not a formal plotter, you will have to learn to get a feel for these moments.

And these moments are when, exactly? Usually, either just before or just after moments of great tension or drama. Here are some options:
  1. You have been building up to something, dropping clues, winding up the tension…and you take a breath, offering a slightly slower scene, trusting that your readers will stay with you, tormenting them slightly. This must be carefully handled because if your readers aren’t 100% with you, they may lose interest.There's only so much torment they'll take: judging this is part of the dark arts of being a real writer.
  2. You are building up to something (as above) and then pile in a fast, dramatic scene which the reader thinks IS the culmination but actually there’s MORE to come. So, a sprint towards but not quite at the end of an already fast race.
  3. After 2. you will certainly need to slow down.
  4. After several scenes of drama and Big Moments, you could / probably should slow down with a more gentle scene, before moving forward again into the tension.
So, HOW to vary pace?
1. Chapter ends and cliff-hangers
This is where I get to show you my patent breathing exercises. (Not for the first time, but some of you are new to this blog). And, more excitingly, where I teach you how to control your readers’ breathing. How amazing is that? That’s real power. You, the author, god in your own world, get to control a reader's breath.

Think of one chapter as one breath, in and out. Now, you can either breathe in first and then out, or the other way round, yes? First, try the in-breath first, finishing on a big exhale. It feels complete, doesn’t it? Well, that’s like a chapter that finishes at the end of the dramatic moment, with the tension released. The reader could stop reading for the moment and pick it up again later.

Now try breathing out first, followed by a big in-breath. Not complete, is it? You can’t stop there; moment of tension; what’s going to happen next? That’s like a chapter that finishes just before the crucial event, a cliff-hanger, the reader on tenterhooks. No way is the reader going to put the book down now.

Controlling your chapter breaks in this way is your most effective single tool for controlling pace. This was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. By varying the point in the action where you end your chapters, you control whether your reader will be likely to choose that moment to put the book down for a rest, or whether he will be compelled to read on. Of course, you are supposed to allow your reader to rest at some point, otherwise you risk exhausting him at the wrong moment, but you want him to rest at the time of your choosing. This is about control, which is probably why I love being a writer: I'm a control-freak.

2. Chapter lengths
The length of your chapters (or sections within a chapter if you have chosen that device) also affects pace. Clearly short chapters create greater speed, a kind of breathlessness. I use short chapters most of the time now; this is partly because in recent years I’ve written almost exclusively for teenagers, and they are very busy creatures who need extra work to keep them reading. A more normal method, and the one I’d use for writing for adults, would be to vary chapter length, using shorter ones for greatest impact and pace.

3. Sentence lengths
Again, short sentences create a faster pace and are very useful to create suspense. If you use them all the time, their ability to create suspense lessens. So, keep them for when you actually want them. (Short sentences have other uses as well, and suit certain voices, so it’s not only about pace.)

4. Sentence style and formality
If you are using a formal, strictly-grammatical style, accurately but self-consciously juggling your subordinate clauses and phrases, incorporating participles and absolutes like a descendant of Cicero, your pace will tend towards something slower and more considered than otherwise. However, do note that long, complex sentences do not suggest pace. While you can’t pepper a Woodhousian formality with the literary equivalent of a high five or Yo! Dude!, you will need to find a way to vary your pace by simplifying your complex sentences at the right moments.

4. Taking a break
After fast-paced sections, and after or before major climactic episodes, taking a break for a more gentle scene can improve your book in many ways:
•    It allows the reader to reflect, to process better what has happened or is about to happen.
•    It gives you an opportunity to show your characters in a different, more enriching light.
•    By providing contrast, it actually heightens the drama.
•    It allows your book to become multi-dimensional.

The first time I remember consciously doing this was in Fleshmarket. One of the (many) negative comments my irritatingly perceptive editor made about the not-very-good first draft was that it was relentlessly grim. Bearing in mind that this is a book about death, surgery without anaesthetic, blood poisoning, filth, poverty and dead bodies, I took this as a compliment but I also had to deal with it. So, one of the things I did was to take the two most down-trodden and abused characters up Arthur’s Seat one hot summer evening, where they made a fire and cooked steaks, breathing the fresh air and looking down on the distant grimness of Edinburgh. This offered the reader a break from the awfulness of what happened – and made the forthcoming horror even more horrible…. (Pause to rub hands in glee.)

So, that's pace for you. It's all more or less going into Write to be Published, but you read it here first, you lucky things. Besides, you have to wait a whole year for that to come out.


catdownunder said...

A Global Positioning System for writers would also be useful - so that we do not lose our way and we keep going ahead when we reach the crossroads!

Thomas Taylor said...

The 'Breath In/Breath Out' metaphor for chapter endings stuck with me last time I read it, and I often think about it in my writing. So thanks for that.

Claire King said...

This is a really helpful post. Thank you. I particularly like the breath out/breath in analogy.

Nicola Hulks said...

Wow. This post was EXACTLY what I needed! I nearly jumped up and down with glee when I saw it and even more so when I started reading it! I had been worrying about this a huge amount in writing my own book and I now feel so much more confident to go back and tackle it, thank you!!!

Sarah Hilary said...

Excellent post, thank you!

Pen said...

This is another fab post Nicola, Thanks so much!

I'm really enjoying learning how to wield the pacing weapon in my own writing. So much fun.

Rin said...

Agree with the other commenters, very useful and a great metaphor. Pace is something I really struggle with, so I shall bookmark this page for future reference!

Theresa Milstein said...

I've been a beta reader for two manuscripts that barely gave me time to breathe. The problem with constant action is it leaves very room for character development or interaction.

I like the suggestion to shorten chapters with action. I'm going to take a look at my manuscript now.

Martina Boone said...

So much great advice here! There's a lot to consider. Do you mind if we link it to our Friday blog round-up post? Thanks so much!

Nicola Morgan said...

Pen - I agree: it IS fun, perhaps because it's something that's so easy to correct once you see what to do.

Nicola - when you've stopped jumping up and down in glee, I hope you will be able to focus on your writing!

Adventures in Children's Publishing - I'd be delighted.

Everyone else - many thanks. And now, all of us, back to writing...

Jo Treggiari said...

Thanks as always for the useful info, Nicola!

Debi said...

A fab post as usual, but I especially want to thank you for saying what I often do but you've said so much more succinctly - 'So, bugger off and go and do some more reading.'

Never ceases to amaze me how many people don't realise they can't write if they don't read.

Creepy Query Girl said...

absolutely fabulous advice- we don't hear much about how to achieve the right pace and this couldn't come at a better time for me!

HelenMWalters said...

You should really write a book about all this ... oh , yes you are aren't you? Good. As you were.

Camryn said...

Awesome post. This really made me think about the pace of one of my current projects, and you made me realize it was too slow. :)

Lilithas said...

Thank you so much for all your advice! I'll definitely be buying Write to Be Published when it comes out.

Nishant said...

This is a really helpful post. Thank you. I particularly like the breath out/breath in analogy.
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