Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19.04: LIVE Recording – Pacing with Guest Fonda Lee

Pacing is one of the most subjective and difficult aspects of storytelling to get right. What is pacing? How do you know what the right pace is for a story, and what techniques can you use to speed up or slow down your narrative?

Homework Assignment from Fonda Lee

Take a page of a work-in-progress project and experiment with the pacing. Ideally, this should be a page with some dialogue or tension between characters. First, try to speed it up: cut description, be tight with dialogue, move the scene quickly. Then do the opposite: rewrite the scene but this time slow it down. Include more context, character interiority, exposition, and scene building. Compare the two versions. Which serves your story better?

Thing of the Week: 

The Book of Witches

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(as transcribed by Mike Barker)

Key Points: Pacing is subjective, depending on the genre, length, tone, author voice. Reader expectations!  Pacing is not just speed, it’s the sequence of events, the prose style, the rhythm, and level of tension. It’s the reader’s perceived unfolding of the story. It’s the soundtrack of the story! How do you target the readership and pull them through the experience the right way? First, what are the conventions of your genre, and what are your readers expecting? Control the structure of your work, the beats and rhythm. Pacing is both speeding things up and slowing things down. Speed it up by trimming description, dialogue, and exposition. Make scenes do multiple jobs. Use dialogue to control pacing! Slowing it down? Space your action, tension scenes with quiet moments. Pacing is created by fascination, by interest. Build ebb and flow. Make the reader anticipate change. Switch things up!

[Season 19, Episode 04]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Fonda] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Emma] I’m Emma.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[DongWon] So, we’re here this week with our guest host, who is a guest instructor on the 2023 Writing Excuses workshop and retreat, Fonda Lee. Fonda is one of my very favorite speculative fiction writers. She is the author of the Green Bone saga starting with Jade City, which is probably my favorite fantasy series of the past decade. So, with that tough introduction, I’m going to toss it over to Fonda Lee to talk about herself for a second.

[Fonda] I don’t know if there’s anything else to say, DongWon. Thank you very much for that introduction. I’m delighted to be back on Writing Excuses. As DongWon mentioned, I’m the author of the Green Bone saga, as well as a number of science fiction novels. My most recent work is in novella called Untethered Sky.

[DongWon] So, when we decided to have you on the podcast, there was one topic that I immediately turned to that I wanted to hear you talk about. Because I think one of the strongest things about Jade City and the other Green Bone books is the incredible pacing of those books. They are very action oriented, there’s a lot of tension, but you also know how to lean into a character moment, sort of luxuriate in 2 people having a conversation, or even just a character walking down the street and the way that that can create tension, as danger escalates in those moments. So, I’m going to toss it over to you, to talk a little bit about how you think about pacing and what are some tools that are audience can use.

[Fonda] I love talking about pacing, because I think it’s a topic that isn’t covered quite as frequently in writing conferences, writing classes. One of the reasons is because it is so incredibly subjective and dependent on the genre, the subgenre, the category, the length of the work, the tone, the author voice, all of these things play into pacing and what the right pacing is for a story. If you go onto Good Reads and you pick any book, almost certainly you will find a five-star review that says, “This book was gripping. I couldn’t put it down.” And you will almost certainly find a one star review that says, “This book was so boring. I couldn’t finish it.” That is because so much of the pacing is dependent on reader expectations. So I like to think of pacing not just as the speed of the story, which is what I think a lot of people automatically assume it is. Instead, I think of pacing as the sequence of events, the prose style, the rhythm, and the level of tension in the narrative that affect the reader’s perceived unfolding of that story. So think of it as the soundtrack of your story.

[DongWon] Yeah. I love you talking about it in those terms. Because inside industry circles… The other reason I wanted to bring this up is I feel like it’s one of the aspects of writing that I understand at least well. Because inside’s industry circles, we use a truly terrible term where we say that book is pacey or that book is not pacey. Right? Which is a terrible way to say it, but I don’t know why we do it that way. Anyways, people are constantly telling me that, like, oh, that’s not pacey enough, or that book is very pacey. I’ll read it and I’ll be like, “I found this to be a very tense experience,” or… So there is that subjectiveness that comes into it. So when you’re thinking about how to increase that tension, how do you target what readership you’re going for and make sure for that audience it’s, like, pulling them through the experience in the right way?

[Fonda] Yeah. That’s a really good question to ask, because you have to first ask yourself what are the conventions of your genre and category, and what are your readers going to expect? So, if you’re writing for adults literary fiction audience, they’re going to have a very different expectation of pacing then if you’re writing a middle grade fantasy novel. So that’s the first thing to know is that you have to work within the expectations of your readership. You’re only going to know that by reading a lot within that category or that genre and understanding what conventional pacing is within the field that you’re working in. But also remember that the way that you just used pacing, pacey, which is essentially saying it’s a faster story is not always right. It’s not always appropriate for that work. That advice, I think, also comes often times because beginning writers are told you have to hook the reader right at the beginning. You have to track… Which means you have to track the editors, so they default to trying to make the beginning of their story as fast-paced as possible when that may not be the most appropriate beginning to their story. So, pacing is so inextricably tied to structure that you can really think about controlling pacing as controlling structure. If you have a good understanding of the structure of your work, the beats that are expected, the rhythm at which you want to unroll your story, you’re a good way of the way towards controlling pacing.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a really interesting way of phrasing that, because when I was coming in, I was very good at character, but the thing that I had trouble with was structure. Then, after that, I felt like the thing that I had to learn was pacing, and I’m only just starting to get a grasp on how to control it. Like, I had an understanding as a reader of what I wanted to see, but how to manipulate it was slower in coming. So I’m wondering, like, when you’re trying to speed something up or slow something down, what tools are you using?

[Fonda] Yeah. I think a really key point of your question is the also the slowing things down. Because often times people think of pacing in terms only of speeding things up. Often times both readers or your critique partners will give you the feedback, there’s too much going on. To me, that is code for you need to look at pacing. You may be trying to move too many things into a scene. Slowing things down is actually going to help your reader. So, in terms of the tools that you asked about for speeding things up, one of the ways that I think about speeding things up is being as economical as possible with description, with dialogue, and with exposition. So you’re going… There’s a few things that you can think about. One is, first of all, how do you make your scenes do multiple jobs. If you are… If you want to increase the pace of a particular part of your story, you can do that by accomplishing more and layering these ingredients into a scene. So let’s say you have an action scene that’s going on. You also want to reveal a bit of character in that scene. You want to have a tense moment, while the action is going on, a bit of dialogue that’s going to increase the tension there. You’re going to cut out all of that extraneous stuff that might slow your reader down. One thing also, just very tactically, is that your reader is going to move more quickly through prose when there’s more white space on the page. So, even something like the way that you put together your sentences to be more economical, to create more white space on the page, to make the I move faster, is going to increase the speed at which your reader processes. The other thing too is to look at dialogue. Dialogue can be a fantastic way to control the pacing of your story, especially making it feel almost artificially fast and punchy. If you look at some really good screenwriters, like Aaron Sorkin, for example, or in a movie like Glengarry Glen Ross. If you actually think about what happens in that movie, not that much, but it feels very fast-paced, because of the dialogue of the characters, the really snappy, witty way that they talk. The piece of advice here to remember is don’t try to write realistic dialogue. Realistic dialogue, normal people talking, is in… Is full of tangents, we go in weird directions, we have all these fillers. But look at really great scriptwriting in the way they write dialogue in the way that increases the speed at which their scenes unfold. Now, going to the other side of that question, the how do you slow a scene down, that is actually a really good thing that sometimes you need to do in order to give your story breathing room. Often times, books that are fast-paced suffer from having action scene after action scene after action scene. Where the characters can’t process what’s happening, and as a result, the reader doesn’t have time to process what’s happening. So, one of the things that I like to do in my own work is making sure those high tension scenes, those high action scenes, are spaced out in a way that the characters have these quiet moments in between. So they have a chance to process what’s happened. You can get an interiority in with those characters, that creates the sort of ebb and flow of tension.

[DongWon] We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about some of the common pitfalls that writers run into when trying to manage the pacing of their work.

[Fonda] So, my thing of the week is a short story collection. The reason why I want to highlight this is because one of the best ways to get a lot of different examples of pacing is to read short stories. Often times in a novel, there are many ebbs and flows, so the novel has varied pacing throughout. Short stories, you can really get a snapshot of different types of pacing by reading a bunch of short stories together. So, the anthology that I want to highlight is a little self-serving, it is The Book of Witches edited by Jonathan Strahan [garbled]. I have a story in it, as do many other fantastic speculative fiction authors, and it is out in time for Halloween. So, check that out. Book of Witches.

[DongWon] Okay. Dan, I believe you had something?

[Dan] I just wanted to go back to something Fonda said at the very beginning about how we often think of pacing as being speed, and it isn’t necessarily that. When someone says a book is boring, it’s not because nothing’s happening in it, necessarily. It’s because there’s nothing compelling or interesting to pull them through. People don’t need… Not like constant explosions, they need something that they are fascinated by, that they are interested in, that they want to know more about. So, people always tell me that my John Cleaver books, for example, are paced very well and are paced very quickly. The first several scenes of I Am Not a Serial Killer, like, nothing happens. The first scene, the hook for that book, is just a really kind of slow embalming where he talks to his mom and his aunt. Nothing is happening, there’s no real danger, but there is a lot of emotional tension and a lot of conflict between the characters and a lot of kind of intriguing worldbuilding stuff, and all of these other things. It is compelling to read through, even though really nothing’s going on and tell like chapter 4.

[Mary Robinette] By contrast, I have had people say that the opening to Relentless Moon is slow because it starts with a literal explosion…


[Yup. Yup.]

[Mary Robinette] But my character is like, oh, I know how to handle this, because she’s an astronaut. So she’s chill about it, and I think that affects people.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think the thing that I see most commonly when somebody is trying to write a really fast-paced book or somebody’s trying to be really commercial is they’ll do a bunch of action scenes back-to-back or just start in action, but to me, that can end up feeling very slow, either because of something Mary Robinette mentioned, which is the character’s so competent in the moment or because we don’t know the characters yet, so you don’t have those individual character stakes. Right? There’s nothing that’s really putting them at threat in sort of a core identity way. For me, that’s where a lot of tension comes from. So, sometimes, just throwing someone into a situation where survival is the question can feel ironically less tense and less driving than a scene where a relationship is at stake, which could be as slow as a conversation with family members.

[Fonda] Yeah. Yeah. The question I always keep in mind is at any given time, are there things happening that are crucial to the narrative? Those don’t just have to be external plot things. Especially if you’re thinking of the release and buildup of tension throughout a story. You’re going to have times when, let’s say, there’s a scene where something has been resolved in your external plot, but that resolution scene has a buildup of tension in an interpersonal subplot. So you’re always thinking of the ebb and flow of tension throughout, and if you’re releasing tension in one area, are you building it in another area? Keep the reader anticipating change. I think that’s the key thing when it comes to maintaining that tension is… It could be a very minor character moment. It could be a conversation that’s just between 2 family members in a quiet room. But it could feel very tense because the reader is anticipating that whatever is happening is going to change something.

[Erin] Yeah. I love that thought about ebb and flow for 2 reasons. One is that I sometimes do think about sort of pacing as being in a car, that sort of metaphor, and often times you will not realize how quickly you’re going until you slow down. You don’t realize the speed until something changes. Then, that change makes you realize, well, actually, like, we all got used to being on a boat, and now the boat is moving a lot more today, and we are feeling that change, you all. So…

[Oh, boy]

[Erin] That is the thing that really let you know that pacing is happening.


[Erin] I also think that you can change the distance between when you’re having, like, a… Something is introduced and then resolved. If things are introduced and resolved really quickly, that feels faster paced than if you introduce something and it takes a while for it to resolve. So, having those… That’s another way to make something feel, I think, for me, faster or slower paced.

[Fonda] Yeah. Being able to direct, control, and then twist your reader’s expectations creates variation in the pacing. Which is interesting to them and will keep them compelled. Because a monotonous dance track that’s very fast-paced is still boring. Right? If you are the DJ of the soundtrack of your story, you want to be switching things up, so that you’re moving seamlessly from song to song, but it’s not just one continuous beat. Even if it’s fast-paced, it’s going to get dull.

[Dan] I was watching an interview the other day with the guy who did the highest parachute jump ever. Remember the guy a few years ago…

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.

[Dan] Went up into like lower orbit and jumped. What was fascinating to me is he said for the first long while of that, it didn’t feel like he was falling at all. It just felt like floating there. This is this incredible thing, he’s like something like 160,000 feet, and he said it didn’t feel like falling, it wasn’t exciting, it was just floating. That’s because there wasn’t enough atmosphere, there wasn’t enough to react against. So it wasn’t… Like Erin said, there wasn’t change of speed, there wasn’t the sign of something going on, it was just nothing.

[DongWon] I love that idea. I love the image that it’s the variation, it’s the change in rhythm, it’s the use of negative space. All of these things are what’s helping move your reader through the story at the speed that you want them to and keep them engaged throughout. So, Fonda, thank you so much for joining us. I believe you have our homework this week.

[Fonda] I do. Your homework this week is to take a page of a story that you’re working on, and I want you to first try to speed it up. So cut the description, be very tight with dialogue, and try to make this as fast-paced as you can. Then, I want you to do the opposite. So give the characters a lot more time, include more content, more interiority, more exposition, more worldbuilding, and slow the pace down. Make it a more extended scene. Then compare those 2 versions. See how they feel, and which one serves your story better.

[DongWon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] We love hearing about your successes. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Tell us about it. Tell us about how you’ve applied the stuff that we’ve been talking about. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].