Besides being a writer, I’m a full time mother, so I spend a lot of time at home. I love home décor, gardening, and figuring out ways to make my house a more relaxing, comfortable oasis. Here is my guide to pacing your novel, from my own, personal, domestic diva’s perspective. This post is based on a workshop I gave to my local Romance Writers of America Group.
Building the House – The Structure
I joke with my husband that I don’t write books – I build them. Sometimes I build fairly quickly, when I am in the flow of things and the words are coming easily. Other times I build slowly, like I’m constructing a house brick by brick.
It can be frustrating to work like a bricklayer, with so much care and effort, but if I want a novel that truly brings a reader into my world, it’s necessary. Good pacing in a book isn’t just about making action happen quickly or slowly. It’s about building your story with enough conflict and depth to keep it moving forward naturally.
There are many articles out there with tips and techniques to improve the pacing of your story. But I believe that if you build a good book, pacing happens fairly naturally.
Picture a simple outline of a house.
If we decided to build a house, we’d have to think about what style we wanted to build in. A ranch house? A colonial? And it’s the same when we decide to write a romance novel. Are we writing suspense? A comedy? What will the tone of the book be? Subgenre can, and should, influence your pacing. You’ll pace a comedy differently from a mystery. You’ll pace a thoughtful, bittersweet book differently than an adventure.
Before you can build your house, you need a blueprint. Something that will help keep you on track with your story structure. For me, that blueprint is usually a chart based on Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure.
But there are many other blueprints to choose from. Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey is another structure that many find helpful, and there are countless others.
I don’t use my blueprint until I’ve written a few chapters. Obviously, if I were really building a house, I wouldn’t do that! But I like to get my initial ideas down, get to know my characters a bit, and I usually have a beginning to the story already in mind. After I write these first few chapters, however, I often begin to feel a little stuck. That’s when I start creating my Michael Hauge Six Stage Plot Structure blueprint.
Now, at the risk of you thinking that I’m a bit nuts, here is the chart that I use.
Ignore the post-its for now, and just look at the blueprint. Michael Hauge gives us a brilliant way to make sure we are pacing the main events of our story out to maximize our momentum. Thanks to him I know that about 25% of the way through the story, I need my characters to start to pursue one another. Halfway through they should have reached some kind of place they’ll never be able to fully go back from. A “point of no return.” A kiss. A declaration of emotion. Sex. Something that changes things for them.
And as you follow the chart it guides you to where your major setback should be, the climax or grand gesture, and your ending. I even put the approximate word count I should be at when I reach each of these points in my story, based on an 80 – 85 thousand word book, which is what I write for Harlequin Superromance.
By following this blueprint, or something similar, I can make sure that the basic structure of my plot, and the placement of my main events, sets me up for good pacing.
Building the House – Adding in the Rooms
You’ve got the overall plan for your house, or your book, but what is going to go inside of it? If you were building a house and deciding what types of rooms you wanted, you’d need to think about what your priorities were. For example, I might like the idea of a craft room in my house, but if I only do crafts once or twice a year, that’s probably not a very efficient use of space. I want to use the space in my house for important activities that I do often.
When you think about your book like a house, you realize that you only have a certain amount of space, and you want to use it for the most powerful parts of your story. You don’t want to waste it with scenes that don’t take the story very far. Important, life- changing moments for your hero and heroine deserve to be explored and lingered on. Other events can be given just one or two sentences or discussed in summary. When you use your space for the scenes that really matter and brush by the little things, you’re on your way to driving your story at good pace.
So how do you know which events are the important ones? This is where books like Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict come in.
Honestly, I’m not a fan of her GMC charts. I have made myself crazy trying to use them – they feel way too simplistic for me. But I know that they help many writers. And GMC chart or not, Debra Dixon has a vital point. Without a strong internal and external conflict, and without the characters having real reasons to want whatever it is they are wanting, you really don’t have much of a story.
If you have strong goals, motivation and conflict, you also have a good guideline for what to include in your story. Each event, each scene, each character’s actions and reactions should come from their internal and external goals, their reasons for those goals, and the conflicts they are facing.
Every scene needs to earn its space in your story. If it’s not juicy with conflict or showing motivation, or character growth, than it probably isn’t a good use of the space you have in your book. Just like a craft room might not be the best use of space in my house!
Building the House – The Layout
Building a house isn’t just deciding on what rooms you want. You’ll need to figure out where each of them will be, to give your house a great layout. In building a book, you need to decide how you are going to arrange your events to smoothly draw the reader through the story. This momentum is a big part of a well-paced story.
Going back to this chart, I can use it in a few different ways, to help create strong momentum. First of all, it reminds me that each part of my book has a purpose. In the first 25% of the story, for example, I need to make sure I get the following things done, to create a book with good pacing.
1) I need to make sure that the hero and heroine’s internal and external conflicts are clear and already causing them all kinds of trouble.
2) I need to build sympathy for my hero and heroine. I need to make sure that their motivations are clear, so that my readers will like them, or at least sympathize with them, and therefore, root for them.
3) I need to hook my reader on the first page with an interesting situation that brings them right into the action.
4) I need to show the small signs of growth, sympathy and connection that make it realistic for these characters in conflict to start their pursuit of one another.
I think it’s important to keep your purpose in mind during all parts of the book. Maybe in one scene your goal is to build more sympathy by explaining the motivation behind a hero’s bad decision. In another scene you remember that your heroine has just decided that she likes the hero and that makes her more insecure, and you’re going to show that through her actions. Every thing you write needs a purpose behind it.
But what if you can’t figure out the purpose? What if you just get stuck? That happens to me a lot, and that’s where the post-its on this chart come in. When I get stuck, I use my post-its and my plot chart, and something I call backwards planning.
This chart helps me see where the gaps in the action are. The blue post-its are story events. The pink post-its are important stops on the heroine’s emotional journey and the yellow post-its are for the hero’s emotions. (And you can see, from the photo, that I still have to work out his journey a bit!) If you look at the blue post-its, you can see where the gaps in the action are. For me, those gaps are often in the middle.
Those gaps can make me feel a little panicky. Sometimes they mean that I’m stuck, and they always mean I’m having some problems with pacing. But instead of panicking, I look ahead to the next major point in the story. For example, if I’m stuck in the second quarter of my book, say 35% of the way through, I might look ahead to the 50% mark and I see that at that point, the hero and the heroine are going to kiss. (Or admit they care, or something important.) But right now, at 35%, they are really in conflict, almost to the point of dislike.
So I ask myself, What is going to have to happen to my character that will get them from this point of conflict, to point where he or she will want to kiss the other? Knowing my character, what types of experiences, or emotions, or connections with this other person will get them to that point? And if I think backwards that way, I can very often get myself unstuck, and create a series of events that build momentum to that climactic moment.
I also use a different chart to help me when I am stuck, that allows me to make sure that my scenes are building on each other. I don’t use this chart for the whole book – it’s way too detailed. I call it (very imaginatively,) Claire McEwen’s Momentum Chart.
I write down the event, the scene, what the emotion or conflict is, and what the outcome of the scene is. Then I do that for the next scene and the next, so I can make sure that each outcome leads to the events in the next scene, and that my scenes really are building smoothly on each other, thus creating momentum. Usually the process helps me spot where my problems with momentum are located.
Good momentum, the natural building of one scene on another, leads to great pacing.
Building the House – The Decor
Our house has been built. The structure is up and the rooms are in place. Now we need to add in the details. We all bring a personal style to our homes. Some people want stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Others want that perfect, ceramic farmhouse sink. Some of us decorate our homes in a very spare, modern style, and others are all about the country cottage shabby chic. And it’s the same with writing. We all write differently.
But whatever your style of decor, there are basic elements that every house is going to need. A stove and a fridge and a shower, things like that. Plus there are some basic design rules you’ll probably follow. Similarly, with writing, there are some basic revision rules we can follow.
Since our focus is on pacing, I’ll just mention a few things to consider while revising that can improve our pacing and pull your readers smoothly through your story.
1) Use dialogue over narrative, much of the time. And make sure to use word choice and sentence structures that work your characters. Would your character really say things that way? If not, your reader will leave the story for a moment to think about how the dialogue doesn’t ring true.
2) Keep paragraphs fairly short, if possible. There is power in the white space on the page. If you are careful with your word choice, you can distill a longer paragraph down into the essential words and images, and make your writing way more powerful in the process.
3) Make sure you’re grounding your reader in a sense of time and place, so they always know where they are in the story. If your reader gets lost, any work you’ve done on pacing is obsolete!
4) Watch out for technical language, obscure historical detail, jargon or fact–overload that might be distracting for the reader.
5) Take a second look at Point-of-View. Is each scene written from the perspective of the person who has the most at stake?
All the fine-tuning that we do as writers helps enormously with the pacing. And it’s also where you put a lot of your personal style into the story. Just like great décor in a home can make people want to linger there, good revision can turn your book into one that readers don’t want to put down.
Driving the Car
The speed at which we go through a scene matters.
We construct our scenes, one on top of the other, to build momentum that will draw our reader through our story. But each scene also needs to have its own momentum, its own pace specific to the purpose of the scene. In an action scene, we want to speed up time, and take our reader flying through the action along with our characters. In a love scene, we want to slow time down and linger on each detail, allowing our reader to savor the passion and romance. So how do we do that?
Here are two charts, used in my recent workshop, that give some pointers for creating strong pacing within each scene.
Want to speed a scene up? Keep events coming at a fast pace. Write in short paragraphs. Maybe end in a cliffhanger or use a scene cut, where the scene ends abruptly and we move on to someone else’s point of view. Dialogue might be short and choppy, just as we might speak if we were very stressed. Zoom in on the characters immediate reality – what are they seeing, feeling, reacting to? Use powerful, evocative words.
And to slow down? Linger on the details. Zoom out and give your characters time to take in the details of their environment. Let them have time to think and wonder and remember. Maybe your sentences can be longer and with more varied structures. Your paragraphs might even be a bit longer because you have more narrative. Your characters can take more time to explain themselves, to notice the setting, to think and speak in more complete thoughts.
Pacing is more than just a few techniques. It’s in the foundation of your book and it’s in the building of each chapter and scene. If we make strong plans, and pay close attention to the construction and the decor, we’ll create a story that draws our readers in and moves them smoothly through. And to immerse them in the action? Jump in the car and pick the best speed for your scene. When you pay attention to all aspects of pacing, you’ll have a book that your reader can’t put down!