Thursday, August 2, 2012

Guest Post by Becca Puglisi: On Pacing, the Ultimate Balancing Act


Please welcome Becca Puglisi, one of the authors of the Emotion Thesaurus, who's here to discuss pacing in your writing! Take it away, Becca. :)

I’d like to start this post by stating an opinion that I think pretty much everyone shares: Pacing Sucks. When you get it right, no one really notices. I mean, how many times have you read a 5-star review that went on and on about the awesome pacing? On the other hand, when the pacing’s off, it’s obvious, but not always easy to pinpoint; you’re just left with this vague, ghostly feeling of dissatisfaction. One thing, though, is certain: if the pacing is wrong, it’s definitely going to bother your readers, so I thought I’d share some tips on how to keep the pace smooth and balanced.

1. Current Story vs. Backstory. Every character and every story has backstory. But the relaying of this information almost always slows the pace because it pulls the reader out of the current story and plops them into another one. It’s disorienting. And yet, a certain amount of backstory is necessary to create depth in regards to characters and plot. To keep the pace moving, only share what’s necessary for the reader to know at that moment. Dole out the history in small pieces within the context of the current story, and avoid narrative stretches that interrupt what’s going on. Here’s a great example from Above, by Leah Bobet:

The only good thing about my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that’s half enough to keep me out of trouble. But tonight it’s not the half I need because here’s Atticus, spindly crab arms folded ‘cross his chest, waiting outside my door. His eyes glow dim-shot amber—not bright, so he’s not mad then, just annoyed and looking to be mad.


Bobet could have taken a lengthy paragraph to explain that certain people in this world have curses that are really mutations, that Atticus has crab claws for hands and his eyes glow when he gets angry. But that would’ve slowed the pace and been boring, besides. Instead, Bobet wove this information into the current story—showed Atticus leaning against the door, showed his crustacean claws and his freaky, glowing eyes so the reader knows that he’s a mutant and, to the narrator, at least, this is normal. This is an excellent example of the artful weaving of backstory into the present story

2. Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue. Action is an accelerant. It keeps the pace from dragging. Granted, there will be places in your story that are inherently passive, where characters have to talk, or someone needs to think things out. The key is to break up these places with movement or activity. Characters should be in motion—smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting— while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments, whether it’s peeling carrots or painting a picture. These bits of action are like an optical illusion, fooling the reader into thinking something’s happening, when really, nothing’s going on. This is one scenario when readers actually prefer to be fooled, so make sure to energize those narrative stretches with action.

3. Conflict vs. Downtime. On the flip side, you can’t have a story that’s all go and no stop. One might think that since action is good, more action is better. Not true. Readers need time to catch their breath, to recover from highly emotional or stressful scenes. A good pace is one that ebbs and flows—high action, a bit of recovery, then back to the activity again. Even The Maze Runner, possibly the most active novel I’ve ever read, has its moments of calm. When it comes to conflict and downtime, a definite balance is needed for the reader to feel satisfied.

4. Keep Upping the Stakes. We know that conflict is important—so important that every single scene needs it. But for conflict to be effective, it needs to escalate over the course of the story. To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic, and with stakes that are more desperate. Look at The Hunger Games. It starts with Prim in danger, followed by Katniss facing a series of do-or-die scenarios, and finally ends with her playing a desperate game of life or death with not only herself, but Peeta, too. Clearly, lots of other conflict is interspersed, but when it comes to the major points, each one should have greater impact than the last.

5. Condense the timeline. When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag. It’s also hard, in a story that covers a long span, to keep things smooth; there will be time jumps of weeks or months or even years between scenes. Too many of these give the story a jerky feel. So when it comes to the timeline, condense it as much as possible to keep the pace steady.

For sure, pacing is tricky, but I’ve found these nuggets to be helpful in maintaining a good balance. What other tips do you have for keeping your story moving at the right pace?



Becca Puglisi is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression. Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with 75 different emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. The Emotion Thesaurus is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords, and the PDF can be purchased directly from her blog.

36 comments:

Denise Covey said...

Hello Lydia. Hello Becca. This is an awesome post. Much of it is common sense but we need to be reminded.

Shelly said...

Excellent, excellent tips. Thank you for sharing!

Shelley Munro said...

Great tips. For me dialogue seems to move the story along faster - if it's good dialogue.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing your great tips on pacing Becca. They really are right on.

Andrea Mack said...

These are excellent tips, Becca, thank you! I'll be thinking of these as I continue with my revisions. One of the things I try to do to keep the story moving is to make sure my main character is doing something active in every paragraph or two--never just standing there observing.

Em-Musing said...

I agree that dialog keeps things moving. Especially when the each character has their own voice.

Becca Puglisi said...

Denise, Shelly, and Natalie, thanks so much for stopping by!

Shelley and Em-Musing, I completely agree. Strong, realistic dialogue does keep the pages turning. And the extra white space on the page that goes along with dialogue is encouraging and helps keep the reader moving forward.

Andrea, that's another great tip. It's amazing how a little movement can keep a stationary scene from dragging.

Laura Pauling said...

Terrific advice! I'm learning to embrace the calm as a writer because I realized in books that I actually enjoy those moments better than constant action. :)

Miranda Hardy said...

Great post on pacing! It's so important in a good story to bring out certain elements at the right time.

Olivia Green said...

This was a much needed reminder. Thank you Becca for this awesome post, and thank you Lydia for hosting her!

Matthew MacNish said...

Great post as always, Becca!

One thing that bothers me about pacing is the short attention span of the modern reader. Personally, I love a book like The Lord of the Rings, that takes time to build (over 100 pages before the story actually begins), but it would never get published in today's market.

Ahem. Anyway, I think Becca's most important point is that when pacing works best, you don't really notice it (or at least you probably wouldn't if you weren't a writer). To achieve that, I think the key is balance.

Barbara Watson said...

Absolutely. Pacing is like voice. Readers don't notice it when it's done just right--other than to know the story 'works' and 'flows.' Great tips.

Kristen Wixted said...

This is great! I especially identify with the timeline part, because I have run into that so many times. When I turn months into weeks, the story is much more efficient.

Balancing action and downtime is so hard. Good advice there, too.

Thanks, Becca and Lydia! Such a useful interview.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

This was an excellent post, filled not only with tips but with point-on examples. Thank you.

Bish Denham said...

Thanks Becca! These are excellent tips, simply put. Very user friendly.

E. Arroyo said...

Excellent tips! Thanks

Jemi Fraser said...

Pacing is something I worry about too - it can be hard finding that balance, but it's awesome when it works. Thanks for the tips, Becca! :)

Angela Ackerman said...

I am going to be an echo and say excellent post! Pacing really is a high wire act in writing--issues with it at best can turn a great story into a mediocre one and at worst, ruin a book. Great breakdown!

Lydia, thanks so much for having Becca on your blog today!

Angela

Jordan L. Hawk said...

Great post! I particularly like the tip about having the characters be moving somehow while talking. I know I'll be using that one soon!

Angela Brown said...

This is an excellent post that I was able to pick up quite a few tips. Thanks Lydia, for having Becca...and thanks, Becca, for sharing your wonderful knowledge with us :-)

Kelly Polark said...

Thank you for the great tips, Becca!!

Carrie Butler said...

As usual, excellent advice! :) Thank you for sharing!

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Thanks Lydia and Becca! Fabulous post. I'm printing it out. I know I'm going to want to re-read this one =)

Diane Fordham said...

Excellent post.. so useful... thank you very much :-)

Becca Puglisi said...

Thank you so much for stopping by everyone, and for the kind words. And thank you, Lydia, for hosting me!

Stacy said...

Great post and timely for me. I'm editing my WIP to get it ready for the developmental editor, and there is a point where some back story is dropped via dialogue. It's all essential information, but it slows things down. You've given me some ideas on how to work on. Thanks!
Stacy (stacygreenauthor.com)

Mark K said...

Interesting post and definitely a book I'm looking into purchasing.

Congratulations on your forthcoming book - so jealous ;)

I love the fresh, clean, minimalist look of your blog. I can almost smell the fresh summer breeze carry with it a hint of wild daisies :)

Linda Gray said...

Love the example for current story vs. backstory. Give just enough to intrigue and let the reader's imagination supply possible scenarios to look for.

lbdiamond said...

AWESOME POST!!!!

Karen Lange said...

Thanks so much for this, Becca! I may bookmark this and come back in the future. Thanks Lydia, for hosting!

Traci Kenworth said...

Great advice, Becca!! You wrapped things up nicely, all you need is a bow. Thanks for this.

tracycampbellwriter said...

Excellent tips on pacing! Thanks, Becca

Ciara said...

Fantastic tips!!!

Leslie S. Rose said...

Super tips, Becca. I'm all over #5. It bugs me when a week etc. lapses for no particular reason.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Becca. Loved this post. I badly needed to learn about pacing. # 2 is something I need to work on. Thanks Lydia for hosting Becca.

vbtremper said...

What a great post! Thanks, Lydia and Becca. I learned the hard way to keep the timeline tight. It makes a huge difference in pacing.

-Vicki

 
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