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Gungan to the left

Keeping Pace
Pacing and Narrative In Fiction

By : FernWithy

What are pacing and narrative problems, and what's to be done about them?

Let me tell you a story.

When I was sixteen and still knew everything about writing, I belonged to a writers' workshop in my hometown. A friend and I were writing a never ending romance story about a group of angst-ridden malcontents in the mountain country of western Pennsylvania, congratulating one another on our first person point-of-view switching and endless soap operatic reconfiguring of the couples. Both of us did well in our English classes, and had been complimented on vivid writing, so when a professional author came to our workshop and offered to critique pieces for the members, we were both anxious to show off.

I don't remember which piece of our saga my friend sent to this author (who will remain nameless), but the one I sent was a seven page vignette from the point-of-view of a little boy named Johnny Davis. In the course of these pages--which were written in my absurdly large handwriting, so they probably would have been about two and half pages typed--Johnny played with his friends, summarized the history of his family, realized that his friend's new baby sister looked a whole lot more like his own father than like his friend's father, figured out what that meant, talked to his father, then stayed up all night while his father cried in the other room.

The author was kind enough to only mention the melodrama in passing; apparently she decided that if that was the story I wanted to write, then so be it. What she did say, quite kindly, was, "You have quite a lot happening for just seven pages. There's not really time to... er, appreciate it all." (Okay, the "er" is mine. The author was perfectly polite and composed.) Indignant, I demanded to know what she thought wasn't working. Again, she was patient--my guess is, like most writers, she'd been there--and told me that as it stood, so much happened so quickly that the good images ("and there are some lovely images!") became lost, and the characterization I needed to make the final image work simply didn't get done--the father looked pathetic rather than tragic, and Johnny looked emotionally abused rather than understanding. The plot also suffered, as there wasn't time to develop it, and the theme was garbled. In short, the whole piece needed to be re-written if it was going to produce the effect I wanted.

I smiled politely, and privately swore I'd never read one of her lousy books, even if all the other books on the shelf were gone. She didn't understand!

Three months later, I looked at the piece in question, blushed furiously, and buried it in a storage crate in the attic. Maybe someday, if I become interested in melodrama again (it does have its place), I'll take it out and have another whack at it. But as it was, it was unreadable.

The point?

My story suffered primarily from a problem in pacing, and that problem had an impact on every other aspect of the piece. Plot, characterization, tone, theme, you name it--if the pacing is off, none of the rest will come off the way it's meant.

The single most common reason cited for rejection here at the TFN Archive is "narrative/pacing problems." It's vague sounding and nebulous... how is an author supposed to take that? What does "narrative/pacing problems" even mean?

Pacing deals with the flow of the story itself, and how its various events are set up. Is there enough build-up time to make a reader care about the climax of a story? Is there enough action at the climax to emotionally justify the build-up? Does the story give the reader periodic times to breathe? Or--depending on the kind of story--does the tension grow ever stronger as the action spirals more tightly toward the end? Does each scene have rising and falling action, and does each scene contribute to the whole of the story? Pacing is the rhythm of your piece, the "beat" it plays to.

Narrative usually refers to the flow of the words on the screen. If pacing is rhythm, then narrative is melody. If John Williams were scoring your story, would the scene you're writing be a gentle sweep, like "Across the Stars"? Would it be a military march, like "The Imperial March"? Light and fluffy, like the Ewoks' theme? Tense, like the chords just before Luke is going to be tossed to the Sarlaac? Narrative is almost always tied to pacing because frequently, when there's a problem with one, there's a problem with the other, because it's very difficult to separate them in practical terms. To go back to Mr. Williams, the effect of the melody can be changed vastly by the tempo at which it is played and nature of the backbeat (consider the variations on "The Imperial March" used in various places throughout the saga). For the purposes of definition, a narrative problem is more closely tied to the tone of a piece, while a pacing problem is more closely tied to the plot.

So, what's to be done about it?

The Bad News

The bad news is that pacing and narrative problems are usually impossible to fix by making a few changes here and there. They're systemic, and usually require a full second draft (at least) to repair. If the pacing is too fast, the original may be used as an outline. If it's too slow, chopping words and shortening sentences may be enough. But on the whole, it's a difficult thing to fix, and requires some heavy re-writing time. (The silver lining to this is that re-writing can really help you to discover your story, and you may find lovely things that you didn't even realize were there. Take the time to polish these up and make them shine while you're at it.)

A further bit of bad news about pacing and narrative is that they are largely intuitive. There is no formula, no surefire equation to find the "right" pace or the "perfect" narrative style. The intuition is a combination of a natural ear and a lot of practice at conveying what that natural ear "hears." There's really no way around this. Your writing voice is your own, and ultimately, no matter how many people you read or listen to, you're the only one who can teach yourself to use it. It takes time, and time is a precious commodity.

Complicating matters further is the fact that these problems, particularly narrative problems, are deeply tied to personal taste and personal impressions. It's hard to beta for them (though you should ask your betas to try). For instance, the beta who has no problem whatsoever saying, "Wait a minute, this point on which your whole plot hinges doesn't work!"--I got one of those--will be very, very careful about saying, "I'm not sure that you've picked the right word here. 'Vermillion' doesn't feel right to me... maybe you could use 'crimson' or 'scarlet'? Whatever you think is right." The writer's emotional response may also be more defensive. Words are a personal matter. The thing to keep in mind is that all writers are constantly developing, and reader response to narrative styles plays an important role in that development.

Pacing problems are often hard to identify if a beta reader isn't experienced. Something feels wrong, but what is it? If it's going too fast, it may feel to the reader like she's skating quickly over thin ice, and the mystery of what's beneath it may seem less urgent than getting from point A to point B... but that kind of uneasiness isn't really the feeling you want to evoke. You want the reader to want to know. If it's going too slowly, the reader may well feel like she's lost in the woods, going around in circles, becoming frustrated. She'll be very relieved to come to a lit house at the edge of a clearing... but do you really want your reader to be relieved that your story is over and done with? Pacing problems are difficult to diagnose and describe, and difficult to cure.

The Good News

The good news is that pacing and narrative problems tend to clear themselves up--or at least make themselves easier to clear up--as time goes on and you write more. The intuition develops, and you know as you write a scene whether or not you've got the rhythm of it. You start to develop something related to what musicians call "relative pitch," understanding the tones and notes that you're hitting. ("Perfect pitch," alas, is something that people are either born with or not born with. But good relative pitch can be acquired, and serves just as well in most cases.)

In the meantime, there are some relatively simple "tricks" you can use to diagnose pacing problems, if not cure them.

  • Check the left margin of your text. Are your paragraphs varied in length, giving a sense of breathing space? Or are they all roughly the same length? If they all seem to be about the same size, try breaking one or two of them up.
  • By the same token, are your sentences varied? Breaking away from repetitive parallel structure in sentences can really bring a scene alive.
  • Minimize the window you're writing in, and tell yourself the story out loud. Are you struggling to get all the points in within a reasonable amount of time? Or are you finished telling it too quickly for the amount of time your story takes to read? Don't summarize, really tell it to yourself. How does it feel to you, now that it's complete?

The best news of all is that the best "cure" for pacing and narrative problems is very enjoyable. Read the books you like best. Read them over and over, and don't take them apart for symbolism or characterization or stylistic technique. (Do all that sometime--it's fun--just not right away.) Get them in your head like catchy tunes on the radio. Hum along with them. Then, when you sit down to write, those rhythms will be there for you... just grab one of them and start dancing.

Article Rating

Current Rating is 8.7 in 53 total ratings.

Reader Comments

Add a comment about this article

Author: reabdams7
Date posted: 8/6/2002 8:23:57 AM
reabdams7's Comments:

Thanks so much for demystifying the pacing problem that can plague new writers. This article gives concrete suggestions as to the remedy an author may take.

Author: Siren_Song
Date posted: 8/6/2002 10:20:32 AM
Siren_Song's Comments:

Your stories are great, but man do you write excellent articles! Every time I see a new one written by you I rush to the fan fiction area to read it and correct my own stories :D. Also loved the story about your melodrama in the first part.

Author: Sache8
Date posted: 8/6/2002 11:13:16 AM
Sache8's Comments:

I enjoyed this article very much, because now that I have finished my first story, I'm looking to rewrite it and pacing/narrative is the first thing on my list to re-work. So not only was the article helpful, it was a confirmation that my self-critique wasn't all in my head!

Author: Cosmic  (signed)
Date posted: 8/6/2002 11:27:40 AM
Cosmic's Comments:

I'm only a beta for SW fic, but this is a great article that works equally well for any other story. I look back at many of my stories, and they do have this exact problem... (But as you say, it gets better with time!) Thanks for writing it!

Author: JediShampoo  (signed)
Date posted: 8/8/2002 1:14:44 AM
JediShampoo's Comments:

That is a nice point about varying the lengths of the paragraphs. And you are dead on when you say the only way to learn pacing is to read what you enjoy, and what sounds good to your own ear. Unfortunately, sometimes the story you want to tell is not the story that needs to be written out completely. Excellent article.

Author: Bant428  (signed)
Date posted: 8/16/2002 6:08:02 PM
Bant428's Comments:

I am a beta-reader, as well as that "nice person" in English class who helps others with their reports/stories/poems. As a beta-reader, it's so easy for me to overlook pacing and plot errors because the person made so many spelling and grammatical errors (betas are people too =-)
I advise any person getting their stories beta-read to make sure and have less than 3 grammatical/spelling errors per page so that the beta can also focus on plot/pacing, instead of being distracted by all the "technical" errors.
Also, a pet peeve of mine is: many sentences that begin with the same words. Variation is important when writing a story that appeals to readers.
Great article!

Author: Jedi_StarDust  (signed)
Date posted: 8/19/2002 8:47:52 AM
Jedi_StarDust's Comments:

This is a very excellent article, Fernwithy! *Applauds* For me, pacing is perhaps one of the greatest problems I face when writing a story-- I sometimes may dwell on a certain topic for a prolonged amount of time, due to my personal preferences, but soon after, I realize that such long scenes have no significant impact to my story as a whole. In fact, these prolonged scenes just drag me back and take away from my narrative. Other times, I am faced with scenes that I just cannot write, so instead, I choose to rush through them with hurried words and sentences. After reading your article, I have more insight on how to improve my pacing problems and I am glad you took the time to share your own experiences and suggestions dealing with this facet of writing. Once again, excellent job!

Author: Mcily Nochi  (signed)
Date posted: 8/25/2002 1:54:56 AM
Mcily Nochi's Comments:

*considers* Well, I, too, am a beta-reader. Except I find it harder to tell an author that her climax is wrong than to fix individual words, which I do constantly . . . :)

Good article. It's often hard to point out pacing problems, and hopefully this article will help.

Author: Raven Nyquist
Date posted: 8/26/2002 1:10:14 PM
Raven Nyquist's Comments:

Great article.

One addition I believe is important.

Some Fanfic authors write just ahead of what they post, and if the Fanfic author does not stay somewhat disciplined to their plot and pacing, it can throw a reader off.

Current fanfics suffer from this problem.

Author: JadeSolo
Date posted: 9/26/2002 12:20:51 PM
JadeSolo's Comments:

A while ago, I burned a CD as a soundtracks of sorts to this big story idea that I had. Thus, I really appreciated the reference you made to John Williams because listening to my CD really helps with the pacing of certain scene. Plus, the points you made about building up to the climax gave me an idea that completely twists around my story.

Your articles are incredibly helpful. Can't wait for the next one!

Author: lori f
Date posted: 9/30/2002 7:45:55 AM
lori f's Comments:

thanks a ton! an agent told me i had pacing problems with both my novels and i need to rewrite them. this helped immensely. i will get going on rewrites and read a bunch of old agatha christie books for rhythm. and pray for the ol' intuitive thought.
you are an angel.
lori f

Author: The Stormtrooper Shrink  (signed)
Date posted: 2/15/2004 3:24:34 AM
The Stormtrooper Shrink's Comments:

Man, that first few paragraphs sound like me. When I still knew everything about writing...Yep, that's me. Except I discovered the dreadful truth at the age of thirteen. So the tear was heart-wrenching. Great article.

Author: rottlover
Date posted: 10/26/2005 11:18:59 AM
rottlover's Comments:

Great tips, especially the last about rereading your favorite novel. Another tip I got was to retype the first chapter or two, to further get the rhythm and style and flow into your head. Music students play works of the masters, art students copy paintings. Writers can retype works they love.

Author: Mary Schoenecker
Date posted: 11/12/2005 5:52:40 PM
Mary Schoenecker's Comments:

I'm going to try your sugestion about telling my story to myself. Hope it reveals something!

Author: Meenu
Date posted: 1/5/2006 1:48:02 AM
Meenu's Comments:

Very thoughtfully written. Will prove to be helpful specially as I write my first novel.
I found it immensely detailed.

Author: Ginny
Date posted: 1/12/2006 11:50:33 AM
Ginny's Comments:

I recently attended a writer's conference in Surrey, B.C. where Donald Maass conducted a workshop on pacing. I attended because some of my readers said a section of my novel moved too slowly. Donald told us that pacing is closely tied to tension. This made sense to me. The pace can be very slow, he said, but if the tension is high there's no sense that the story moves too slowly. In fact, slowing the story down can increase tension if it's done right.

Author: RK_Striker_JK_5  (signed)
Date posted: 11/7/2006 6:14:45 AM
RK_Striker_JK_5's Comments:

Hmm... Maybe this will help me get archived.


Author: Flowerlady  (signed)
Date posted: 10/19/2007 9:02:35 PM
Flowerlady's Comments:

Wow... this artical is wonderful. Overall I think I have decent pasing to my my stories, but I'm as much of an amature as anyone else who just started writing. This is very helpful as I go back and rewrite my epic.

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Uploaded: Monday, August 5, 2002

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