Getting Pacing Right


Getting Pacing Right

You know how sometimes a novel moves so slowly that it irritates and seems to positively encourage you to put it down even if the story interests you? Or when events move so quickly that you’re saying to yourself, “Huh? Wasn’t he trapped in the underground cave?” Or, the best, when you move from revelation to revelation in the story in a satisfying way? That’s pacing.

It is subjective

Whether the pacing is right depends largely on the reader. If he revels in elaborate description, he won’t find things slowed down by it. If the reader prefers fast paced, he’ll skip over any moments of confusion or disconnection to get to the climax.

So this is annoying for the writer. There probably isn’t one right answer unless you already know your readership well as a popular mystery novelist might.

But there are some general rules which generally work.

Getting the pacing right

Mechanical ways

There are some standard ways to keep the pacing right

  • Description slows things down. Even beautifully crafted, heartfelt passages pause the action so we can admire the craft and heart.
  • Action speeds things up. When your characters are doing stuff, the pace of the novel picks up.
  • Slowing the pace of the action can build suspense. One of those counter-intuitive things but slowing the pace at the right moment can be more effective than barreling along.
  • Reflective/internal dialogue slows the pace. But may be necessary both for the story but also as a chance for the reader to recover from the previous fast-paced action.
  • Varying sentence length can break things up. It really can. Breaking up dialogue with bits of business (he tapped his fingers; she turned her head sharply) produces the same effect.

Soul-searching ways

You sometimes need to look deeper to ask yourself some hard questions.

  • Is the world you created more interesting to you than to the reader? [1] Writers can get very excited about the world they’re creating. They explore all the nooks and crannies of this creation, getting more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities. All to the good. And can certainly infuse your writing with that enjoyment. But by and large, this neat stuff is more important to inform your writing than the reader.

Long passages describing how fascinating the world is are probably interesting only to you. What hooks a reader is the action the characters take within that context. And the constraints and opportunities that arise because of the unique setting. The magic layer in your world may only start five thousand feet above the surface. The protagonist must figure out how to reach that layer in order to access the magic that will further his goal, whatever it is.

  • Are you rushing to the end? This is a particular problem if you’ve already decided how the novel will conclude. There is a tendency to write the scenes leading in a straight line to the climax. Which leaves the reader rather breathless and in addition, ignores the byways, asides, and subplots which not only give a fuller story but also slows things down enough for the reader to enjoy the unfolding of the tale at a more satisfying pace.

In summary, this is a Goldilocks thing. Not too fast. Not too slow. And varied pacing. Too much of the same pace—no matter how exciting—will begin to feel tedious to the reader.

[1] Lukeman, Noah The First Five Pages Simon & Schuster New York 2000

Sticking with One POV

Sticking with One POV

In the last post, I railed against (in a nice way) switching a POV (Point of View) within a story. It can be hard to identify why multiple POVs are an issue.

Encore—does switching a POV really matter?

I have discussed before, your job as a writer is to create a continuous dream. That is, you want your reader to be so completely engaged with your main character that s/he is swept along, totally immersed in the story. Anything which breaks the continuous dream, can kick the reader out of the tale and make it less satisfying.

Swapping POVs frequently is one way to break the dream. It discourages the reader from concentrating on your protagonist’s thoughts, fears, and hopes by introducing the same from other characters.

Fixing multiple POVs

Remember this passage from the previous post?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She wondered what he wanted but crossed over nevertheless.

How do we fix it?

Mark was suspicious of the stranger in the dark hat. He ducked into an alley to catch a better look at him. The stranger kept going, looking neither left nor right, but admiring the beauty of the day.

Across the street, Mark saw Carla. He waved her over. She had a quizzical look on her face but crossed over nevertheless.

Often the fix is quite easy. The story is not enhanced by knowing what the stranger thinks. Similarly, you stay with Mark’s POV if Carla does something he can see and interpret, thus avoiding entering her thoughts.

When the fix is difficult

Fixing multiple POVs can be difficult if the shift to another POV contains some information or emotion important to the overall plot.

Say, for example, that the stranger noting the beauty of the day, is something you really want the reader to know. I dunno, maybe he’s unfairly being suspected by Mark or he’s quite a spiritual guy. You want to hint this.

If it’s important to your story, then don’t throw it in as a bit during Mark’s POV. Slow down. Take the time to establish this characteristic in the stranger. Allow the reader to see his good guy traits. Remember, the aim is not to get the reader to the end of the story as fast as possible but to make it an engaging one. Slow down when you need to.

Situations where it works

I should just mention that, as with all writing ‘rules,’ there are exceptions.

Moving from one character’s consciousness to another’s can be effective if the transitions are clumped in large blocks. Example: Character A speaks in Chapter One; Character B in Chapter B; and then back again to A.

You have to limit the number of characters who own a point of view and they all have a unique perspective which readers would enjoy exploring.

So, you can do it but you need a fair level of adroitness to pull it off. To try it, just make sure that you have a good handle on keeping within one POV before consciously launching into multiples.

Flashback Other Stuff


Flashback Other Stuff

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of the flashback. Here I will cover some of the more mechanical issues when using this technique.

Flashback order

It’s not a hard and fast rule but sometimes it helps the reader if the flashbacks themselves occur chronologically. That is, if the flashback scenes have a particular sequence, it’s less confusing if they’re presented that way.

As I say, not hard and fast. Sometimes the narrative demands an out-of-order presentation. But if so, cue the reader in some way where they are in the flashback story.


As I mentioned in the previous post, flashbacks should not take up the bulk of the story and as Carol Shields points out in Startle and Illuminate, there should be a reason for switching to them.

And while they need to be used frugally, neither can you use just one and then never again. Readers have some unconscious expectations of fiction and this is one of them—flashbacks are used in multiples or not at all.

You don’t need a big flag to signal a memory

Writers sometimes have trouble figuring out how to introduce a flashback. They often use phrases like “she remembered” or “he thought of his childhood.” Not egregious sins but can be a bit clunky.

It’s pretty easy to indicate a flashback. Just use a different tense. If you’re writing in the present, use the past. If the past, the pluperfect (‘had’). Reverse when you want to come out.

If you’re really worried that your reader won’t get it (and this isn’t usual since they are often smarter than us), double space or use a few asterisks to denote the switch.

By the by, you don’t need to use the different tense for the whole flashback scene. This is particularly true of the pluperfect. A lot of “he had had a problem” and “she hadn’t wanted to go,” is cumbersome and somewhat irritating. Use the pluperfect a couple of times at the top of the flashback and then switch back to the past.

At what point can they be used?

The placement of flashbacks, like any other technique which can slow the forward action of the plot (e.g. description), needs to be judicious.

Unless there is some really compelling reason in the plot that the character goes into a flashback at a moment of tension or drama, don’t do it. You dissipate whatever excitement you’re building by subtly pulling the reader out of the continuous dream you’re building for him.

If you need the character to reflect on the plot development or action sequence she has just experienced, by all means do it. But put her in a scene after the action where she can show her feelings or analysis of the situation. Just before falling asleep, riding the bus, waiting for someone or something, etc.

P.S. I can think of one time when flashbacks during the action are appropriate and that’s when the character is experiencing PTSD-like events. But then, these need to be part of the plot.

Anyhow, there you have it—the mechanics of flashback. Now let’s get back to the present.




Okay, so maybe your flashbacks don’t go back to pre-history, but they are an important component of any piece, particularly a novel but also memoir or a long short story.

I know you know this, so humor me while I provide an explanation. A flashback is a scene or scenes in a longer fiction piece which take the reader to a point in the narrative which occurred prior to the time in which the tale itself is situated. There are a whole bunch of good reasons to use them.

Flashbacks can be great support for the main plot

Just-in-time for the reader

One of the best reasons is to provide information/background/explanation the reader requires to understand the scene. This avoids the deadly piling on, at the beginning of the story, of all the history and research the reader will need.  You can easily lose people because they don’t yet understand the context in which these details fit. Much better to give them info at the point they need it. Enter the flashback.

An example (italics for main story; flashback in red).

The children were screaming and running around in what seemed a chaotic tag. The adults were in the kitchen—the clink of the glasses rising even above the din. Alice sighed.

It hadn’t always been so. What she remembered most were the silent mornings where you were supposed to be reading your Bible and contemplating your sins. She tried, she really did, but it was hard not to see the toboggan-ready hill of snow just outside her window.

So, if it is important to understand the contrast between Alice’s present reality and her past, best to keep the two together rather than a description at the beginning of the olden days.

Fill out a character

You may want to make the character more vivid or real by providing bits of his personal history to explain his actions in the ‘present’ of the novel.

“Why did you do that?” Veronica yelled.

Jerry turned away and walked out of the room into the sunlight.

It had been snowing that day. Heavy, wet snow. Great for snowballs. A bitch for shoveling. Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the day. Gemma was sure to be at class todayAnd then you go on to explain why Jerry acted so strangely.


A story that starts at the beginning and goes through in chronological order to the hopefully satisfying end can be perfectly okay. For example, if you are writing an action thriller with a taciturn hero, flashbacks may be out of place.

But for most stories, they mix things up in a pleasurable way for the reader. The bouncing around can provide an enjoyable variety in the form of the story.

Get boring bits out of the way

There are bits of any novel which are a drag both for you to write and for the reader to read but are nevertheless important to the story. You may need to explain the history of a critical object or element. A short flashback at the point the info is needed can sometimes make the conveyance easier to read and sometimes to write.

Use sparingly

While they can provide variety, too many flashbacks can confuse the narrative, sometimes to the point of being unsure what the main story is. A large number also tend to annoy the reader as it begins to feel as if they’re impeding the main action.

So, flashbacks are good but not always flashbacks. There are other more mechanical dos and don’ts that I’ll cover in the next post.

Tone—What Attitude Looks Like in Writing


Tone—What Attitude Looks Like in Writing

Last post, we talked about how the attitude or tone of your writing can enhance or detract from the pleasure readers take in your work. This can be difficult to pick up so I want to work through some examples.

Some examples of different attitudes

Remember, the tone or attitude of your piece is usually carried by the narrator. This can be the main character telling the story from her point of view, or it can be how the setting,  actions, and speech, etc., are depicted.

So, let’s use the same setting—a children’s outing on a beach—and show how different tones affect the feel of the writing. As mentioned before, the attitude you think a piece takes  is often subjective, so you may not agree with my label for all of the following snippets. But focus on how different words and the choice of diverse elements of the scene can affect the tone.

Happy The sun sparkled on the water. And bounced off the metal grill of Dad’s car. It was hot. Really hot. Just perfect. We ran down into the water, yelling and screaming, and flopped ourselves down onto the sandy bottom.

Sad The children ran down to the beach. I sat up. Was that Danny? The sun was in my eyes. I squinted but couldn’t see. Then I sat back and shook my head. Of course it can’t be.

Angry I swotted the flies away from my drink. Damn sand always brought them out. And what the hell were those children screaming about in the water? Making an unholy cacophony. Parents these days don’t have any control.

Nostalgic It must have been a day just like this. Warm, almost hot, sun. And there must have been children much like these gambolling now on the beach. Older perhaps, but just as lively. And as carefree.

Sarcastic/Mocking A summer idyll. I don’t think so. I bet those parents think they’re making life-long memories for their kids. And feel a glow because of it. When all the kids will remember is how their parents done them wrong.

You see how focusing on different elements of the same scene can alter the tone of the piece. A happy piece doesn’t necessarily fix on the flies; a nostalgic one may use the present scene as a springboard into the past.

Whether or not your whole novel or memoir has a particular tone depends of course on whether it is sustained by its continued use.

What attitude do you want to convey?

Depends on your writing style and your intent for the piece.  But generally, I would advise against an a priori decision. Just write a good story. Tone, if there needs to be one, will probably emerge.

In fact, it is more likely that you’ll inadvertently transmit a tone which doesn’t fit or impedes the enjoyment of the story itself. So, unless you purposefully want to communicate a particular attitude and are clear why you want to do it, I think generally you’d be wiser to let the story engage the reader rather than overlay a tone.