“P” is for Pacing

So, writers work hard to whittle away paragraphs that don’t advance the plot. We strive to create tension in every scene. Varying sentence length, limiting backstory, and keeping the action going are just a couple strategies we use.

I think all these are important parts in pacing, but the pendulum swings both ways. In other words, pacing can be too slow or too fast.

Okay, so we know to look out for the things I mentioned above. I don’t have to tell you that pages of backstory or “telling” can really kill the pacing. So does taking too long to get a character from home to work (if nothing happens other than them hitting EVERY. SINGLE. RED. LIGHT. Ugh, that’s so frustrating).

But what happens when you’ve erased all the “let’s-take-a-breather-from-the-action scenes?” The pace feels way too fast and the reader becomes desensitized to all the tension you’ve worked so hard to create.

My question to you (because I’m still working on this) is:

How do you do the “breather” scenes without them coming off as boring or dull?

One thing I try is creating conflict, either in two characters or within one character (I contrast their thoughts, feelings, and actions).

16 comments on ““P” is for Pacing

  1. vixter2010 says:

    I def struggle with this = pacing is so hard. I sometimes enjoy the quiet, talking scene – for these to work you need to create string characters who you are invested with and then you can enjoy them moving on in that way and not just in a fast paced action scene.

  2. Cheree Smith says:

    I have a problem that I write mainly the story so sometimes my pacing can become a bit heart pounding. I need to try and slow it down sometimes.

  3. Well, creating conflict is one sure method. I tend to give as little details as possible .. that too .. like a dream .. one part at a time .. if necessary between the main action!!

  4. I don’t struggle with pacing. Not gloating, I have plenty of other problems. I just try to do what feels right in my gut. When I need the story to slow down, I throw in a few thought tags or have the characters have a conversation that pulls them out of the chaos for a moment–a brief moment. It has to feel normal. I don’t think I’m helping here very much, lol. Great post!

  5. Humor is a good way to lighten fast paced scenes without slowing them down to much.

  6. I usually like to put in a bit of humor. You can never go wrong with a funny situation. It lightens the mood and shows the character can have a sense of humor even in a dark situation.

  7. Linda Gray says:

    That is a great question, Laura! I’ve read manuscripts that are so tightly plotted for tension that I was exhausted by page thirty and really not interested in reading any more. Of course, one of the most important considerations is genre. If you’re writing thrillers you need way more focus on tension than if you’re writing historical, e.g.

    The best structural advice I ever read on this question came from a professional fiction editor named Elizabeth Lyon. She details it in one of her books on writing. I’ve quoted her below. The gist of her advice is, use the moments after a BIG scene for a breather. It’s the perfect time for characters to reflect. She calls these moments (which can be a sentence or two, or pages, depending) sequels. Here’s how she says to do it:

    Sequel(s) : Defined by Elizabeth Lyon as character’s reaction to a scene: a) emotion, b) a quandary over what to do, c) a decision, and d) action based on the decision. She says to use the quandary to deepen characterization through thoughts or flashback (can be a scene within a scene). Sequels can also come in a subsequent section or even chapter, as long as they’re clearly related to the previous scene.

    *See Lyon’s A Writer’s Guide to Fiction for more in-depth discussion of key elements

  8. Lynn Rush says:

    That’s the trick, isn’t it? I try to keep some level of tension there, unknowns, or something of that nature. Depends on the character. Great post.

  9. Carradee says:

    I find I tend to have a few character arcs going on—at least one internal and one external, though I don’t really sit down and plot it that way. The “breather” scenes for one arch tends to be a “builder” scene” for the other. Or at least still point towards a future event that the MC knows is coming.

    When the scene’s completely static, without pointing forward, I’m not sure it can work.

  10. For me, breather scenes are ones where there isn’t much action BUT important information or relationships are being made. Every scene should count towards the final product and the advancement of the plot, but they don’t all have to have you on the edge of your seat.

  11. kendallgrey says:

    I think you’re absolutely right to use internal conflict as a follow-up to a fast-paced scene. The characters (and the reader) need a breather after something fast and furious. If done right, internal conflict ot only gives them a rest but also keeps up the tension and throws out more story questions ponder.

  12. Lydia K says:

    Sometimes I think my breather scenes go on for one scene too many without bringing up new plot points. I’m working on that!

  13. Arlee Bird says:

    I will often resort to quirkiness in moderation for the breather scenes, as well as observations of a characters surroundings or circumstances. Modern writing is so different than that of the 19th century when sometimes an author would go on and on in boring detail about things. I think we are less tolerant because of all of our fast paced entertainments and readers back then had more leisure to read in depth. In some ways I think our literature and our minds is sadder for this.

    Tossing It Out
    Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

  14. Kerri Cuevas says:

    Pacing is a tough one. I like to add comic relief, flashbacks, or conflict. I have to keep in mind that there also has to be a point to those breather scenes. Halfway through the a-z challange. Nice job!

  15. Shelli says:

    The Hunger Games is an example of perfect pacing. Suzanne Collins keeps it moving perfectly, daring you to put the book down. I think a scene will tell you what the pacing should be. Reminiscing about your favorite day at the beach? Slow and detailed. A chase scene? Short and snappy. Another good breather scene is to do some internal reflection.

  16. I have to go back and deal with a book I was querying. One agent said the pacing was slow.

    I’m noticing a huge change in my current wip by using Donald Maass’s workbook, so I think I’ll put my other book through the same intensive exercises to help with the pacing problem. 😀

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