Ask Correia 15: Pacing

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.

I have a new book out today: INTO THE STORM
Bubba Shackleford ink

31 thoughts on “Ask Correia 15: Pacing”

  1. Heh…on reading the title, my first thought was “oh, good, someone else walks up and down the room wracking their noggins for an idea or scene or twist…”

  2. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain. The more I read about the process of writing, the more convinced I am that the people who are good at it must have 3 or 4 brains all thinking about different things at the same time. Pacing isn’t something I’ve thought about much as I read, but having read the available MHI books I think I can see how that works a little bit. (I seem to recall a number of relatively quiet scenes ending with an “Oh, s***!” moment, and then they’re off to the races.)

    Question, not about pacing but since you brought him up: how big is your dossier on Agent Franks?

      1. I have that – I bought into the Kickstarter. I’m just curious how detailed Larry’s “character sheets” are for his book characters.

  3. Super helpful! Also, I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets freaked if nothing is getting blown up. My classic answer is if a charcaterhad had nothing to say gor a whole sscene, they’re gonna die cause obviously they aren’t important. Time for them to go in the most creative wau I can think of.
    Also, I passed your article about writers block onto a very young writer. She loved it and found it very helpful! Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the essay, it says as much about how your mind works that you can dump so many words on a page and make them jump into a coherent reply EXPLOSION! Sorry, i hate it when that happens. Another question; My 88 year old father, who worked for the CIA at Area 51, wrote a great book about WWI and couldn’t get an agent to read the damn thing. He had it printed himself and every one who has read it loves it. To the point that a couple of weeks ago I was chased down in the Starbucks parking lot by a guy that just wanted to talk about it. Never met him before! How do you get an agent? The old guy thinks his book sucks because it never made to Barnes and Noble. I don’t even care about “sitting on piles of money” as you put it. I just want the old man to know he did good.

    1. Larry originally couldn’t get a publisher interested in MHI either. So he took it the the innerwebs and sold it anyway! Once enough people got to passing it around back and forth eventually Baen heard about it and the rest is history. Maybe you should try something similar?

  5. 1) It’s awesome that you respect your readers (and your ever-increasing pie of money) enough to put so much thought into how you tell your stories. 2) Your comment about our willingness to “…invest the imagination into it…” is exactly spot-on. I never thought of my reading in that way, but that’s the truth of what a reader does with a good book (see 1 above).

  6. When a new Correia book comes out, I know that I’m going to be worthless the next day, since I somehow manage to finish all your books at about sunrise the morning after I get them.

  7. You know, I’ve always felt bad when I’ve plowed through a book in just a few days because I know if takes months and months for the author to write it. Pffft! I totally won’t anymore 😉 Also, Warbound was so fantastic 😀 And, I don’t know if you have time to read anything, but I’m listening to a series right now and I keep thinking that you’d like it–lame politics, vampire, vampire handler, snarkiness, various other monsters, weapons and fighting and killing and blood and guts. Since I have to fill my time with *something* while I wait for Nemesis, I searched for something else that Bronson Pinchot has narrated (he is so, so amazing with the Grimnoir books!) I ended up with a series by Christoper Farnsworth. First book is called Blood Oath. If you ever have extra time or have a long car ride coming up, give it a try.

    1. I had a little of the same feeling: like if I read all of a book in 36 hours, that I must be skimming it or something. No, apparently, that’s what authors *want*, so I’ll take it as a sign of a well-crafted book.

      The MHI books? I have to force myself to put them down *to go to work*. Please, please don’t release any when I’m on a tight deadline… 😉

    2. If I might suggest
      Mario Acedevedo and His Felix Gomez books (Private detective working out of a crappy office over a movie theater just happens to be a vampire, has had a werewolf gf and a lost vampire lover… works the seedy side of private detective work. Shades of Philip Marlowe with just a touch of anne rice, Mix in a bit of Elmore Lenard and you get the Felix Gomez novels.

  8. So, for pacing’s sake, is it okay to kill Misery? Or do you ask your reader force alpha for permission first? Actually, I think you answered my question already. Like so: “Well, wouldn’t you like to know?”

  9. The worst pacing I have ever experienced from a book was from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Every other chapter read like an encyclopedia and the rest was like listening to the first two minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and never reaching the crescendo (or the cannons). But I did learn something valuable from this book, you realize what a good book is if you have read a bad book (gives you a baseline). In any case, Larry, love your books and other commentary.

  10. I’ve always felt, with mysteries you don’t reveal… you *need* to have some. If you don’t, your story feels too much like a play – it doesn’t exist in a real world, just in a nice little set that all wraps up for the audience in an hour.

    The important question is whether that mystery forms part of the plot of the current story you are telling. It can intersect and be referenced – that’s fine. If it’s takes up a significant number of pages, you should either resolve it or at least make progress toward fleshing it out in a way that is self-contained.

  11. The comment about too much action reminds me of Matthew Reiley. I read one of his books – lots of guns, explosions, car chases, crazy weapons that don’t exist, monsters, etc, etc. Picked up a second book…and realized it was so over the top it was kinda’ boring. I found myself skimming the action scenes, searching for plot. Eh – never finished it.

  12. “Why didn’t you explore more about what happened between Francis and his political fight with FDR? […] Well, wouldn’t you like to know? But those are stories to be told in other books.”

    Ooh, ooh, ooh! Here’s my wallet now.

    (Seriously, the worship of the fascist FDR by a lot of people who should know better *really* bothers me.)

  13. you are coming dangerously close to having enough material on writing to being able to publish them as a set. maybe get ringo and mad mike to colaborate. great info.

  14. It’s funny I’ve been reading Larry’s comments on “navel-gazing novels about dying polar bears” for years, I still have no idea what he’s referring to, I just take his word for it that it’s out there.

  15. Slightly off topic, I personally detest when an author gets the reader/viewer to identify with a character and the kills him or her off.

    Hell on Wheels (AMC)’s writers killed off the most sympathetic character in their first season and lost a lot of viewers forever because of it.

    The key to becoming a pay-the-bills author is to develop a readership across multiple books. Poor pacing is but one of many ways to violate a reader’s trust.

    1. If the audience doesn’t care about the character, what’s the point in offing them?

      Being afraid to kill them that needs dying is just as much of a trap as ganking a character that you still need to tell the story.

      Mind you, an ensemble cast that only has one character you care about it is a whole ‘nother problem.

      1. Tom Clancy did that a lot – introduced a character, made them sympathetic, then offed them.
        But, because you were emotionally invested in that person – you LIKED them – it was an important death. Clancy seldom just killed anonymous strangers.

        1. I watched an anime series where they did that — introduced a new character, spent several episodes making her likable and sympathetic, and then the bad guy casually killed her off just to piss off the hero. Mean, mean writers.

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