A Meditation on Pacing: How to Lure Your Reader Into Your Novel & Deliver the Ride You Promise
This is basically an introduction to a course I’ve wanted to teach for a long time, and it seems appropriate to post it as we approach National Novel Writing Month. I acknowledge this is a huge topic boiled down to three thousand summary words, but hopefully it’s still of some value. And maybe someday I will teach this class.
We’ve all heard the story about agents and editors reading the first paragraph of a submission and rejecting it immediately. It’s a true tale, but it’s not the most important one. A much bigger problem for authors is that readers use this rejection tactic too. You think getting an agent or editor is tough? Ain’t nothing, baby, on snagging a loyal reader. What makes editors, agents, and readers toss your work away? Odds are pretty good you lost them with pacing.
Pacing is the rhythm, the beat, the forward pulse of a story. Strong pacing doesn’t necessarily mean a fast story or one full of energy. Good pacing creates interest, engages the reader and motivates her to keep reading, to turn the page, to buy the book. Pacing is the trail of breadcrumbs luring a willing voyager onto your ride.
We often hear about “hooks” as important to our story, those killer first lines that razzle and pop and make great quotes on Goodreads. But if you’re going to use a wicked hook, you’d better have some industrial line attached to it. A hook can’t simply dazzle. It must lay out a promise for story you don’t just intend to keep but do keep. It should be interesting on first read and illuminating on second and third.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. — Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. — Stephen King, It
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. — Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
Do a google search on “great first lines of novels” and you’ll sink neck-deep into beautiful, intriguing prose. Here’s the great secret, though: you don’t have to kill yourself writing something killer that sums up your story in a single sentence, ready to echo for the ages. All first lines have to do is attract your reader’s attention.
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.
The night was black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
— Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters
Sir Terry Pratchett is my very favorite author of all time. I am his reader. Even when he wanders from my favorite type of story, I follow him because I trust implicitly he’ll take me on a great ride. The above opening is the perfect example of why. He writes satire, and this is a satire of Macbeth. He both uses and mocks the clichés of gothic, descriptive-swollen fantasy—black as the inside of cat? Madness in a weasel’s eye? And then of course the exchange from the witches themselves, the expected call to meet and the cheeky, “I can do next Tuesday.” By the time I discovered this book I was well-under Sir Terry’s oeuvre. I read this opening and strapped the hell in. Reading these paragraphs, I wanted to ride again.
A good opening does establishes the rhythm of the ride. Will the story be funny? Will it be clever? Will it be emotional? If hooked by that lead, we read on to see if we were right, to see if the ride has started or if it’s another stinker leading us on only to drown us instantly in infodump or endless backstory.
There’s nothing worse than a hook which lures us onto an empty ride. All we want is a story, something to entertain us, keep us company. All too often we find out the only great part of the ride was the entrance gate, and once we strap into the car we sit in the station for an hour, captive while the author lectures at us.
Story works for the same reason the house always wins in a casino: humans are creatures who crave order in a world completely devoid of patterns. Card games and slot machines follow no rules of averages, yet we are convinced they must. It’s how we’re wired, and it makes us hungry for story where patterns are deliberate. We see a lonely heart in the first line of a romance, and we immediately look for his mate. We find a body in a mystery, we begin at once to fetter out the killer. We identify the thread of a story we like, and we follow it eagerly for the next link in the chain, a thread of stability to ease the bruises of a life so random it hurts our souls.
This is how a reader approaches story. Authors? We tend to screw this up.
Authors want to give a story, but we get so caught up in the fear of telling it poorly we often default to telling too much. We throw down a tap-dancing first line, then stop the story to detail the hero’s clothes, eye-color, personal history, favorite brand of toothpaste, and wash it all down with a rapid-fire set of internal and external motivations. So clear, we tell ourselves.
So goddamn boring, say the readers, and put our book back on the shelf. No pattern, no lure, no mystery, only a hook on a line that breaks as soon as we take the bait.
When Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with her resonant observation about single men—true and not true, wry and baldly honest—she does not turn off the road and start diagraming Pemberly. She shows a young man of fortune arriving in a village and being submitted to this maxim by a local mother with a pack of girls to marry off. She provides conflict between the mother and the father, revealing their character and doing interesting things to our allegiances—despite what we may think about the right of Mrs. Bennet to dictate Bingley’s future, we pity her a bit when she’s so easily stirred up by her husband, even as we understand too why he baits her. We understand that good Jane should indeed be married and therefore happy, but we also love Elizabeth straightaway. By the time we meet Darcy, we are as conflicted with longing and revulsion as she is.
This happens through character. This occurs because of movement and engagement. This is pacing.
Talented authors achieve good pacing in a number of ways, but no matter how we approach it, it’s one of the most important and easiest to abandon aspects of our work. Pacing is hard, largely because it’s so subjective and difficult to spot in our own stories. It’s not as simple as commas and grammar. We can and do convince ourselves bad pacing is great, sometimes so much that even with beta readers or editors contradict us, we get defensive because we worked so hard on that pacing. All too often we’re deliberate in how we craft our pacing, yet all too often our greatest deliberation still isn’t enough.
How can you improve the pacing in your work? The nitty gritty of this explanation could fill a how-to book, but for now, here are some quick guildelines for improving pacing.
Read your work out loud. This is not fool-proof, but sometimes we can spot things easier this way. It helps too if you read your opening or what you think is meant to be a gripping section out loud—and imagine that scene is your only hope of snagging a reader. In trying to select a passage to read aloud for Tough Love at GayRomLit, I was so struck by my lack of pacing that I asked my editor for one more prewriting pass before she started in on it. It wasn’t bad, what I had on the page, but as soon as I tried to glean one 1000 word passage, all I could see was the fat on my manuscript. My efforts worked: what she returned to me this week was the least edited manuscript I’d ever received.
This is another point: how long are your scenes? It’s not that they can’t be long, but if all your scenes are 4k, this might tire your reader unduly. Try varying some of the lengths, making the shortening and lengthening of scenes part of your pacing itself, giving the skeleton of your story variety and therefore a more interesting arc.
Break your scene into beats. Finding the conflict in prose can be tricky, because we think things are moving when sometimes they aren’t. It isn’t a matter of more or less dialog—people can talk at each other with nothing changing. Take your opening scene or a section where you feel things drag (or a beta/editor has told you there are problems) and map out what happens.
“John knocks on the door. Bob won’t let him in. John pleads with Bob. Bob goes back to his chair and turns up the TV. John goes to the open window and pleads again, this time bargaining. Bob shuts the window and draws the curtain. John stands in the middle of the sidewalk with a blaring boom box and declares he won’t leave until Bob gives him five minutes. Furious but unwilling to have his neighbors angry, Bob stands on his stoop, listening but promising to call the police as soon as the five minutes are up.”
Let’s say you can break your scene into something like this: how much space, though, is between the simple beats? Does John knock on the door and we wait two pages for Bob to refuse him entry because you’re dictating John’s eye color and Bob’s dating history? Are you getting distracted by details you’re panicked you’ll forget, ruining your ride by grinding it to a halt every few feet to describe the kind of paint on their coaster car or the way you welded the track together? Do you even have an arc at all, or is your “movement” simply a greater indexing of stuff the reader doesn’t care about because they don’t yet love your characters?
Let your characterization dictate your pacing. Let’s go back to Pride and Prejudice: Austen is a great model for romances because her conflicts are subtle and gentle in their roll-out. Take the opening scene we described above. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s character are the pacing for that scene. Will Mr. Bennet pay a visit to Mr. Bingley? Why is it important he do so? Why does he tease her? Yes, sometimes Austen delivers information about these two and their conflict through prose, but most of it is delivered via dialog. Read the first three (they’re short) chapters on Project Guttenburg. Look how very little prose she uses to dictate things, and yet look how clearly we follow her ride. Track the beats within the dialog. Note how she uses the character of Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet to illustrate her story, to lure us deeper.
Track each scene, each sequence, and make sure your story moves. Every moment of every story should take us forward; every additional word should facilitate change. If you begin a scene with a man in a doorway, by the time the scene closes he shouldn’t just be through the doorway but a different man than he was when he touched the knob. If you show a sex-scene on screen, by the time everyone comes something important, even subtly so, should alter about the characters, about the story.
Understand that your pacing is determined by your voice, your reader. At its core pacing a story is simple; always write scenes serving an overall arc, always have value change not only within scenes but within the individual heartbeats of a scene. In practice, this sounds great but drives us crazy. Why? Because “movement” is a subjective reading, and it has to be. Your voice, your style, your genre dictates the type and form of your movement.
A number of successful romance novels would be considered “dead” for pacing by non-romance readers but are beloved by those for whom the stories are penned. What is “sleepy coffee conversation” to some readers is “emotional connection” to others and isn’t sleepy at all. What is “gripping tension” in thrillers is often a drop-dead bore to me. I don’t care how many guns are going off or how near death people are. I usually don’t give a crap, and it’s really hard to make me. Does that mean thriller novels are bad? No. But it means it’s most likely they aren’t written for me.
Good pacing requires conscious effort and years of practice. A lot of our work on pacing comes from being a reader. We know what we value and what works because we’ve been a reader and we know what we like. Since our personal pacing style will come from our voice, it’s important we read widely to allow our subconscious to learn patterns we love and note those we want to avoid. Being conscious of our own sense of pacing takes a great deal of practice, but a bridge to that understanding can come by noting books whose pacing we love and rereading those opening passages before we begin pacing work on our own. Read consciously: what do we love about the pacing of our favorites? What would we improve? Would we, reading our own work without writing it, find the style similar, or have we hidden behind crutches we as readers would deplore?
Good pacing does not necessarily mean instant bestseller. This is the part I hate to tell you, but it’s not the case that finding your own personal, excellent pacing will mean your book will skyrocket to the top of the charts, nor will ignorming pacing mean you’re a flop. No matter how expertly we craft, the hard truth is that not everyone is our reader. We all say we understand, but we don’t, not all the way down. We look above us on a bestseller list and go green at how many gushing reviews somebody has for their novel whose sales far outstrip ours—and wouldn’t you know it, but you read the sample and it’s utter shit, goddamn it. How did they do it? How did they get more readers than they deserved?
Horrible, uncomfortable truth? They lured all those readers in, yes, but we can’t necessarily know what their tactic was, if it was even deliberate at all. Whatever they did with their novel promised a ride a number of readers wanted to try. People read the blurb and the opening paragraph and said, “This. I want this one.” Maybe that author got really good at finding the pocket of people who do love infodump—or maybe they wrote about gun-toting ex-nun cowboys and by golly, that’s a trope nobody can resist no matter how much garbage they have to slog through. Maybe what doesn’t seem like value change to you is to a whole bunch of readers.
Sometimes the truth about why some novels work and some don’t is unpalatable to our art-loving souls: often it’s not about art at all. Last year at this time I was writing two novels. I beat my head against the wall for Love Lessons, a story full of personal meaning, overflowing with emotions. Total book of my heart. But around the holidays it made me start to lose my mind, and I put it down to dash off Let It Snow, a light, quirky lumberjacks-in-the-snow holiday romance. Took me less than a month.
I will not be surprised if Christmas lumberjacks beat the pants off of emo college boys in sales.
Why? Not because Love Lessons is slow. I paced the hell out of it, and people write me still saying how they couldn’t put it down. Lumberjacks come with a very different promise. Little about “snowed-in lumberjacks” says emo. It says good fucking times ahead. And this right here, is the horse pill authors must learn to swallow: While people do love meaning and heart, what they really love is fun. If a book of the heart is a rich, complicated, exhilarating ride, fun books are a standard Tilt-a-Whirl. They’re simple, familiar, and easy. One glance at their first page and we can see how things will go down. Easy. Fun. Simple.
We cannot wrestle a book into perfect pacing that equals the sales we’d like—if that formula were clearly discernible, corporate culture would be churning out truckloads of those. Sometimes simple doesn’t sell and complicated does. Sometimes meaning and interest come in odd places, and we cannot always predict that.
An author cannot control her book’s destiny by its pacing, but she can make it the best book it can be by paying close attention to how smoothly and appropriately it dances. It isn’t about dumbing a book down or smarting it up. It’s about making it clear what we’re promising and doing our best to get the word out there’s a ride to be had to the readers jonesing for that fix.
Pacing is voice. Our voice. Pacing is purpose. Our purpose. To illustrate meaning or to facilitate a good time, pacing is the clearly-laid track of story with the promise of a brightly-colored checkered flag at the end. Pacing is the signpost a reader uses to select a story, the safeguard she trusts to see her through. Pacing takes skill and craft, patience, intuition, planning. Pacing is a promise, a cue to your readers—your readers, the ones meant to find you— with skill to back up your vow.
Pacing is being yourself so boldly, so powerfully readers either know right away they don’t want to engage or follow breathlessly into the breach. Again, and again, and again.