What Is Good Pacing, and Why Does It Matter?
Good Afternoon, Pubcrawlers!
If you’ve ever queried a manuscript or sold a book, then I think it’s safe to assume you’ve likely heard the word “pacing” in feedback for your project. Whether the pacing was too slow, too fast, or missing something, when I’m editing client projects or giving feedback on submissions, it’s one of the notes I give the most.
When a novel is well-paced, it carries the reader through the story easily to the end. They aren’t stopping to wonder what’s taking so long or wondering why something happened too quickly. Everything is timed well, and the story moves.
So what makes a novel well-paced? The biggest thing is story structure. A well-paced novel understands what an inciting incident is, what a turning point is, the Black Moment is, the climax, the denouement. A well-paced novel has obstacles your characters must overcome in a convincing way. It has an antagonist that creates some of those obstacles, and makes it difficult for your characters to move forward.
Sometimes the issue is as simple as, there is too much time in between the Beats of your story (or, the structure points noted above). In this case, pacing is easily fixed by trimming passages. In the same vein, perhaps it was too easy for a character to get from one Beat to another. In this case, go to that place in your book and flesh the conflict out.
Pacing, though, doesn’t always refer to making a book shorter or cutting passages (though that is often a helpful place to start, as many of us have a tendency to overwrite). It refers to how easily you can keep a reader engaged, and the tools you use to employ that. Adding complications for characters and upping the tension can help the pacing of your novel, even if you never cut a line.
In that vein, another thing that contributes to pacing issues: the dreaded And Then story structure. It can be easy to fall into this as a writer, and much harder to dig yourself out. Basically, if your book follows an And Then structure (This happens, And then this happens, And then this happens), you are likely lacking in much tension and conflict, and therefore, your pacing lags.
For example: The Knight sets out on his quest. Then he meets a damsel. Then he acquires a squire. Then he encounters a giant. Then he defeats the Giant. The end. Where is the conflict? What’s interesting about that progression? Where is the antagonist, the obstacles? But if your story follows a This Happens, Therefore This Happens, But then This happens, your pacing automatically becomes more interesting. The Knight sets out on his quest. But before he can leave the kingdom, he’s arrested for treason! Therefore, the damsel must save herself. But the Giant is too strong! She almost doesn’t accomplish it, but the squire arrives just in time to help her out! And so, both live and go save the knight.
You see how much more dynamic that second one is? You can tell, just from that little outline, that the pacing of the second book is much stronger than the first. You can thank the writers of South Park for that little lesson!
Shockingly, a lot of us fall into the And Then trap without even realizing it. We get excited about our characters or we have a great inciting incident, and we might not realize the pacing of our story has begun to meander, that the tension has begun to deflate, and the conflict is nowhere to be found.
If you find yourself in this position, I find it easiest to outline the work (even if it’s already finished) and identify each specific beat or turning point in the book. If I can’t easily find them, or it doesn’t seem like the character had to overcome any obstacles in order to reach that point in the book, then from here you can determine where conflict needs to be inserted (creating a But Then instead of And Then) and revise accordingly.
There are a lot of reasons you might get the “pacing” note, but these are among the most common I have found. What are your thoughts on pacing? Have you ever received this note either from agents, beta readers, or editors? I’m excited to hear what you have to say!