Pacing: A Literary Strip Tease

16 January 2012 | 3 Comments » | Jason Michelsen

I love the way a good book will spoon feed me interesting tidbits, stringing me along like a drug addict flipping pages from fix to fix. Getting to the end of a chapter and realizing I can’t stop there, that I simply must continue reading, that my life will be a little poorer until I find out how the hero is going to free himself from the rock that has him pinned to that hard place there is an awesome feeling.

With epic fantasy and the cast of hundreds some of the successful series wield (i.e. A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time), it might actually be a chapter or two if not a hundred pages before you get back to said hero stuck in said predicament. The challenge the writer faces is making sure A: the continuation of the storyline you’re slavering over is worth the wait, and B: the intervening storylines and their characters are not only necessary, but interesting enough not to lose your attention in the meantime.

Of course, the pacing you use will vary depending on the format of what you’re writing. The pacing in a short story is quicker–for obvious reasons–than in a novel, and a 150k novel will have different pacing than one of the 450k word tomes Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin publish. Likewise, it will vary depending on the genre. If you like writing YA, your story will definitely have a quicker pace than a story written for a more mature audience.

I aspire to write epic fantasy, and often find myself struggling with my own pacing. Like so many of you, I’m a product of this current age of instant gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now! But with literature–as with just about any form of entertainment–a good percentage of the enjoyment we derive from it comes from sheer anticipation. How often do you see the monster in the horror movie before the second act? Very rarely.

And while I love that very same anticipation when reading a book or watching a movie, when I’m actually writing, I wish I could write ten times as fast. As the author, I know what’s going to happen next. I know how awesome I think it is, and how badly I want my readers to get to it so they can revel in its glory right there beside me.

Somewhere along the line in the writing process, I typically lose my sense of pacing and begin revealing things far too quickly. The big secret which is supposed to be revealed at the climax suddenly makes an appearance in the prologue. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but this most definitely is one of my weaknesses as a writer. As such, it’s one of the things I always ask my alpha readers to focus on.

Anyone have any tricks for how they deal with pacing in different forms of fiction? Since I’m writing epic fantasy, it helps to tell myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint.