Pick Up The Pace


 I’ve always struggled with pacing. Pacing isn’t a topic widely covered in craft books and yet, it’s critical to keeping young readers engaged.

I’ve been revising my YA manuscript, so I turned to my writer universe for advice. This question inspired many to respond, and I want to share their thoughts and strategies.

First, what slows a manuscript down?

Carol Tanzman, author of CIRCLE OF SILENCE, noted that too many side plots and side characters can slow the forward movement of the main character’s story. Side plots/characters can distract, taking focus away from the protagonist.

But on the flip side, isolating a character can turn the story too internal, discouraging dialogue and interaction with other characters to move the story forward.

Many writers said thinking rather than acting is a problem. Kristen Hansen Brakeman noted, “I’m guilty of having characters do too much talking/thinking/deciding.” Patti Brown agreed, saying, “Thinking usually slows everything down.”

 Lengthy narrative can also be a killer. We love to “show” scenes, but as Dawn Baertlein said, “You don’t need to show every rock and tree your character passed getting to the skate park where the big confrontation is going to take place.”

My editor Mollie Traver commented, “One thing I’ve always pinpointed as a main culprit in slow pacing is the number of scene changes. No matter how long or short a scene is, each of those transitions is like a stop sign in a section where you want to be rolling full steam ahead towards a climax or big turn in the story.”

A major drag on pacing is a static story or character. As Kekla Magoon, author of THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, says, “Even a life threatening situation can get dull if nothing ever changes.” If the stakes don’t go up or the character doesn’t change and grow then the story slowly turns to cement.

Tied to that is a lack of tension. Without a goal or yearning to fulfill, and real, seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the character to overcome, the reader has little reason to keep going.

So–how do we pick up the pace and keep readers engaged?

We can tackle pacing at all levels of the writing.

At the sentence level, Angela Russell pointed out that “short sentences add to urgency.” Fred Borchers reminded me that “First person narrators might have long interior thoughts, but be less verbose when he or she speaks,” so dialogue can speed things up.

Nina Kidd suggested the use of active voice except when something is being done to the main character, adding that it helps to “Keep the subject right next to the verb or verb phrase.”

Moving to the paragraph level, Nina praised Melissa Stewart’s advice of “No paragraphs over five lines,” adding that short paragraphs make for quicker reading. Naturally, “Each one needs to materially advance the action.”

At the scene level, Alexis O’Neill, author of THE RECESS QUEEN, advised cutting and condensing scenes, perhaps making short chapters that end in cliffhangers. And making sure that “all dialogue is essential to moving the story forward. If not, cut it.”

Editor Mollie Traver suggested cutting a scene entirely if it isn’t contributing to forward momentum or finding where two scenes or two chapters could become one.  “Reducing scene/chapter changes and bulking more together can work like a ticking clock, imposing a faster-moving structure over the same story so readers feel like they’re being moved through the story quicker even if the actual material hasn’t been trimmed significantly.”

But how do you know what to cut?

Each scene must advance the story and as Janet Burroway, author of WRITING FICTION reminds students, there are four kinds of story action: Deed, Decision, Accident and Discovery. If the main characters aren’t doing something related to their goals and obstacles, deciding something, discovering something or being thwarted, the scene isn’t moving the story forward.

Shannon Messenger, author of THE KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, doesn’t stop here. She said her  screenwriting background taught her to have five reasons for every scene. It’s not enough to get a character from A to B.

Martha Alderson THE PLOT WHISPERER, reinforced that, suggesting that each scene include dramatic action that furthers the story, and  as well as showing the emotional development of the character, and supporting the story’s themes.  Martha’s Scene Tracker helps writers evaluate each scene for how it achieved these goals.

While it’s nice to think, oh I can cut here and there, condense and edit, at the highest level, pacing is linked to the overall plot structure and character development.

We all know that rising action helps move the reader and story along, but Martha Alderson taught me that rising action is enhanced when a plot contains four “energetic markers.”  These are four points equally spaced through the book where the protagonist makes a decision or takes an action that dramatically changes the direction of the story.

These markers also reflect change within the character to become the person they must be to succeed in the end. The character’s emotional development, and their struggle to transform from who they once were to who they need to become–must mirror the pacing of the action for the book to succeed.

Many thanks to the writers, editors and experts who contributed these words of wisdom. I hope will serve you as well as they have helped me.



12 thoughts on “Pick Up The Pace

  1. These are all great points and more relevant today than ever since readers seem to have less patience. They tend to want their stories NOW or they’re moving on to something more stimulating. Story on Demand!

  2. Great post Catherine.

    I love Martha Alderson’s idea of four energetic markers! I’m going to analyze my WIP plot and draw these out.

    My favorite guide on pace and tension is Donald Maass’ Fire In Fiction, specifically his chapters on micro-tension. Super!

    • Thanks for the recommendation of FIRE IN FICTION, Tami. I will definitely check out “micro-tension.”

      Frankly, I was very surprised when I found that my manuscript had four energetic markers at almost the exact points that Martha suggests they should appear.

  3. I totally agree Mary Ann. Attention is getting shorter all the time. One funny tidbit I read about attention is that during Lincoln’s time, a speech could go on for HOURS and the audience would be enthralled. Now if a story lags, a reader can click on something else.

  4. Thanks, Catherine. Great ideas. You’ve reminded me to get out my copy of PLOT WHISPERER and mark up my story’s energetic markers. Getting my stickies out now.

    • The PLOT WHISPERER is my new best friend. The story tracker has really helped me reevaluate scenes and I hope, to make them deliver more to the reader.

  5. Perfect post, Catherine! Sharing all around, since as usual you’ve culled a rich variety of actionable tips for the problem of pacing, which in many ways feels as mysterious to the writer as Voice.

    • I so agree, Vanessa. Pacing always feels intangible, but we know when we read something and the pacing is off.

  6. Thank you for a very constructive post — and timely for me as I dig through final revisions on a novel. I appreciate the many comments from different writers and the concrete ways to consider pace at the different levels. I agree that it’s easy to spot in other people’s work, but devilishly hard to evaluate in one’s own.

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