Posted On February 28, 2012 by Print This Post

Top Ten Pacing Tips by Alicia Rasley

Pacing.

We love that word don’t we? It reminds me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Sometimes in my writing I find that my pacing is too fast, sometimes it’s too slow and sometimes it’s just right. The “just right” times don’t happen as often as I’d like.

Luckily, Alicia Rasley is here with some tips on how to increase our odds of getting it right.

Take it away, Alicia.

Thanks, RU team, for the opportunity to guest blog! I thought I’d make some suggestions about pacing and how writers can achieve the pace they want in a story.

1.  Fast is not the only pace!  There’s measured, slow, leisurely, contemplative, intense, depending on the story and genre.  Even inside the book, you can (and probably should) vary the pacing of scenes in different parts of the book for different purposes: Slow down to create suspense, speed up in the climax.

2.  Use linking devices, especially the theme and motifs, to connect the three major acts of the book and provide propulsion forward in the plot.  A fast-paced plot especially benefits from story links, first, because they help the readers make sense of what’s going on by reminding them of the goal and journey, and second, because they leave something in that scene unfinished and unresolved, and that makes the readers need to read on to provide closure.

3.  Pacing has a “meta” aspect in the structure of the entire story, but is “carried” by individual scenes.  Pacing often requires preparation to get the reader anticipating and dreading what’s to come. Scene sequencing (a sequence of scenes that are like a mini-story, rising to a climax/turning point) can increase the pace.  For example, you “set up” a conflict in Scene 1 and 2 of a sequence, make danger/action inevitable in Scene 3, and then have it “explode” in fast-paced, high action in Scene 4.

4. Pacing is all about a propulsion forward in the story, so anything that “pulls” the reader into the next scene or makes her speculate about the future will quicken the pacing. The most important technique is to make the reader ask a question in one scene and then postpone the answer for another scene. Another (at the start of the scene) is to have the character state or imply a scene goal, and the attempt to get the goal during the scene and the ultimate success or failure will provide the “pull.” For real power in pacing, use Jack Bickham’s scene-ending questions (especially “no, and furthermore”) to keep the goal pulling the reader and character through more than one scene.

  • Yes, but.
  • No.
  • No, and furthermore.

5. In action scenes, use inter-scene links (like scene goal/question and magic rule of 3 related items or events in the scene) to pull the reader forward, and to give coherence to what might otherwise be a bewildering sequence of action.  And you might think about showing emotional motivation and reaction in scenes, so that each major scene event has an emotional component affecting the main character’s journey or some aspect of his/her relationships in the story.  That gives the “velocity” some thematic depth too.

6. The end of the scene is crucial for pacing. Don’t end a scene on a resolution (except maybe the last two scenes in the book), but on some question or issue that won’t resolve until at least the next scene. If the scene ending is too “complete,” add some tiny question or doubt at the end.

7. Within a scene, to quicken the pace, go physical, tangible, concrete. Whenever you go abstract and “mental,” you’re slowing the pace down because thought is slower (in rendition) than action.  Emotion, by the way, is usually done in a slower pace, as the characters and readers need a bit of time prepare to feel and then contemplate what feeling felt like.  So if you’re ever told that there’s not enough feeling in your story, or that it’s “superficial,” slow down the pace in emotional scenes and take your time.

8. Use “moments of grace” (like tender exchanges or quiet revelation in conversation) to provide pacing variety and intensify the reader’s emotional investment in what is to come.  These quieter, slower-paced scenes are especially effective right before a scene of high action.

9. As you revise, aim for the “cleanest” scenes, that is, clean out any unnecessary diversions or distractions, emphasize coherence in metaphors and motifs, use ambiguity deliberately to create suspense but not accidentally to confuse. Try to anticipate reader reaction and use that to tell you what improves pacing and what slows it down. Even a moment’s unplanned and inessential hesitation—”Wait. He looks up at the sun? I thought we were inside”—is enough to “break the fictive dream” and slow the reading way down. Make sure there’s a clear and logical chronology in the events of the scene. Flashbacks, especially short ones, will disrupt the forward momentum by throwing the reader out of time, so you might want to avoid them in the scenes you mean to be fast-paced.

10. Strong, meaningful sentences are all-important so that the reader won’t start skimming. Clarity is essential here because the second readers have to go back and puzzle out what a sentence means, the pacing stops. But also, generic, “voice-less” sentences will bore the reader, and even an instant of boredom is death to pacing. Every word has to count to add to that sense of urgency that makes for effective pacing (of any speed).  So challenge yourself to seek out and find the bland, vague, generic, do-nothing sentences and either delete them or improve them.

I’ll try to answer any questions! This is a knotty topic, to be sure. Who are some authors who do pacing really well?

Alicia

***

RU Crew, do you recognize pacing problems in your own writing? We’d love to hear from you.

Join us tomorrow when author Nina Singer joins us to discuss the keys to a successful critique group.  

 

Bio: Alicia Rasley is an award-winning, best-selling writer of women’s fiction and romance. She blogs at  www.edittorrent.blogspot.com and archives her writing articles (dozens of them) at www.rasley.com.She teaches writing at two state colleges and in workshops around North America.  You might enjoy these books by Alicia Rasley, all available at Amazon Kindle Store, ITunes, BN.com Nook store, and other stores where electronic books are sold:

The Wilder Heart, a Regency novella.

The Year She Fell.

The Reluctant Lady, a Regency novel.

Royal Renegade, a Regency novel.

Poetic Justice, a Regency novel.

The Story Within Plotting Guide for Writers.

The Power of Point of View.

Rasley’s Kindle Page

 

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21 Responses to “Top Ten Pacing Tips by Alicia Rasley”

  1. Hi Alicia,

    I just had a manuscript rejected in nineteen minutes. She cited the pacing was too fast. I try to let the story unfold on its own time, not mine.

    Cool book covers!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 28, 2012, 6:47 am
    • 19 minutes! See, the pacing WAS fast to have her read so fast. 🙂

      I think we need to start having awards for editors and agents. “Slowest turnaround time!” “Fastest rejection!”
      Alicia

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 12:24 pm
  2. I have seen all of the items before in one form or another, but I like seeing it in a list.

    Posted by Chihuahua0 | February 28, 2012, 6:49 am
    • Chihuaha, the hardest pacing thing for me is determining the appropriate pace for the book. Too often we think “pacing” means fast, but that’s not right for every book.

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 12:29 pm
  3. Hi, Alicia. Thanks for a great post. I love the list. So handy. I can put this right into my editing binder.

    Thanks!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 28, 2012, 7:32 am
  4. Okay – so I write contemporary romance ans pacing can be tough when it really is all about the emotions at time. Any tips for how to maintain the pacing when your working through the emotional stuff that is in the head?

    Thanks for a great post!

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | February 28, 2012, 8:14 am
    • Robin, effective pacing is about -change-. So if the emotion changes in every scene because of the events of the plot and what interaction they are having, the pace should clip along. You might look at the beginning and end of the scene in isolation (after drafting it), and see if there’s a noticeable change from the start to the end. Like they start out agreeing with each other and end up disagreeing.

      If they end up the same place they started out in the scene, it’s going to seem like a scene that doesn’t matter, as “nothing changes”. (Yes, even if in the middle, they disagreed. If they start and end in agreement, it will seem like no movement.)

      So look at those spots– beginning and end of scene, and see what changes. 🙂
      Alicia

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 12:27 pm
  5. Morning Alicia!

    Great post! So much to learn there…my biggest question is number 2. Can you give an example of the linking – sorry, I’m a PITA – =) to clarify? Or possibly I should just have another cup of coffee and re-read…lol…

    I have your Power of POV book – and LOVE IT btw!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 28, 2012, 8:31 am
    • Carrie, hmm. Example of a link. Well, you’ll find them everywhere, but let me “link” 🙂 to a wonderful movie. It’s in many parts on Youtube, and here’s the first, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRFjOHjy7KE&feature=related

      A link that draws scenes together and intensifies the pacing is the aurora borealis. This film takes place in two times (1969 and 1999) but the same location (a house in Queens). Both summers had a visitation of the aurora. Whenever the aurora comes in a scene, the reader learns quickly, something is going to happen. There’s a symbol there (rebirth, dawn in the darkest night, all that), and a plot connection (because of the aurora, the atmosphere is unsettled so the ham radio signal time travels :). But more than that, it’s a device to link the scenes where “something weird happens.”

      This is a great film for writers as it uses so many motifs to link a rather complicated plot and scene sequence.

      Worth buying in DVD! Everytime I watch it, I notice some other connection.

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 6:23 pm
  6. Alicia –

    Thank you for the fabulous pacing list. Bickham’s book has been on my list of to-reads for some time. Would you recommend pushing that to my “buy” list?

    Thanks so much,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 28, 2012, 11:06 am
    • Kelsey, Bickham’s book is invaluable for creating scenes, but experiment with the “scene/sequel” dynamic to get the pacing you want. For example, put the sequel at the start of the next scene (that is, it’s the next morning, and he’s considering what happened) if you want a faster pace, but think about a last line in the earlier scene that hints at conflict, like “At some point, he was going to have to deal with his brother, and unfortunately, fraticide wasn’t an option.”

      Anyway, good book, but adapt!
      Alicia

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 6:08 pm
  7. Alicia, thanks for joining us today!

    Great list — it’s going in my keeper file. I’m constantly keeping an eye on pacing. There are so many areas to trip us up! 🙂

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 28, 2012, 12:03 pm
  8. Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for this post on a really tricky aspect of the writing craft.

    Thanks also for the many articles I’ve poured over since I discovered them on, I think, Charlotte Dillon’s website, when I first went on-line to find resources for romance writers.
    That led me to your website. I later discovered edittorent which I value tremendously.

    Cia

    Posted by Cia | February 28, 2012, 2:05 pm
    • Thanks, Cia. Charlotte’s website is such a wonder! I was just there the other day looking for historical links, and there were some that are JUST for writers, like the history of underwear. 🙂

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 6:00 pm
  9. I love this list, especially your comment about making a reader ask a question in one scene and postponing the answer for another scene.

    Thanks for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 28, 2012, 4:36 pm
    • Jennifer, yes, I think the trick is doing something that “pulls” the reader to another scene. Whatever does that will intensify the pacing, don’t you think?
      Alicia

      Posted by Alicia | February 28, 2012, 5:58 pm
  10. I love your comment to Robin. Effective pacing is about change. That is such an important statement to keep in mind.
    Thanks for a great, detailed post!

    Posted by Kelly Wolf | March 8, 2012, 10:25 am
  11. What’s up, for all time i used to check web site posts here early in the morning, for
    the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Mary Cole asks, what is a characterizing detail? While you are strengthening your WIP, Joe Bunting on How to Use Motif to Enhance Your Writing. After that, what about your pacing? Alicia Rasley gives Top Ten Tips. […]

  2. […] Top Ten Pacing Tips @ Romance University – great advice on controlling the pace of your story. One of the best notes: The end of the scene is crucial for pacing. Don’t end a scene on a resolution (except maybe the last two scenes in the book), but on some question or issue that won’t resolve until at least the next scene. If the scene ending is too “complete,” add some tiny question or doubt at the end. […]

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