I recently got this question on Facebook, and I started answering it, but then it ballooned into a really big response, so I figure that means it is time for another Ask Correia blog post:
Hey Larry. I have been reading a lot of your How To’s on writing and they’ve really helped me a lot. I came up with a question of my own after struggling to get my story together. In EVERY one of your books, your pacing is perfect. You keep the reader intrigued from the first page and it is exciting all the way through, even if the characters are just eating breakfast. I was wondering how you keep the pace so perfect for each book and don’t dive into so many different events that the reader would just lose track of? When I put my story together I realized that it was just a mess of separate events which was my awful attempt at keeping an exciting pace haha.
That’s a really good question. Let’s talk about pacing.
One of the best compliments I get from readers is when they tell me that they read my book in one sitting, or they read it over two nights, or something like that. Keep in mind that my average book is 150,000 words, and I tend to write longer than average stories, so when I hear that it tells me that I’ve done my job*. My goal is suck the readers in so that they really want to keep reading.
*A quick note on what our jobs are, writers are just entertainers. It is our job to provide entertainment to our readers. Writers are not special snowflakes destined to right society’s wrongs or whatever. Nobody likes those high and mighty pretentious “message” writers, so don’t be that guy. You want to cram a message or theme into your story, go for it, but you’d darned well be entertaining first and foremost.
So pacing, how do you pace your story so that the reader is entertained the whole way through?
Think of your story like you are looking at a chart. There is a line on that chart that moves up and down for how intense your story is at any point in time. On an interesting book that line is going to move, up or down, but preferably always trending upward toward the climax. If you want to keep the readers glued, you are going to move that line up or down depending on what you are trying to accomplish in each scene.
Intense or calm aren’t synonyms for good or bad. A scene can be calm, but be awesome. I have a rep for being an action writer, and when people think about my books they tend to think of the intense parts. But a book can’t be all intense, because if every single scene is intense, then intense becomes the norm. Intense becomes average, and now the book is boring.
If your line stays the same, starts out pegged, and is pegged the entire length of the novel, the reader is going to get tired. If you stay intense for too long, readers are going to get bored. Think of some of the brainless summer blockbuster action movies you’ve watched. If it is explosion, explosion, explosion, slow motion running in front of an explosion, explosion, the end, you probably tuned it out, and now you’ve forgotten about it, because who cares? There was no time to actually care about the characters or the story, because the story was explosions.
Wow. I can’t believe I just said that, considering my reputation, but sometimes the answer isn’t to blow more stuff up. The answer is to make the reader care, and then blow stuff up. The real reason people like my books is because they like my characters. Sure, I constantly throw them into dangerous situations, but the only reason the dangerous situations matter is because the reader cares what happens to the people involved. If the characters don’t matter, if they aren’t real, then who cares? And this is even more important for books than for movies, because at least with the movie you get the visual spectacle and the special effects. With the book, you can describe the most awesome explosion ever, but if the people around the explosion are boring cardboard cutouts, the reader isn’t even going to bother to invest the imagination into it. You need to make the explosion matter.
So don’t peg the line and keep it there the whole time. You are going to need scenes that allow the characters and the readers to take a breather. Use these scenes as tools in your tool box. Invest in the characters, explain the story. You don’t need to write the boring parts. Nobody cares about those. Elmore Leonard (a freaking brilliant writer) used to say don’t write the parts that people skip. So the key here is to take those quiet scenes, but make sure they are still important. Tell us a story during these scenes. Let us get to know your characters and explore the interesting world you created.
The opposite is just as bad. If you start boring and remain boring the whole time, and your idea of pacing is to grind toward the inevitable end… Sucks to be you. This type of grey, ponderous writing is most often seen in the Dying Polar Bears genre of sci-fi that wins tons of awards and sells fifteen whole copies. But I don’t read or write bleak ass fatalistic bullshit, so I’ll stick to advice about enjoyable fiction written for entertainment.
The original question mentioned making things like eating breakfast interesting. Sure, but I’m not actually writing about the characters eating breakfast, breakfast is just the event that is happening while I’m accomplishing something else. The scene is going to be exploring the character’s relationships, interests, or growing my world. (I can only think of one brilliantly written scene in a novel that actually was just several pages all about eating breakfast, the science of Captain Crunch in this case, from Cryptonomicon, but most of us aren’t Neal Stephenson).
I had scenes in the first part of Hard Magic that on the surface are about life on a dairy farm on the surface, but in reality they are all about Faye’s upbringing, her character, and her relationship with her adopted family. One of my favorite scenes in Dead Six is Valentine’s team in the ready room hanging out while some of them play video games and others lift weights, but that scene cements the camaraderie of these characters and makes them into real people.
Don’t think of your scenes as being all one thing or another. Like this action scene is for action, and this dialog bit is for plot. You can develop the plot during your action bits. You can increase intensity and shift the mood during the quiet talky bits. A good villain can build more menace during a pleasant conversation than they can burning villages. Think of No Country for Old Men (the movie), with the “Call it, Friendo” scene with the hitman talking about the gas station owner’s lucky quarter. Wow. That was intense, but it was just two guys talking about a coin flip. In reality it was a great bunch of character development showing off the antagonist. (and when your antagonist is scarier, you now worry more about the protagonist).
You can take intensity up through all sorts of things. You don’t need a sword fight or an alien attack. An argument between characters, a car crash, a bit of bad news, whatever, it all depends on the story you are telling. If you are writing a YA teen-angst princess novel then it could be that her socks don’t match her shoes, whatever, it all depends on your audience. But the important thing is that you move that line up and down.
So back to pacing, I like to start at one level, then move it up or down depending on what I’m trying to accomplish in any given bit, but always cranking the overall pace ever upwards toward the climax. And by then, when I get to the finale, I can do some truly big awesome scenes, but if I’ve done my job the reader will plow through 40 pages of action because it actually matters to them now.
If I’m looking at my manuscript and there’s a bunch of slower bits in a row, I may need to move that intensity line up for a scene to keep it fresh. Changing gears will get the reader’s attention. The running joke is that if fifty or sixty pages have gone by and I haven’t blown anything up, I get really nervous.
Look at your story critically as you write it. Are there parts where you are starting to feel really bored writing a scene? That is a good hint to mix it up. If you are getting bored with this bit then your reader probably is too. If something is starting to drag, switch your focus to something else. Now do the same thing as you edit. If you begin to skim your own writing, uh oh, that’s a warning sign. Sure, that stuff might all need to be in there for you story, but maybe you can break it up? Or maybe you can take the important bits, shove them into other, more interesting scenes, and then cut the boring part all together.
Sometimes you’ll be writing and you’ll think some bit is super important, but it really isn’t. You are just too close to it to see clearly. This is where good alpha readers or a good editor is worth their weight in gold. When I have my alpha readers go through a book, I’ve really only got two important questions for them: 1. Were you ever bored? 2. Were you ever confused? Any other little bits they give me will be useful, but I’m really looking for a consensus on those two things. You can get away with a lot of things as an author, but being boring is the unforgivable sin. Note though, that I say consensus, because never put too much faith in any one reader’s opinions, because they might simply be wrong. But if I send it to 10 readers, and 7 tell me that they were really bored/confused during one part, that tells me that it needs some work.
Now all of this stuff is going to get easier the more you do it. I don’t actually draw this pacing graph. I just kind of go with it by gut feel. The more you write, the more you will come to understand how you write, and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Sometimes pacing issues are simply lack of experience with storytelling.
One tip that I find really helps is that I like to write a whole lot of short scenes, rather than fewer really big scenes. That just fits my writing style. Mike Kupari, after having written two books with me now, likes to say that if we’re writing a scene and it hits 5,000 words a single bead of sweat will run down my brow. The reason behind this is if I can’t fit all of the info I need into a 5k bit, then it is probably too much, and I’m better off spreading it out somewhere else. That’s just what works for me though. Some readers might find my writing choppy though, and they’ll prefer the giant languid development scenes. There really isn’t a right way and a wrong way to do it, because if you’ve got readers sufficient to pay the bills, then you are doing something right.
Another part of the question was “so many events that you lose track of”. I probably am not the best person to answer this one, as I’ll throw a zillion plot elements into a story if I think they are awesome, and I don’t always see all of them through to a conclusion. Did I tell Agent Franks’ story in MHI? Nope. You had to wait for the sequel to figure out what the heck his deal was. Did I explain why Faye got so powerful during Hard Magic? Nope. That was the plot of Spellbound, and even then the whole thing wasn’t explained until Warbound. I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to answer every question you raise. Real life doesn’t answer every question either. My goal is to flesh out the world, not hold my reader’s hands. Sometimes the answer the reader comes up with is better than my real answer, and sometimes I’m saving that plot element to resolve in a different story. Why didn’t you explore more about what happened between Francis and his political fight with FDR? What is the deal with the Scarab from Dead Six? Whatever happened to Management in MHL? Well, wouldn’t you like to know? But those are stories to be told in other books. 🙂
That said, be careful, as there are some things that you must answer for your readers or they will get pissed off at you. So basically, if you promise to tell how a certain plot element turns out, you have to tell it. If your alpha readers get to the end, and their response is “WTF!? What about so and so!?” Then you’d better get to editing to explain it.
So introduce as many different subplots and elements as you want to make your world more interesting, but be careful. This is actually related to pacing as this becomes a juggling act, and if you are juggling so many things that you bog down your main story, then your readers will become bored. There are a few big epic fantasy series floating around notorious for this where you will hear a constant complaint from the fans about plodding through whole books of boring, pointless secondary stuff, where the readers feel ripped off that they don’t get to read about the main story progressing. That’s a pacing fail.
And just keep in mind that you can’t make everybody happy. A pace that is perfect for one type of reader will absolutely suck for another. Basically you need to look at your target audience and write books aimed at making happy the people who will give you money. There are some super popular series out there which bore me to tears, but since their authors sleep on giant piles of money, they must be making their readers happy, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters. Make your readers happy.