When you’re writing a novel, pacing can be a challenge for many authors. There’s an art to it, but pacing is largely a matter of narrative drive. Your story needs an engine.
You may be wondering — what’s “pacing” when you’re writing fiction?
When you’re writing a novel or a short story, your aim is to keep readers reading
Your aim is always to keep readers reading. Nothing else matters. While a reader may read your novel in a few hours however, a novel takes you weeks to write, maybe months, and you can make mistakes with pacing.
That’s OK — you can fix the pacing later — but it’s useful to be aware of pacing, because it saves you editing time.
Adjust your pace as you move through your story
In Write A Novel Essentials: Hit Your Milestones, we talked about milestones when you’re writing. (Read that article to get up to speed on the milestones you need to hit.)
You can use the milestones to track your pacing.
- Your setup has a slower pace. You’re introducing your characters and the situation. A tip: remember that even though the pace is slower, you’ve got to keep things moving.
- The middle half of your novel is around 50 per cent of your novel. Sometimes it’s calling the “sagging middle” because when authors make mistakes with pacing, it happens here. Pace varies in the middle of your novel, because you’ve got two milestones to hit.
- As soon as you hit the OOPS milestone (at around 80 percent), your novel or short story speeds up. The proverbial you-know-what has hit the fan, and it’s all action from this point onward, right up to the climax.
Avoid a common mistake when you fix a “sagging middle”
Every author gets “sagging middle” complaints from beta readers or an editor sooner or later. You’ve taken your eye off the pacing, and the middle 50 per cent of your novel is BORING.
Where authors make a mistake however is that they try to fix the sagging middle by tinkering with the middle of the novel. They add more action, or more dead bodies (in thrillers and mysteries); in romance, they add more conflict and more love scenes.
Please don’t do that. 🙂
Here’s the secret to great pacing in the middle 50 per cent of your novel: use your setup. Make sure that your story question has power.
Power up your story question: you need power for great pacing
You can’t speed up your novel without power, and the power in your fiction comes from narrative drive, also known as the story question.
What’s narrative drive? It’s what makes your story involving, and keeps it moving.
I’m currently watching Hostages on Netflix, the original Israeli version. The main character is a surgeon who’s about to operate on the Israeli prime minister. Terrorists seize the family in their home: the surgeon’s told that she must murder the prime minister when she operates on him, or her family will die.
What will the surgeon do? Will she choose her family, or the prime minister? Who will live, and who will die? That’s the story question. It powers the narrative — it’s the narrative drive.
Your story question must be a matter of survival
I work with authors every day and the most valuable advice I can give an author about pacing is to ensure that his story question has POWER.
Your story question must be a matter of survival for your main character, and you need to set this up early. When your story question is truly a matter of survival for your main character, not only will you have fun writing, but you may even feel as if “the story wrote itself.”
Your story will have real narrative drive with great pacing, and your readers will love it.
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