Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Problem of Pacing

No, I don't mean the act of walking back and forth. (That's more of a solution than a problem, actually.) I'm talking about an important element of fiction: pacing. That is, how fast your novel is going and how you're propelling it.

Books like Andrew Klavan's "The Last Thing I Remember" have fast pacing. The Lord of the Rings is an example of slow pacing. (Lots of twentieth and nineteenth-century books are slow-paced, actually.) Determining the pace of your novel is a crucial element to keeping your readers interested.

Recently, though, I've been hearing more and more that books need to be fast-paced in order to be good. Today's reader is a busy person, so you NEED to catch their attention with something like a sudden murder or death by grizzly or some other plot device. (Daniel Schwabauer, in his One Year Adventure Novel curriculum, suggests dropping a body out of the ceiling when the goings get tough.)

At first glance, that seems true. If your novel isn't moving, people will get bored, right? Books like the popular Hunger Games are very fast-paced and thus lend to this myth.

Thing is, you sacrifice certain things when you focus on fast pacing. Here's a couple of examples.

1) Character-Building

Now, this isn't to say that you can't have good, round characters and a fast plot. But when your plot is going at the speed of sound, it's a LOT harder to build strong, believable characters. Some of the greatest character-building moments are when two characters are sitting around the fire and talking. And they're really not doing much at all during that time, are they?

Is that boring? No, if you do it right. In fact, a conversation that's essential to the plot and the characters at the same time is MORE interesting than running for dear life through some random forest. We want to unravel each character's secrets and discover what they're really like behind their masks. But it's hard to have a meaningful conversation when you're running around all the time.

2) Description

One thing that the Christian fantasy author Bryan Davis noted about the Hunger Games was that there wasn't much description. That's very true: because in order to have a fast-paced scene, you have to have minimal description. Description slows things down. (I've especially encountered this in my revisions of The War Horn. It's HARD to balance the pacing of crucial scenes and the description needed.)

So what about this? Is description boring? I think it's a necessary element. (Some might say "necessary evil".) There's such a thing as over-describing, but I think far too many books UNDER-describe. Without description, the reader loses the beauty of immersing themselves in a new world, and it makes things harder to imagine. Sometimes we must sacrifice pacing in order to describe, and that's okay.

3) Theme

Things are going, going, going—there's a murder here, death attempt there, and pretty soon you're flying to the end of the book. You turn the last page, take a breath, and what happens? Not too much.

You can balance meaning and pacing. But it's hard. A truly beautiful theme may come out of a book that took the time (and cut the pacing) to expand that theme. The White Lion Chronicles comes to mind. Many readers may complain that the beginning of the series was painfully slow, but that background was essential to building the theme and the characters before diving into the fast-paced stuff.

Of course, it also depends on the novel. Lord of the Rings is an epic—the very word conjures images of thick, heavy books. Thrillers, however, are supposed to have fast pacing. Still, whatever kind of novel you're writing, you need to determine the balance of power between pacing and the other elements of story.

So here's my advice. If you've made a scene slow on purpose, then stick to it, even when someone criticizes it. Just say, "Psh tosh." (That's my favorite phrase right now. Does anyone else use favorite phrases?) Fast pacing is good, but NOT at the expense of the theme, the characters, and the description.

What do you think? What do you say about the problem of pacing?

Until another day.


Eruantien Nenharma said...

I get where you're coming from. I'm the kind of person who enjoys writing more 'character-based' novels; besides that, I love reading (and writing) scenes where characters sit around the fire and talk. XD

I also like description, so long as it's not too over-used.

So...yes! I just need to figure out how to incorporate those things into my novel without making it 'slow-paced'. Once I think about it, I realize my novel needs a heck of a lot of revising. XD

Hannah Joy said...

I couldn't agree more. The thing is, when you read a fast paced book, yes, you do get sucked into iy. You read it all day if you have to so you can finish it and see what happens. But then, at the end, you put it down and you feel unsatisfied. There wasn't that driving force, that theme, those characters worth fighting for. Most of the time, if there is a sequel to those kinds of books, I don't read them. Because they give me nothing. It may have been "entertaining" but I'd rather read a book with solid characters with solid problems, and solid themes to fight for. I'd rather finish a book and take a deep breath and sigh because it was so worth it.

So I'd rather read a book that means something. I honestly really enjoy slower paced books, simply because they give me more time. More time to savor the view, if you know what I mean. Not that I don't like a (good) fast paced book, but I am not object to slowing it down to hear those characters talk around the fire. Those are often my favorite parts in books.

Really good thoughts, Jake. I love thinking about this because it gets me thinking about my books. :-)

Writer4Christ said...

Sometimes with some fast paced books with non-stop action, I don't feel like the suffocating action is necessary.
I'm not as much into books/movies where the characters are always running through bullets or arrows or fire, except when the unique character shows through.
I like books that have good morals and characters and exciting story mixed together, like the Wingfeather saga. (Those books are really good) Or medium paced books balancing beautiful description, unique characters, and a little action.

Hannah Joy said...


The Wingfeather Saga is awesome!!!!!! I can't wait for The Warden and the Wolf King to come out. Verrrry excited. Anyway, I had to comment. :-)

Lark said...

I can deal with totally fast-paced action when the book is short, or it is a short story. But I can't imagine reading (or writing) an entire novel that is nonstop excitement. It would give me a headache. That's also why the action is good in shorter stories-- there's not really room to do complex character development, so it's okay.
I use favorite phrases all the time!

Squeaks said...

Hmm, I think that you have pointed out quite a few good things here. Yes, I do enjoy fast-paced books, but I find (personally at least) that when a book sets off at such a fast-pace, I don't tend to return to read it again.

Of course, the key element is getting readers to buy your book and want to buy MORE of whatever else you publish, but I also think that many authors today are forgetting the simple joy of writing that results in a longer-lasting joy in their readers.

For instance, classics like LOTR, the Narnia Series, Pride and Prejudice, and so on, have one main thing in common: those that end up liking the books tend to read them over and over. They become a part of the family almost -- why? I think, in part, because you can go back and find new things over and aspects and viewpoints that you didn't see before. How does the author do this? In my opinion, it's by adding that extra detail and fleshing things out a bit more.

What good is writing a fast-paced thriller when it's only going to be read once and then thrown on a shelf somewhere to collect dust? If I ever publish a book, I definitely don't want it to be a one-time read that ends up as a coffee coaster. I want it to be something that people will return to time and again -- something that will influence my readers for Jesus. Something that will help shape who they are. Books are powerful in that manner...they set ideals and mould the reader. Why write useless riff-raff when one could produce thought-provoking material that will benefit society and show people about God :)

Ninja Tim said...

@ - Larks
I can't say I'm much of a novel writer, but I'm an actor and I hear what you're saying. I've been told that having too much energy all the time as an actor burns out the audience; you have to have "mountains and valleys," high points and low points, if you really want to keep them engaged. I never thought about that in terms of writing, but it's very true.

@ - Squeaks
Well said. Pride & Prejudice was deep enough for me to drown in the first time through (mandatory school assignments with short deadlines don't help either), and yet I actually enjoyed it the 2nd time because I could understand it and see everything I missed before. =)

@ - Sir Jake
Thank you for another thought-provoking post!