Writing Excuses Episode 10: Pacing

Pacing… it’s all about keeping the tension up, keeping things snappy, and keeping the reader interested. This week the Writing Excuses crew delivers some tips, tricks, and tools you can use to get your story flowing in all the right ways.

Also, on Sunday The Salt Lake Tribune posted an article about Podcasting in Utah. Jordan Sanderson and Howard Tayler were interviewed for this article. You can read it here. Writing Excuses, with quotes from Howard, is mentioned near the end of the article.

And this week from Tor, The Hidden World, by Paul Park


30 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 10: Pacing”

  1. Quick note about this ‘cast — this is one of two in which we used a central lappy-mic, rather than the lavalier clip-ons. The result is a little echoey, but Jordan did a great job of cleaning it up. The only problem is that the ad was recorded differently, so it’s kind of jarring when you make the transition.

    Don’t worry, we’ll make the same mistake in next week’s podcast, and then fix it in two weeks.

  2. Please please please, can you go back to using the clip-on microphones? I don’t really mind the echo, but the laptop microphone seems to have an audio cutoff point in order to avoid recording background noise. The problem with that is that it ends up cutting the end of each sentence or pause, which becomes really obvious and distracting when listening through headphones.

  3. Joao:
    Don’t worry, the lappy mic problem was a one-time mistake that we have been very careful not to repeat since. Though I should also point out that this particular podcast was very fast and frenetic, and a lot of the clipping you’re hearing is less the fault of a background filter and more the fault of our zeal to finish one thought and move on to the next one. Like Howard says above, we have one more podcast with the weird sound and then we’re back to the classic Excuse-a-licious sound you all know and love.

  4. I have to say, I rather liked the clearer distinction between the podcast and the ad, made the whole thing feel more like a proper commercial break. In the last episode, I was a bit irritated that noone commented on the ad. So if it’s recorded seperately, I think it should be clearly distinguishable from the rest of the podcast, maybe with a little jingle, or a soft tune in the background.

    Anyway, it was entertaining, as always. :)

  5. Joao:
    The cutting off was my doing as I was cleaning up the recording and was caused by the noise reduction filters I ran the original file through, it’s mildly annoying I know but trust me that it’s much better then the original file in which you could barely hear the podcast due to background static.

  6. In spite of the sound issues, I think this is one of the better podcasts so far. Useful, good examples and a topic that can be fully covered — neither stretched nor rushed — in the time allotted.

    As a side note, I just read the first two novels in Paul Park’s series last week. I liked them quite a bit. Not amazing, but quite good. However, I think they are very good examples of pacing. And especially of how to maintain pacing but still have scenes that are about the setting and that backfill history and that establish relationships.

    But what I wanted to bring up is Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I know some readers had major problems with the very slow, very 19th century pacing of that novel. On the other hand, a lot of readers really liked it, myself included.

    So why is that? I’m not entirely sure.

    One thing is that I think that the footnotes actually help the pacing. They break the monotony of the reading and also dole out information that, while perhaps parenthetical, gives glimpses of the future and the past, that sets up potential conflicts and tensions and offers little tasty tidbits that cause us to project the story forward (because we think we’re getting it — getting what’s going on).

    That didn’t quite make sense, but I suppose a big part of the tension of the early part of the novel is the unspooling of how a) this alternate history differs from ours and b) how magic works and how it is used and treated in society and that slow unraveling, especially in the beginning, is bound up with the character and attitudes, the closed-offness, of Mr. Norrell.

    So if you can make it through the first section up to where Strange really takes over the action, it makes that conflict all that more interesting because we have this store of frustration and bits and pieces of information that’s ready to be lit (which sort of parallels the magic situation in the novel).

  7. Do ya’ll have any idea how hard it is to find Larry Niven/co-author’s Inferno?

    Pretty darned hard.

  8. I thought it was interesting – and as usual made me think (which always is a virtue in my opinion.)

    However, I believe the risks of a novice-writer over-cramming his work cannot be emphasized enough – especially since he might not quite understand “conflict” and “tension”. A character in constant misery is not automatically endearing – in fact in spite of constant hardship heaped on his unfortunate head he might strike one as – well, whiny.

    And “Huckleberry Finn” is another kind of book entirely – I would say it is a book about the journey rather than the destination. As – in their ways – are “‘Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome or “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll (or any number of other books). One either enjoys them – or not. And I think all three have had quite decent success…

    As always, I suppose, it comes down to what kind of book one is writing and for whom – issues you have discussed before and no doubt will discuss again.

    Thank you again, and am looking forward to next week!

  9. Okay, I take it back. Apparently, those solid gold diamond-encrusted microphones I suggested in the other comment don’t exactly have the best sound quality. I guess it makes more sense to stick to gold wiring and just make the casings out of like jade or ivory or something. Oh well, live and learn.

  10. Roland:
    I approved both of your posts, I don’t know where the first one went. Sorry. But you have to cut me a little slack, because typing on this diamond-encrusted keyboard is really painful.

  11. Thanks for talking about pacing. The topic has been on my mind a lot recently. I started and discarded a number of books recently because of the pacing. Particularly, there have been a number of epic fantasy novels I started that lacked sufficient character tension. As a reader, I am most attracted to novels that are fast paced and include internal or relational tension. Killing the Dark Lord is all well and good, but compelling fantasy needs a cast of complex and challenged characters who have to deal with personal demons, fears, prejudices, or flaws. I want the writer to show in the beginning that the protagonist has issues; you don’t need to show all their issues, but give me something mull over.

    Setting character driven novels aside, the whole appeal of the classic adventure novels and their modern equivalents is the pacing of these books. Middle grade/YA authors are experts when it comes to these sorts of novels. There is something at risk in each chapter for the characters. The characters may not be as developed but they are still a fun read.

  12. I’m a first-time writer who has joined a writers’ group, and the two biggest problems that have come out of my fantasy story are that 1) There’s not enough of it (I’m within 1 chapter of the climax and I think there are fewer than 150 pages), and 2) My pacing is uneven. I’ve considered the three plot frameworks you suggested, but the central plot of the story is a chase, so I don’t think any of them really apply. (I can’t use a non-numbered time bomb because there is nowhere they can go and nothing they can do to avoid the final confrontation, or “defuse the bomb”). Does anybody have any suggestions on how to simultaneously flesh out and re-pace?

  13. Jen,
    Without reading the story, its hard to suggest what might work. An entire story of “chasing” would probably follow the “thriller” mode of writing where the tension keeps ramping up as the heroes get closer and closer to the villain and the bodycount/collateral damage increases as the villain tries to escape.
    Maybe break up the chase with some “red herring” or “pick-a-path” encounters where the heroes have to slow down (thus giving the reader a rest) and generating the conflict of not knowing which direction to chase it. Think Strider/Legolas/Gimli chasing the Uruk-Hai who have Merry & Pippin only to find they have been killed by the Riders of Rohan; it appears they have failed in the chase, but they don’t find any evidence and then Striders tracking skills pick up the trail which heads in a different direction.

  14. Actually, it’s the heroes that are being chased by the villains, but that gives me some food for thought. In fact, I think it will help a lot. Thank you very much.

  15. Another thing to consider, Jen, is that perhaps (just PERHAPS) what you’ve got is the first Act, not the entire story.

    We should do an entire podcast on three-act story architecture. For now, to summarize, it looks like this:

    ACT I: Main Character sets out to solve problem
    ACT II: MC Solves problem… almost — and discovers it’s actually much bigger.
    ACT III: Begins in the depths of despair, ends in triumph. Problem solved! (unless you’re saving something for the next book.)

  16. Howard’s comments on his website mentioned that you guys recorded this with a ticking stopwatch. With all due respect, that’s the wrong way of pacing, and it shows.

    Between the stopwatch and the theme, it seems like you folks were trying to cram as many words as possible into your fifteen minute podcast. But proper pacing isn’t about cramming–it’s about whittling something down to a size where it fits comfortably.

  17. @Alan: That’s not pacing. That’s editing.

    Certainly pacing is HELPED by editing, but the structure is governed by principles like the one Brandon closed with: cram as much purpose into a chapter or scene as you can. Edit to make it smooth, to make it fit cleanly, but START by cramming stuff in.

    Sometimes you have to re-write and expand. Sometimes (much more often) you have to prune, in order to keep it humming along.

    As to cramming words into the podcast, we don’t rehearse, nor do we edit (other than sticking the Tor ad in the middle.) Very little of the stuff that applies to writers fits well for “live” broadcast. Don’t believe me? Try recording yourself responding verbally to this blog entry, and see just how different it is from composing a post with the keyboard.

  18. Great podcast this week! I was just complaining to my wife (who’s smart enough to just nod and let me get over it :-) that all of the SF books I’ve picked up to read recently ended up being travelogues. I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, particularly if the plot doesn’t really justify going some of the places I’m forced to visit with the main characters. If the reason for going doesn’t feel seamless, it pulls me out of the story, and it’s much worse of course, when it’s a “where are we going?–oh, we’ll know when we get there.”

    I’m sure others may feel differently about this, but it’s my personal preference

  19. I personally like the lappy mic, despite the echo. I listen in my truck, and find that what you have done this way comes across louder. But maybe it’s just me.

    I did feel like this episode was rushed, but very informative. You guys are helping me believe that I can be a writer.
    Still not sure if that is a good thing or not.

  20. To Brandon/Howard/Dan

    Podcast was great, a big help and alot to think on as usual. The whole fast in, fast out and if you have to think about whether to include something, probably doesn’t need to be, quite helpful.

    Jen, probably the suggestion on extending the chase, having them either ditch what’s after them or Howards suggestion that maybe the chase culminates in just being the first act are probably the way to go. Also it’s probably dependant on the story but cutting to other events with other characters that are happening in the same time frame to add some meat to the story might give it some more volume.

  21. This episode is one of my favorites, I do have a couple questions though. I understand that I need to pace the story evenly enough where it flows smoothly. However, how do you keep it from lagging too much or just cutting straight from conflict to conflict? For the breathers in any story between conflicts, how do you make them not completely dull and still relevant to the story? And how do you keep the breathers or conflicts from being too cliché?

  22. Michelle:
    You kind of answered your own question there: the way to make breathers interesting is to make them relevant. Interesting and intense are two different things; you can spend the “down time” taking care of other important story elements, like having your characters learn things, share important information, and even just think about their reactions to other plot points. That last one is a biggie: many writers get so wrapped up in showing us new things and throwing us exciting twists, that they forget to give their characters a chance to think about all the changes going on, and digest them, and come to terms with them, and making important decisions based on them.

    A great example of this came in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They did a big two-part episode where Picard was assimilated into the Borg, and it was full of action and tension and emotion and explosions, and then in the next episode, instead of moving on to the next big conflict, they slowed down and realized that Picard probably had a lot of thinking to do about what had just happened to him. He went home to his family’s vineyard, puttered around for a while, and came to terms with his recent experiences. It was a very quiet episode, and very different from the norm, but it was interesting and relevant and not boring at all.

  23. I think both what Howard replied to Alan and what Dan said in response to Michelle highlight the main problem I have with this podcast (which I found quite intriguing for the most part):

    With this installment I had the feeling you guys were mixing pacing of novels and pacing of scenes too much. What has to go into a scene of 500 words can not necessarily be applied to a story of 50K words the same way, or so I would think. Sometimes you guys talk about the pieces of the puzzle, and (at almost the same time) the whole picture as if they were the same thing and as if the same rules applied to both. Personaly I am not so sure about that, but that could be just me, being a hobbyist writer with no ambitions of ever getting published. ;-)

    One point that could create a bit of confusion here may also be your earlier advice to “kill your darlings” which could be taken to mean that you should keep a scene lean, mean, and to the point. So why cram as much as possible into a scene as you can, when you will have to delete half of it later anyway? I think this could be where Alan and Howard ran into a disagreement, and I think it’s understandable that it happened.

    Perhaps a podcast about what advice to take when and where wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and not just because of how I feel about this podcast, but also because I think it might be worth examining how much one should cling to advice offered to new writers. When and why to break “established rules” might be worth delving into. But that’s just me. :-)

  24. Andreas:
    The important part of killing your darlings is that you should only kill them when they need to die, and more often than not that decision is based more on coherency than on pacing. A darling, at least as we’ve defined it, is something you really like that works well on its own, but doesn’t fit into the whole, be that whole a scene or an entire book. Trimming a scene for pacing is usually done by taking out stuff that doesn’t necessarily work at all, or moving stuff to a different scene where it works better.

    So the real, cop-out answer to to this particular aspect of your question is that you should cram every scene full of everything that should be in it, and viciously cut out everything that shouldn’t. Which is more or less the same questionably-useful advice that Michelangelo gave on sculpting: “If you want to carve an elephant, take a block of stone and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

  25. It’s easy to know that you *should* avoid slow pacing, but identifying problem areas in your own writing can be difficult.

    I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me find slow-paced parts of my writing. Does anyone else have any extra “secrets” for helping to identify pacing problems in your writing?

  26. Don’t know if I asked, but what if you have the philosophy of, It’s more important for me to know the characters personal problems are resolved, even if they don’t ultimately win against the main antagonist, or they achieve a moral victory?

    To me if I really like a character, if they end up losing their best friend, and have not come to terms with their death even after beating the evil overlord, to me this is often more of a downer than if the bad guy took over the world.

    So its more about their life and coming to terms with life problems.

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