Unlike with some things like dialogue or grammar, pacing in a novel is not that easy to fix. Every author writes differently (obviously) so of course everyone is going to make different mistakes. The only tried-and-true method for working out pacing issues is getting a good developmental editor, but I’ve decided to write some tips to help you avoid the most common pitfalls when it comes to pacing.
Pitfall #1: Not enough/too much background information.
One of the problems that I most commonly encounter, particularly in fantasy and science fiction is that the writer is trying so hard to have a fast-paced story that they leave out information that could help the reader actually understand the story. In fantasy it’s important that you reveal information about your world and the rules therein to your reader or they’re really not going to care what’s happening. The same goes for science fiction, which also has the added difficulty of explaining science to both newbies to the genre and hardcore fans.
As a writer it’s hard to separate what information you’re imparting to the reader from what information you have up in your head that seems obvious to you, the creator. One of the best ways to figure out whether you have enough background is to get some beta readers. If they’re left with more questions than answers by the end of the novel you’ve got some more writing to do.
Conversely, if a reader doesn’t need to learn about every family’s bloodlines, motivations, hair colour, eye colour, etc. then you’ve got some rewriting to do to take out that irrelevant information. It’s important for the reader to be able to distinguish secondary characters from one another but if you as a writer really need to focus on making your main characters pop out. This not only helps the reader follow your story but helps with the plot so you don’t get too bogged down in secondary character subplots.
Pitfall #2: Chapter length and content.
Now this one is pretty darn subjective. Generally speaking, a book should be divided into sections in a logical sort of way. If you’re going to be changing viewpoints in your narrative, chapter divisions are a must because changing points of view multiple times within the same chapter is confusing to the reader. Seriously, I can’t count how many books I’ve wanted to throw at the wall because I have no idea which character is who anymore because the points of view change so frequently.
Ideally, there should be some chapters in the book that come to a gentle landing. This gives the reader a chance to put the book down to take a break. However, more than a couple gentle landings and you’re going to lose the average person reading your novel. If you don’t have any chapters that are gentle landings you may alienate readers as well. There’s something frustrating about a book with no place you can conveniently stop because it seems gimmicky. But this is different for every reader, so take my advice with a grain of salt. If you’re going to work on chapter length/content I’d err on the side of not enough gentle landings as opposed to too many. As with the first pitfall, this problem can really only be solved by a good editor and honest beta readers.
Pitfall #3: Too many subplots (that are unresolved)
This is more of a problem in genre fiction as opposed to ‘literary fiction’ where you tend to expect lots of subplots. Again, this is also very subjective and depends on your target audience as well as your genre.
I don’t like everything to be completely tied in a nice neat bow, but you’re going to alienate people if you only solve the main conflict without addressing any of the subplots (or at least hinting at their conclusions). That’s why so many fans were frustrated with the end of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle: there were dozens of unaddressed subplots so it just felt like he was gearing up for a fifth book to make more money. Which he probably will in a couple of years.
Basically, I’m of the old school belief that most (if not all) subplots should be tied up by the time you’re gearing up for the climax. That allows for all of the focus to be on the main conflict and the tension created therein. Depending on your writing style that’s not always possible but you know, maybe you shouldn’t have five unresolved subplots by the time the book is three quarters finished. Just as a thought.
To sum up, pacing is just one of those things that you have to fiddle with a lot. You can’t please everyone when it comes to pacing, either. Some people will think your pace was far too fast and others will say the book dragged on for centuries. The best way you can figure out that happy middle ground is to have a good developmental editor as well as lots of beta readers that aren’t afraid to give their honest opinion. My philosophy is that if it doesn’t add to the plot or characterization it doesn’t belong in the novel, but everyone’s opinion is different here.
Liked this article? Read the rest of my Writing Pitfalls series: