Irregular pacing is one of the battle cries of the critic; and I think it means that we know something is wrong, but can't quite put our finger on it. We chalk it up to pacing.
To some extent, that's true. Bad pacing can make a whole novel feel “off”. It can ruin an otherwise good story—and it's got to be fixed.
And there's a way to do that. But first, let's define just what pacing is.
It's your novel's speed. Sometimes readers describe novels as “fast-paced”—page-turners. The pace of your novel is how fast the reader wants to read—and it's directly related to how urgent and tense the scene is. The more intense the scene, the faster the pace.
So irregular pacing is where your novel alternates between a fast pace and a slow pace too often or too quickly. A well-paced novel starts out with a certain level of tension and gradually increases the tension as the novel goes on, until it comes to a climax. A badly paced novel starts out with a lot of tension, drops it, picks it up again—it's not measured and regular, which is where the term irregular pacing comes from.
Let me clarify that slow pacing is not a bad thing. It can be very good if used correctly. After all, what's a novel without a few conversations around the fire? What about when characters are talking about their past? What about all those deep moments that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside?
Properly spaced, these deep moments can have a huge impact. They develop the characters and endear the reader—and they give you a little bit of breathing space before going on to the next conflict of the story. A story without slow moments feels rushed and hurried. Even “action” movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier have slow moments where the characters just talk.
So that's good pacing—a story which ratchets up the suspense and tension, piece by piece, with slow intervals in between to give you some space and character development. Bad pacing is where the suspense and tension runs wanders around the story like a three-year-old scribbling on a piece of paper.
So how do you fix bad pacing?
First, figure out where it is. The biggest clue is a feeling that something is “off”, a little niggling at the back of your head that something feels wrong.
I recently encountered this while revising Chapter Ten of my novel. My characters are en route to the worst prison in the country, and the scene I was rewriting took place shortly after a very intense conflict.
But for some reason, the scene wouldn't work. I cut the excess dialogue (nearly three hundred of the fifteen hundred words), reworked the action beats, and did everything I could think of to make it interesting. The dialogue was fine, the prose was fine, but it just didn't feel right.
It wasn't until this morning that I figured out what was wrong. The pacing was off. The fifteen hundred words of banter and character explanation just didn't feel right, sandwiched in between two high-tension action scenes.
Once you figure out where the pacing problem is, like I did, either cut or relocate the scene that's causing the problem. In this case, I cut most of the scene, which allowed me to maintain the tension level. What was left of the scene, I rewrote into a separate scene that takes place after the tension drops off a bit more.
Sometimes a whole section of your story is causing the problem. Find out why. Oftentimes, things are too easy—I had that problem several times. The solution? It's easy: brainstorm ways your characters' plans could backfire or go wrong. Then, do it! Nothing helps a dragging scene like an unexpected disaster.
Fantastic novels are well-paced. If you can learn how to detect and fix pacing problems, you'll be ten steps ahead of everyone else.
What about you? What's been your experience with the mystical concept of “pacing”?