Monday, February 17, 2014

The Problem with Pacing

Gripping… fast-paced … suspenseful. You’ve read those words on countless book covers and reviews. If you’re a writer, you may have used them in a query or in your book description. But are you really delivering what you’ve promised?

“Fast-paced” is a term I’ve seen often; sometimes from writers who don’t seem to know what it means. Simply put, fast-paced means that the novel’s plot points happen very rapidly. (A plot point is an event that directly impacts the novel’s ending. A book can have a lot of events, but very few plot points.) If the protagonist is a detective who’s investigating a murder, and there’s a new murder in every chapter, that’s a fast pace. If there’s one murder and then the detective goes all over the country investigating the killer’s sad childhood, that isn’t.

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between surprise and suspense as the difference between a sudden explosion versus letting the audience see the bomb under the table and then waiting 15 minutes until it explodes. “The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed,” Hitchcock said. “Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Sitting around for 15 minutes while people chat about the weather until the bomb goes off isn’t the definition of fast-paced. But it is the definition of suspenseful. If your goal as a writer is to increase the tension, spread out your plot points while finding other ways to forward the plot.

Stephen King is a master at this. While his books are always impossible to put down, they aren’t necessarily fast-paced. Rather, he spaces out his plot points and fills the spaces in between with deep back story, heavy character description, and memorable supporting characters. And in a hat-tip to Hitchcock, he “informs the public” by including the antagonists’ points-of-view. Knowing just how close the bad guys are to killing the hero creates nail-biting suspense.

Again, the key to controlling your pace is knowing which events in your story are plot points and which are not. If you’re unsure, imagine what would happen to the ending if you took out that event. If nothing changes, it’s not a plot point.

Every novel writer’s goal is to create fiction that a reader can’t put down. It doesn’t matter whether the book is fast-paced, or suspenseful, or lush, or romantic. But it is important that you describe the book correctly. Calling a book fast-paced when few events affect the plot sets up a reader for disappointment.

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