Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 8 - Pacing
Now we are within sight of the course’s finishing line, it is an appropriate time to discuss pacing. Your novel may begin with colourful, elaborate descriptions to set the scene and introduce your style and narrative, but a novel that is mono-paced will fail to capture a reader’s attention. And when I say one paced, I also mean a novel which is high octane all the way through. As we discussed in our lesson on the different narrators, the second person narrative is sparsely used because it often best works in the short form. The constant strangeness and intensity of the ‘you’ address can feel too much for the long form novel. Likewise with pace, which needs modulation and variety.
After completing either the first rough draft of your novel, or even after putting down on paper an outline of your plot and structure, you should at this point give careful consideration to how your novel is paced. Stories ebb and flow, and drama is structured around peaks and lows. Crescendo is defined as the loudest point in a gradual increasing of sound. Think of some of the great pieces of classical music and note how they build from calm and quiet to that dramatic crescendo and ask yourselves if your novel follows a similar structure.
When discussing pacing we are almost caught up in the same quandary as we found ourselves when discussing style – by itself, it is abstract, and it needs applying to the purposes of your story. Hence, let’s analyse pacing in conjunction with its key drivers: tension and conflict.
Defining Pacing, Tension, Conflict
The simplest way of defining and measuring Pacing in your novel is assessing how much ground you cover in your writing relative to how many words you’ve written. It’s sometimes helpful for writers to go through their novel working out, on a chapter by chapter basis, how this ratio pans out. This could be achieved by doing a one or two sentence summary of events covered in each chapter. Take a look at whether your chapters are relatively equal in length, or if there are clusters of units that are roughly equal and carry important parts of your story. Shorter chapters in themselves imply a speeding up of pace. Consider how many thrillers use short chapters (the cliffhanger), and by contrast how many literary novels use other more subtle markers to create pace.
An important reason to keep a keen eye on pace in our novels is to build Tension. Perhaps the greatest source of tension is anticipation and deferral – a sense of something looming but not quite arrived. In direct contradiction to the above, building tension can require a writer to deliberately slow the pace rather than accelerating it. Or to put it more logically, slowing the pace in the build-up to key action, and then accelerating it. One well used source of tension is letting the reader dangle at the end of a scene (the cliffhanger again). Try going through your novel and considering how each of your chapters end: does the episode conclude tidily with the end of the chapter? Or is it a break in the middle of an event so that the reader has to start a new chapter to find out how things pan out? We can term the latter ‘the Gotta’, attributed to Stephen King and a great example for any writer to read is his novel Misery. And how often do you ‘side-step’ and leave an event half-finished, switching to dealing with another aspect of the story, maybe coming back to the original episode several chapters later?
A great contemporary example of the use of high tension in a novel is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The first part of Gone Girl is a search for the truth. Clues are laid out in the form of actual clues (Amy’s treasure hunt), the extracts of Amy’s diary and the reluctant revealing of Nick’s affair. As more evidence points to Nick, we see the pace quickening until we reach a crescendo of evidence as Nick opens the door on his alleged thousands of dollars’ worth of credit card purchases which provide him with a perfect motive.
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home does similar but within a different structure, beginning and coming back to Joe’s hazardous car journey with Kitty Finch.
And almost making a 360 degree return to Lesson 1, we need to pay close attention to Conflict. Without conflict we would have no fiction at all, just stasis. Most novels are triggered by and/or go on to explore an over-arching conflict, and then a number of subordinate ones that may be linked to the main one, or operate independently. Always keep in mind what the main conflict in your novel is. Then note down and pay attention to what your subordinate ones are.
For your subordinate conflicts, how many work as separate subplots, versus how many relate to the main conflict? The most apparent conflicts are those between characters – heroes and villains – but great literature has also centred on conflict with external forces: the weather; a war; poverty; illness; a white whale . . . However, the most profound conflicts are internal ones – which included the effect of an external conflict on the internal life of a character – where our protagonist is confronting some weakness or contradictory impulse in themselves. Finally – think about the relationship between external and internal conflict within your novel.