Pacing in a Nutshell

Not too long ago, I was skimming my Facebook friends’ statuses and came across one which actually made me stop and go ‘What?’

This particular update had to do with the person, someone I don’t know in real life but have networked with through friends of friends, going to see the recent movie Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law. Truth be told, my husband and I went to see this flick sometime around the same time and had a completely different reaction from my FB buddy, which ran along the lines of comparing the movie to a Three Stooges film, all the while admitting to those of us who chose to read the post that this person was spoiled by the TV drama 24.

Admittedly, I’ve never watched 24, but have lots of friends that do, so I understand the concept and that it’s a very fast-paced show–much more than Sherlock Holmes. I tend to enjoy fast-paced books–one of my favorite authors is Vince Flynn, so I’m not a stranger to fast pacing. And, I’ve read Brandilyn Collins’ work, which I’d have to say is non-stop action to the point where you literally race through the book. (Of course, the signature of her Seatbelt Suspense novels is the slogan ‘Don’t forget to breathe.’ That pretty much says it all with her books.)

But, could there be such a thing as too fast a pace in a book, TV show or movie? While each has to judge for themselves, I think there could be. The normal, accepted arc of a book allows for periodic climaxes, drawing back down to a less tense level, continuing to spiral up and up until you reach the ultimate climax. The drawing back part is essential as it allows your reader–and your characters–a chance to catch their breath, come to terms with what happened, and prepare for the next climax. In my current WIP, Homebody, near the middle I have a scene and follow-up that I think exemplifies this principle. While the scene is too long to post here, I’ll thumbnail it.

My two main characters are Rick and Amanda. Amanda’s home has been broken into while she’s there, alone, by two prison escapees intent on killing her. As they’re torturing her, Rick shows up, figures out what’s going on, and goes gonzo on the escapees, shooting one (not lethally) in the process as the other gets away. The cops show up (Rick had the foresight to call them, suspecting something was up when he showed up) and detain both Rick and Amanda until they can figure out what’s going on. As they’re escorted to the police station for further questioning, Rick is allowed a few minutes to reflect on what just happened–and thank God that Amanda wasn’t hurt. The following morning, Amanda’s given a chance to tell the reader how she’s dealing with nearly being killed, adding a little more time before she has a fit of anger at Rick, who wants her to leave town until the second escapee is caught. All of this takes place over about two chapters, about 15 – 20 pages for me.

Having an ebb and flow in your writing of action and reflection helps keep your readers’ interest. And, who knows? Maybe it helps them from being desensitized by too much action.

So, how do you handle pacing in your own projects? Are you one who’s constantly pushing action, action, action, barely giving your reader a chance to breathe? Or, are you one whose climaxes are small, gently building until the end of the book? Or are you somewhere in between?

Until next time,

P.S.–Keep in mind the book dissection I’m wanting to do. I’ve made it easy to submit your suggestions and/or requests in the column immediately to the right. Please contact me about the dissection forum or anything else you’d like to mention privately. I want your feedback!
–L.S.

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8 thoughts on “Pacing in a Nutshell

  1. Actually, Liberty, I really don't know how to judge the pacing of my stories. I just write a story as it comes to me, without planning for the arc or mini-climaxes…whatever happens just happens.

    During edits and rewrites, I do sometimes weave in subplots, but even then, I'm not sure how the pacing is affected.

    Oh, well.

    TL

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  2. I think it's natural for a writer to not pay too much attention to their own pacing, but for me, I notice it in movies and the books of others. Too slow a pace, I'm apt to not pick the book back up (or finish watching the movie). But, because I notice these things in other's work, they do come in handy when I'm editing.

    In the last draft of Homebody, I took out a scene where Amanda's threatened–because it happened too close to another scene where she was also threatened. I had to pick which one was most important–and which one had the fewest complications. It was an easy decision, and I think it was a good move on the part of the story.

    Now, if I can just get the darn thing done and into the hands of an agent… *sigh* I'm *so* ready to have it done!

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  3. Haven't seen [i]Sherlock Holmes[/i] yet, but I have to say that, despite my avowed love of action flicks, I *adore* leisurely stories, esp. books, simply because they allow me to savor the details. That said, the type of pacing a story calls for depends very much on the story itself. Non-stop action wouldn't work for some stories, anymore than a leisurely pace would work for [i]24[/i]. But no matter the story, the key is to balance the intense scenes and the “sequel” scenes so that the reader is kept on his toes without being exhausted – or bored.

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  4. Breathing is good. Good for the head, good for the heart! 😉

    Seriously, though, a balance between the extremes is important, though I tend to fall onto the slower side of things (one reason I appreciated the extended versions of the LOTR films). Especially in writing (or films) featuring real or imaginary exotic settings, slowing the pace up in places allows the audience a chance to soak in and enjoy the setting.

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  5. Hi, Linda, and thanks for stopping by!

    Thanks for your thoughts. You hit on a good point. When I'm writing my first draft, while I'm aware of the general flow of the pacing, I'm mostly concerned about getting the story down.

    Rewriting/editing is definitely when I start focusing on how the novel's paced and cut scenes that are either too much or not enough. Case in point is on 'Homebody'. In my first few drafts, I had two chapters back to back that ended with my MC getting threatened–once with a phone call, once with a drive-by shooting. After much thought (of probably all of 5 minutes!) I decided that one of them had to go.

    By deleting that scene, it eliminated a lot of wasted words, and it simplified some of the story for me at that point, leaving me room for some additions that I just did this week.

    Best of luck on your writing!

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