Writing Excuses 10.34: Q&A on Pacing
Q: What are early signs of pacing problems?
A: When you can’t name anything that your character has accomplished towards a goal. When you are bored writing. If you, as writer, are frustrated that nothing is happening. This will be cool when I get to X — make every scene somebody’s favorite. What am I going to achieve in this scene that will make the reader feel an emotion? Why is this scene memorable? Ask a beta reader.
Q: How do you chart pacing so it happens evenly with growing tension up to climax and resolution?
A: Good question. Know how the book, and the reveals or payoffs, will end, so you know how you are going to get there. Write down your setups so you can make them coincide at the right time. Note: don’t do Brandon Avalanches OR try to make everything too even. Provide a progression, and spread out your climaxes. Do Grand Prix plotting.
Q: You said before it’s not always scene-sequel, scene-sequel. I just want to clarify. For faster pacing, we up the scenes and lessen the sequel, right? And the opposite for slower pacing?
A: Generally, yes.
Q: How do you handle the progression of a character over the series of a few months as they travel without the story feeling choppy?
A: Signposting, signal a jumpcut before it happens. Do include some interesting stuff that is not purely plot related! If you set up an urgent item, a ticking clock, don’t jump ahead. Do signpost skipping boring stuff here…
Q: It feels like debut authors are expected to start their novel at a breakneck pace. At what point is it okay to slow down? Should the first book be 120 mph until the end?
A: Debut writers can’t do what established writers do, because the readers don’t trust them yet. New writers must establish quickly that “you want to read what I want to write.” You don’t have to have a breakneck pace, but you must remember the reader will give you less benefit of the doubt.
Q: Brent Weeks writes 300,000 word books that read like thrillers. How?
A: Short period of time, fast pacing, few sequels.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A On Pacing.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] Howard apparently has a question about who he is.
[Mary] That’s a pacing issue there [garbled]
[Howard] Yeah, I had a pacing issue. Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to jump right into these. These are questions from twitter pose to us about pacing. James asks, “What are early signs of pacing problems?”
[Howard] When nothing happens and you’re expecting somebody to say their name, that’s a really… Sorry.
[Brandon] That’s not a…
[Mary] That’s not, actually… I mean, well, you’re being silly. It is true that when you’re sitting there and you are… You cannot name anything that your character has accomplished towards a goal, there’s a pacing issue. When you are bored yourself writing, there’s probably a pacing issue.
[Howard] If you are frustrated… If nothing’s happening and it’s building tension and the tension is driving the story forward, that’s fine. If nothing’s happening and you’re frustrated because nothing’s happening, then you have a problem.
[Brandon] One thing that I think a lot of new writers get wrong is they think, “Oh, this book’s going to be so cool when I get to X.” That’s actually a pacing problem. What they need to do is they need to ask, “Why is the scene I’m writing today going to be somebody’s favorite scene in the book?” Try to write every scene that it’s going to be that way, and usually… You can… Don’t go too crazy on this, where you’re like, “Well, I’m just going to have dragons attack in this one.” Maybe you do want to do that. But really, what you’re looking at is, “What am I going to do in this scene that achieves something that’s going to make the reader feel an emotion? What’s going to draw them to this scene? What’s going to make this chapter memorable?” You need to do that for all your chapters, not just the cool ones at the end.
[Dan] I read on an ereader now more often than not. I have gotten to the point where if I look down at the bottom and it says that I am 10% of the way through and I still don’t know what the main plot is about, I will just give up.
[Mary] So one of the answers to your question is hand it to a beta reader.
[Brandon] Beta readers are very useful.
[Dan] If they can’t figure out what the main problem that needs to be solved is, or worse, the book that I gave up on a few days ago, I was a good 20% into that book and still didn’t know who the main character was.
[Howard] We had an exercise on promises to the readers where you hand it to beta readers and ask them to identify things that you’re promising. That’s actually a pretty good exercise to identify pacing problems as well.
[Brandon] All right. Dee asks, “How do you chart pacing so it happens evenly with growing tension up to climax and resolution?”
[Mary] Boy, I wish I knew.
[Howard] I use a radial graph in Excel… No. I don’t chart it. I wing it.
[Dan] [garbled I] do.
[Brandon] This is a good question. But… Go ahead, Dan, you were going to say something?
[Dan] Well, I talk about story structure a lot in the seven point system and things like that. For me, the way I write, I need to know how something is going to end in order to get there properly. That does not just for the end of a book, but for every reveal that I’m trying to make or for every exciting pay off. I need to know what are the steps that are going to lead me to it. So there’s a lot of different story structure systems out there that can help you with this. We don’t have time to go into them all now. But something like that.
[Howard] We talked a couple of weeks… Several weeks back about strangling somebody with a telephone cord, and the telephone was a hand-me-down from grandma. So you have the strangling scene and the emotional impact of using grandma’s phone for it. Setting those things up and writing down that you are setting those things up and that you want them to coincide at this moment… That’s actually something that… That’s the only way that I can make those things happen, is by writing them down in a notebook and saying I need to have these coincide here.
[Mary] One thing that I think we actually are missing in this question is that she asks how do you chart pacing so it happens evenly…
[Brandon] That’s what I was going to answer.
[Mary] It shouldn’t actually be happening evenly.
[Brandon] Aah… Let me say yes, it shouldn’t. But one of my problems as an early writer… All my alpha readers, it started to become a joke, is I would overlap all my climaxes at the end of the story. So what would happen is…
[Dan] We called it the Brandon avalanche.
[Brandon] The Brandon avalanche. Still, I get readers who read Elantris which was one that I wrote during that era, who are like, “Wow, this book was great. I really enjoyed it. But it felt like the last third was empty, with then one chapter of everything piling on top of itself.” What I realized over those years is, first, I was proud of the Brandon avalanche, then I realized it was making weaker books. Because if I staggered my climaxes so that payoffs were happening every few chapters instead of getting all the payoffs at the same time at the end of the book, you had a stronger book. Part of this is because not all these payoffs are going to shine. If you’re having the main character climax happen alongside three secondary character climaxes with their stories, the secondary characters get lost. But if you had their payoffs and their climaxes happen staggered through the book, then each person has their time to shine. This happens with subplots as well. So yes, I do think you do want it to be more even. That said, Mary?
[Mary] See… I beli… This is one of those things where we’re probably using the word “even” in different ways. What… I’m going to have to use metaphor to talk about this. When I hear, and when I read books that I feel like the pace is very even, it’s like reading… Listening to a piece of music that is all in one volume. For me, I like… I find it much more interesting…
[Brandon] Yeah, you’re right.
[Mary] When there’s different speeds, there’s different volumes, there’s different instruments. The challenge, what you’re looking for, is not an evenness, but a progression so that it feels like we are making progress.
[Mary] God, there’s got to be another word.
[Howard] What’s the big road race in France or Monte Carlo?
[Mary] The Tour de France?
[Howard] I thought the Tour de France was a bicycle thing, but…
[Mary] Well, you said road race.
[Dan] They race on roads.
[Howard] Oh. What I’m thinking of is a motorcar race.
[Mary] Grand Prix?
[Howard] Andy it’s the difference between, when you talk about even plotting… Grand Prix. The difference between the Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. The Indianapolis 500 has corners that are very, very evenly spaced, and it is a very even 500 miles, where the obstacles are really just the other things on the track. Whereas the Grand Prix is far twistier and turnier. That’s… I like Grand Prix plotting.
[Brandon] Darcy asks, and this is one specifically for you, Howard…
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] “You said before it’s not always scene-sequel, scene-sequel. I just want to clarify. For faster pacing, we up the scenes and lessen the sequel, right? And the opposite for slower pacing?”
[Howard] Generally speaking, yes. If you take away processing time… Sequels, generally speaking, are when the audience gets to process what happened during the scene. If you don’t give them the processing time, you have increased the pace. You run the risk of increasing fatigue. But scene, scene, scene, sequel will feel a lot faster than scene-sequel, scene, scene. Generally.
[Brandon] I’m going to stop us here for the book of the week. I have the book of the week this week. It’s called Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I just finished it and I loved it. It is nonfiction. It is nonfiction of the style that I most like, which is kind of human interest mixed with something. In this case, it is the story of a number of North Korean defectors. It’s their stories intermixed with one another, while also talking about North Korea as a country. Where it came from, why certain things were happening with the governmental policy. So it’s half history book, half biography of all of these defectors. There’s maybe four or five of them. We follow their stories from just basically from the beginnings of their lives until the point where they leave North Korea, and then, the sequel, their reactions to South Korea. It’s a wonderfully written book. It’s very inventive and interesting in the way that it is paced because you get these sort of stories mixed with history in a really fascinating way. I love reading about Korea, but I love reading about North Korea because it is such a strange place. No place like it exists on this planet currently. The things that happen there are surreal. They are great fodder for fantasy writers, looking at what happens when social norms are grossly changed or morphed or things like this. Anyway, really interesting book. I highly recommend it. It is called Nothing to Envy. It was written by Barbara Demick. It is narrated by Karen White. If you want to get a copy to listen to, you can go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can get a 30-day free trial, download Nothing to Envy for free.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s jump back into this with more questions. Justin asks, “How do you handle the progression of a character over the series of a few months as they travel without the story feeling choppy?” I like this one. He’s basically asking how do you do a travelogue without it feeling choppy, but it really can happen for any pacing style you’re using. How do you keep the pacing feeling smooth when you might be jumping a week here and two weeks there?
[Howard] My first thought was, “Well, at some point, you just add an eyepatch…”
[Howard] And then don’t say anything.
[Brandon] No. JK Rowling is very good at this. Those books take a whole year. I remember reading the first one, being like, “This should feel choppy because we’re skipping a month here and we’re skipping two weeks there. Why doesn’t it feel choppy?”
[Mary] Well, she’s…
[Dan] That’s because this… go ahead.
[Mary] Really good at… I was going to say she’s really good at signposting. Is that what you were going to talk about?
[Dan] No. But you say signposting and I’ll say a different thing.
[Mary] Okay. So the signposting is the idea of basically giving people the “three months later” without actually saying three months later. Things… signalling by seasonal elements, by making sure that you actually give the reader, even though you’re doing a jumpcut, you actually…
[Howard] The Christmas scenes in JK Rowling are a great example of that.
[Mary] Exactly. You’re giving them an anchor point so that they… when you land in the scene, you understand where it is before the action happens.
[Brandon] You get the sense that boring things have happened, progress has been made that you really didn’t want to read, but want to know happened.
[Mary] What were you going to say?
[Dan] I was going to say I did… That’s how the first couple of John Cleaver books were written as well. Big month or multiple month gaps between scenes. What you’re going for there is that you only want to describe the interesting stuff. So, yeah, you’re going to skip the boring things. You are going to… Part of what I was trying to do that I think can help with this is some of the interesting stuff you are going to describe is not plot related. Because if everything you talk about when you’re jumping through time like that is specific advancement of plot, it can feel jumpy. Whereas if you pause, and this is another great pacing tip, if you stop and have one chapter that is entirely about character development, rather than plot development, then that can help it smooth out a little bit.
[Mary] I think actually looking at training montages in films are useful, because it’s, as you say, not everything that they use in that is going to come back and be used in the final fight. But it’s very much the let us show you this little bit, let us show you this little bit. They’re fairly even, the length of time… Not completely. Some of them are a little bit longer, some of them a little shorter. I have, in Of Noble Family, I have a montage which I can’t tell you about because LMG spoilers, but…
[Dan] The other thing you need to remember is if you have set up something that is really urgent, you can’t jump too far ahead in time. Because that is going to break it up and make it feel choppy as well. Because your reader is going to be pulled out and go, “Wait. Why are we two weeks ahead? When something…”
[Brandon] We only have three weeks until the bomb goes off. You can’t jump two weeks.
[Howard] I jumped about two weeks ahead in Schlock Mercenary in between books, and a lot of people asked, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. How’d she get dead? We… What happened?” Part of the story that I wanted to tell is she got dead and she came back. She does not get those memories back and neither do you. That message doesn’t come across until after we have seen her talk about, “You know, I lost 10 days…” “Well, yes, plus the four when we were putting you back together.” “I lost two weeks!” “Yes.” By making them be gone, by making the reader not get them, I get to establish early in the book a consequence that I can leverage later.
[Brandon] That’s a really risky move. I’m reading that story and going, “Wow, I’m liking this, but it’s really risky.”
[Howard] Yes. It’s very risky, and the problem is that as it unfolds on the web, it’s frustrating for people. When it appears in print, I think I’ll be okay.
[Mary] One of the things… You just made me think about the signposting again is… And again, Rowling does this and a couple of other people do this, but… Well, I mean, lots of people do this, but before the scene break as well, there is a signpost that indicates that boring stuff is going to happen, so that you know that we’re going to be jumping.
[Dan] Yeah. The kids say, “Well, okay, we’ve dealt with this thing and found our next clue. Now we better study for that potions test.” You go, “Okay. We’re allowed to breathe now.”
[Brandon] A really good one here from Ryan. Who actually asks two similar questions. “It feels like debut authors are expected to start their novel at a breakneck pace. At what point is it okay to slow down? Should the first book be 120 mph until the end?” What you’re noticing, Ryan, is that it is harder for the new writer. I think it is absolutely. You don’t get to do the things that an established writer is done. You don’t get to do what I got to do in Way of Kings, where I do for different viewpoints at the beginning of the book and things like this. Now I’m not saying you don’t get to. You can, but what you’re missing is the reader having faith in you already because they have read your work already. This is unfair. It is completely unfair that I get to do things that you are going to get told, “Well, you can’t do that” when you say, “Look, Brandon Sanderson did it and it’s a very successful book.” Yes, it is unfair. You are going to be expected to have a faster pace for your first book. That doesn’t mean it has to be 120 mph until the end.
[Howard] On point to the question, one of the promises, or one of the things that the new writer has to accomplish in the first few pages is you want to read what I want to write. I’m not sure what you as a writer, how you are… As a new writer, how you are going to say that. But that’s one of the most important things that you can say in those first few pages. That does not equal 120 miles an hour all the way to the end of the book.
[Mary] My books are really not 120 mph…
[Brandon] You are not writing that style of book.
[Mary] No, but I’m talking as a debut author. It’s not something that you have to do, but…
[Brandon] You are going to enter your book with the reader giving you less benefit of the doubt. But the breakneck pace, that’s one way to promise something to somebody. It’s not the only way.
[Dan] I wanted to mention that, because I remember I was on a… I was doing a workshop once where Shannon Hale and I were critiquing people’s first pages. We got to one which did not work for her at all, and I adored it. It was because nothing happened in it, and so she kept saying, “Well, nothing happens on your first page. That’s bad.” I thought, “Except it’s so interesting. I love reading it. I want to read the next page.” Sometimes I think that’s enough, although as this example illustrates, not for every reader.
[Brandon] Now Ryan also brings up, in his next question, Brent Weeks. Which is an interesting one to look at. Listeners, if you want to read two different… Very differently paced books, you can read one of Brent Weeks’s books such as The Black Prism and compare it to The Way of Kings. He uses thriller pacing, and Ryan points this out. It’s like, “Wow, he’s got a 300,000 word book that reads like a thriller.” He does. Jim Butcher does this as well in his Codex Alera books. What they do… How do they do this? They make it take place over a very short period of time. Jim Butcher’s books are often one day. Brent Weeks’s books are similar, one or two days. They use these things we’ve been talking about for fast pacing, meaning they never really give you the chance for the sequel. It’s always scene, scene, scene, scene, scene, scene, scene. It can get very fatiguing, but it also can be done very successfully. It’s a tool you have to decide if you want to use. I personally prefer, for the big books that I’m writing, to have plenty of sequels, plenty of breaks. I use the faster pacing on my short books that are meant to be like a thriller.
[Howard] If you didn’t include sequels, Brandon, people would die.
[Brandon] Well, Brent does it without sequels. It’s very fascinating to read. Very few. He has a few.
[Mary] I was going to say. He definitely has a few. But what he does, he puts the sequel in the middle of the scene.
[Brandon] That’s true.
[Brandon] We are actually out of time. There were a lot of excellent questions on this. I’m sorry that we didn’t get to all of them. But Howard is going to give you a writing exercise.
[Howard] We’re doing plot twists next month. So let’s pace you straight into plot twists, with an exercise that I like to call hard left. Take your pacing, take a scene that is moving forward at a breakneck pace. Imagine a person running or car driving fast straight ahead, and then throw a twist at them and don’t break scene. Don’t do the cliffhanger, don’t do the page turn. Just take a hard left and roll with it. Force us to keep that pace up as we jink to the left, as we move in a new direction.
[Brandon] Take something you weren’t expected to do and just run with it. Great. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.