Monday, September 19, 2016


One of the biggest problems in high-octane, page turning thrillers is pacing.

Often the action unfolds too slowly, or too quickly.

Counter-intuitively, the climactic action scenes take longer on the page than less climactic scenes. We talked about this in the context of one of my favorite movies, Heat, some time back.

Recently I've noticed a tendency for writers to interrupt early action scenes with explanations. How the main character got to this place; how s/he knows that snake venom will slay zombies; how s/he learned what is needed to fend off a shark attack.

None of  the info about how you learned to fend off sharks is needed in a scene where you're actually fending off sharks. Action means just that: ACTION. Save all the explanations for later.

In fact, after Our Hero/ine slays the zombie and fends off the shark, you'll need a break in the pace, and that's a great time for one of the other characters to say "hey, how did you know that about snake venom?" and get the info in that way.

Exposition and backstory have a place in thrillers; I'm not saying they don't. But they need to bracket the action, the high octane scenes, or they'll kill the pacing.

I would estimate that of the fifty or so manuscripts I've requested in the last twelve months, at least half have had pacing issues.  I recall agent Jenny Bent tweeting something like that stat as well.

So, how do you fix this?  One of the tricks of the trade I hear from my clients is that writing the book as a screenplay helped with pacing a lot.

Watch how writers you admire get the pacing right, and then do as they do.

I'm sure the comment column will have some good suggestions as well.


nightsmusic said...

When I'm on a roll and in the middle of an action scene, I'm watching it play out in my head like a movie. And I write what plays. It's hard to explain. After I'm done with that whole section, then I might clean up the action a bit and try to figure out what needs explaining and how I can address that in the following scenes. Sometimes, I can't. You have to take on faith that your readers are smart enough to fill in some of the blanks. Explaining every little thing, especially at the wrong time, makes for a bland, boring story. There's a reason the fourth wall in movies is rarely broken and when it is, is even more rarely done well.

Adib Khorram said...

Ah, pacing. Sometimes I think pacing is even harder to nail than voice.

Thrillers aren't the only novels that depend on pacing: even literary fiction needs to keep the plot moving forward. And knowing when to push forward, rather than to digress, can be even more challenging if there are no explosions to help remind you.

A good critique partner is a godsend in this department!

CynthiaMc said...

Jack Bickham's teaching on scene and sequel is the best I've seen on pacing. And now I have to go but will try to dig out that book when I get home. It's old as dirt but still works.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Watch it. Hear it. Feel it.
Pictures, sound, movement.
That smell. What is it? Rot? Rotten what? Doesn't matter now. Don't step in it.
Shallow breath. Rapid heartbeat.
Short sentences.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ha. I write a newspaper column basically about the joys and pitfalls of being a matron like me in a world of millennials who don't give a sh## about anyone who qualifies for a senior discount.

So what the hell do I know about pacing?
Not much.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

One of my crit partners, who writes chicklit/spy action stories, has been excellent in pointing out where my dialogue beats are too long or I used humor that killed tension so I've been studying pacing.

Yesterday I found this excellent article about pacing on The Kill Zone

And I found, I think it was a guest on Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog, a helpful summary about the purpose of exposition/backstory. It's to enhance 3 things--character's goals, stakes, and consequences.

Thank you for bringing this up Janet. Glad to know I'm not the only one who's trying to get pacing right in my next draft of my WiP and I'm interested in hearing what other commenters have to say here too.

Kitty said...

As nightsmusic wrote: You have to take on faith that your readers are smart enough to fill in some of the blanks.

Pacing is one of my biggest pet peeves. And it’s not just “filling in the blanks” during action scenes, it’s disrupting dialogue with it, too. I can’t say it any better than this review I wrote a while back:

It pains me to say this, because I've loved all her other books in the series, but [the book] is horrible. Not the story. The basic story idea was good, but [her] writing DROVE ME INSANE! She’d write one sentence of dialogue and then blather on about feelings and/or description and/or back story, so by dialogue sentence #2 I had completely forgotten what DS#1 had said and had to go back and re-read. I’ve never cared for a lot of description to begin with, since picturing it requires time and energy to form a mental image, and I lose the story thread in the process. And sometimes I can’t see the image as intended. Give me, the reader, some credit for imagination and get on with the story. Reading [the book] gave me the distinct feeling [the writer] was merely filling a word count quota. I'm being very generous giving it two stars.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Pacing is especially tricky in fantasy. I have noticed in my workshop that this is the biggest issue of all. Often there is all this flowery background with nothing happening to make me want to read on. A lot of times this will have me put a piece aside because I just can't tell what the story might be.

Trust your reader more. Little details about the character, their plight, and where they are is all that is needed. In any great story, I think, the author may need to know the exhaustive background on how the heroine knows about snake venom. The reader does not. The reader only needs to know the heroine knew what to do in regards to that venom. It is exactly as Janet said. Later on you can dribble bits of background, but as a rule of thumb, info dumps rarely work well for the reader. I imagine this is especially true of thrillers and a real challenge in sff.

I started using Scrivener with my new book which was originally for writing screenplays. I am making much use of the research folders and cork board index card feature. It really helps me visualize and helps me see points that drag and how to fix them.

Writing chapters as flash fiction helps too. Get the main point of that block down in 100 words and it becomes clear what the scene can live without and what it must have. Can't wait to see what others say. This is a big concern for me both in what I write and what I read.

Kitty said...

E.M. Goldsmith ... I agree writing flash fiction helps. In my case, I became so accustomed to the minimalist mode, I developed a problem with fleshing out a story. Dogbert has the same problem ;~)

Cheryl said...

Recently I've noticed a tendency for writers to interrupt early action scenes with explanations. How the main character got to this place; how s/he knows that snake venom will slay zombies; how s/he learned what is needed to fend off a shark attack.

I suspect they're copying a particular cinematic trick. The fight scene is narrated and at some point the narrator stops and says, "Let me tell you how I got here," and tells the story. Except most of the time the viewer is still watching the fight scene while the narrator tells the backstory, or the backstory is intercut with the fight scene.

Unfortunately, that only works in cinema. I'm thinking Deadpool used that trick, but I can't remember exactly.

My favourite pacing trick has to do with sentence length and sound. Short, crisp sentences with a lot of fricatives will feel faster than long ones with quieter sounds.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Cheryl, "fricative," my new favorite word.

Donnaeve said...

I'm glad I don't write high octane thrillers as I like to wax poetic when the story calls for it. Isn't that the strangest term?

Recently I felt I ought to read at least one book by an author who's been very encouraging, and helpful as I navigate new stuff. She's a best selling author, and even though I don't care to read the genre she writes in, I felt I should try - I mean, hey bestsellers, right?

Sooo, I hopped on over to Amazon to read an excerpt of her latest book which just released, and I couldn't get past the first page or two. There was so much snarky inner dialogue going on - for every sentence uttered by the protagonist to another character there would be this witty internal repartee the protag was having with herself, and it did just what QOTKU and others have said - it jerked me right out of story.

When I was writing the hard crime novel, my critique partner said I was guilty of doing what QOTKU points out. The best advice she gave me was to say, "picture yourself in the action as the protagonist. Are you going to shoot the guy, or are you going to stop to explain to the other characters and the trees why he needs to be shot?"

Something like that. It worked.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Kitty That Dilbert is hilarious. I do try to find evocative words to paint my scene. I am trying to curb my tendency to overwrite. My last book came in at 225,000 words. I cut it down to 147,890 before it went into a drawer to bake. I can't tell where my WIP will come in.

Cheryl I suspect you are right about that cinematic trick, I think it can work in fiction, but the structure must be all together different. It must not feel like an interruption to the reader. Watership Down somewhat does this- with two distinct story lines happening that never meet. One serves as the belief system of the rabbits in the main story. Brandon Sanderson does a similar thing in his Mistborn series (which he better finish soon). Both times it works beautifully, but it does not interrupt the action of the main story.

RachelErin said...

E.M. , I LOVE Scrivener also. I can reorder scenes easily, summarize and look the flow. Right now I'm deleting chunks of backstory and exposition from scenes and copying it into a special folder (so all the special snowflake words are safe). Then it is easy to move bits of it in later, or add it back if something is confusing.

/SFF digression
As another SFF writer, I've been watching how my favorite authors mix world-building/exposition into the action. I've seen them rely heavily on the principle of having every sentence do more than one thing. So anything that explains the magic, also reveals character development and furthers the plot.

A great example is Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor. It's a short book, and she creates a detailed and immersive world with very few words. It's also set in Nigeria, so she's not relying on European setting shorthands to do it.

Leigh Bardugo is one to watch as well - Six of Crows is longer, but it has SIX POVs in it - every word reflects the backstory of the character whose head we're in. (For the record, this book is basically an action book - it's a heist! In a fantasy world with magic - but a heist! So I think non-SFF writers could learn from it, too.) And then she gives fuller backstories once you already love the people. So much of the success is how much she doesn't tell you, how much she makes you wait.
/SFF Digression Over

Does anyone have a cool notation, markup, or editing hack to visualize and analyze information trails in books? Whether it's noting that the heroine killed zombies with snake venom and them it gets explained in the next scene, or how an author drops vital backstory into the plot....Something like highlighting descriptions by using a different color for each sense, but for action/information. Reading a lot has helped me develop an instinct, but I like to visualize and analyze, also.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

RachelErin, not sure if this is what you meant but I have a downloaded booklet, which I cannot find online now. It's Rock Your Second Draft by Leslie Miller. In it she suggests highlighting:

Dialogue in red
Action in blue
Description in green
Exposition in purple
Internal thoughts in brown.

Then shrink your ms so all you see are the color trails. She writes that you don't want too much purple or green. But perhaps that depends on genre? And where it's placed in a scene?

I've not done this to my whole ms. But I did this with my first chapter. It's time consuming but perhaps you can adapt it for what you wish to do.

JulieWeathers said...

I'm sorry I missed the last two days. I know y'all missed me. I swan. *Fans herself with a slightly bedraggled fan.* Some days you stop to smell the roses and some days you barely have time to properly tamp the dirt back around the roses you just buried someone under.

I loved the story about the crab and I hope baby girl has decided she now likes Rose-buddy. Will asked me to take care of his fish while he was in Iraq. His wife decided to go back to Wisconsin and it was too hard to transport the tank. They were particularly fond of his dragon fish, which look kind of like eels, but I grew fond of them also as they were quite exotic looking.

All went well until I decided to clean the fish tank one day, being the perfect fish sitter that I was. The dragon fish were particularly happy to be back in their tank and were jumping and splashing about. There's nothing more joyful than a happy dragon fish.

I added back the rest of the fish. slapped the cover back on, fed them and hurried off to work.

After work, at 3:00 am, I was admiring the shiny fish tank and noticed only one dragon fish. Hmmm. Where could he be? Hiding in the foliage sleeping probably. There were pretty rambunctious earlier.

The next afternoon I got up to make coffee and to my horror there was a snake curled up in my kitchen drain. I screamed and ran backwards, then got to thinking, how would a snake get in my sink? I inched back to peek at the drain again.

Hmmm, there was the missing dragon fish. I guess he jumped happily a little too much. There's nothing sadder than a dead dragon fish.

I blogged about my misadventures in fish-sitting. Then I got an email from Will casually asking how things were going. I had to break the news to him. "I know. I read your blog."

One of the few times their internet was working properly and that had to be the day.

Oddly enough, he does trust me to babysit the Wee Weathers.

CynthiaMc said...

Writing Novels That Sell is the book by Jack Bickham.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethany Stefanski said...

Pacing is indeed a tough nut to crack. It informs everything about the novel. How I reveal character has to be well paced, description versus dialogue, how the plot flows…Whew! I read books of all genres and I am invariably interested in pacing. Proper pacing is, for me, the most difficult part of the craft.

Steve Stubbs said...

It’s really very simple. (Everything is.) You set up the explanation in an earlier scene.

Movie screenwriters do this all the time. In the movie AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN there is an early scene in which Zack as a child is knocked out by a gang member in Manila using a spin kick. Later in the movie Zack as a grown man is attacked by another gang member in the U.S. This time Zack is the one who wipes out his attacked, using a spin kick. The scene is awesome, and the viewer has been prepared for him to have those kinds of martial arts skills by an earlier scene. In the last part of the movie, Zack engages in single combat with his drill instructor, and here again the scene has been set up by two previous scenes – three, actually, since there is a scene to prep the viewer that Gunnery Sergeant Foley is also a martial artist. His style is karate, whereas Zack’s is kung fo, but there is no need to concern the viewer with that. Those prep scenes are not there for nothing, sports fans. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is available on DVD and well worth watching, to study story telling technique as well as entertainment.

If some majorly sucky screenwriter had interrupted the action scenes to explain why these two characters know what the hell they are doing, the movie would not be the great watch that it is. The audience would be throwing piopcorn at the screen,

You can easily find other examples. You can also find examples of where it is screwed up and learn by figuring out how to fix it. I started to post one of those, but decided not to. I don’t want disgruntled writers marching on my palatial home with torches as if I were Dr. Frankenstein.

Nothing to it. Why would anyone have a problem with anything this simple?

Craig F said...

There are as many ways to look at this as there are writers. What works for me will not work for others. I like putting my panster on with one leg while stepping into a big pile of plot with the other.

I do this because I like plots that blindside the reader. As things build and other shit hits the fan you do need to place breaks in the action before all of your readers have cardiac arrest.

Because of the plot outline I know where I will go during that break. Then I just have to line up the ducks and shoot them down. My biggest action section is in three chapters (in the first story). That allows time for the reader to digest or piss it out if that is where they are. Too long of any one thing puts a strain on your reader. Too much information makes it hard to keep your story in mind.

You want your reader to re-read the whole book, not sections they got lost in.

JulieWeathers said...

Janet, this to you and all of NYC and NJ. I am so sorry for the events of the weekend. What a horror. I'm glad you're safe. I didn't even know about it until last night. I haven't listened to or looked at the news in two days, which is unheard of for this news junkie. My mother told me when I called to check on her.

Then we have Minnesota. What times we live in.

I hate it when an author stops the action to describe something or explain something. The difference being, and I think this is hard to do, when you think you're dying, time really does slow down. You remember things. Your life does flash before your eyes in a matter of seconds. Ambrose Bierce does a masterful job of something akin to this in Incident at Owl Creek.

Pulling that off, however, takes some writing chops. I'm not sure I would attempt it. Well, I probably would just to see if I could do it, just like writing the hated bath scene to see if I could pull it off.

If I know I'm going to have something unusual come up later, I lay the foundation for it early on. In Rain Crow, I know I'm going to have Lorena saving some lives after a battle with her medical knowledge. It wouldn't be unusual for a plantation owner or mistress or a housewife to know rudimentary first aid in those days. Doctors couldn't come quickly. I have my grandfather's medical book that gave all sorts of treatments for humans and animals alike. I need Lorena to be more advanced than that, however. So, I have the sheriff examining the copy of Gray's Anatomy in her library and commenting on the illustrations. He's tossing that out there as an insult that her father would allow a book with pictures of naked men in the library. She's thinking, well, I wanted to be a doctor and Daddy's compromise was to order me all kinds of medical journals.

She can't be stopping in the middle of saving someone's life and thinking back fondly on the time Daddy ordered the medical journals and pretended they were for him.

If you can't lay the groundwork ahead of time, you can fill in the blanks later, but for pity sakes, don't just have some wild Deus ex Machina that doesn't even make sense.

"Thank God I learned how to slow my heart rate down to nearly nothing from a visiting foreign exchange student who was really the reincarnation of a Tibetan holy man. The assassins thought I was dead, but I was actually practicing...."


I use:



Conflict or Tension-orange


Body language-purple

I underline dialogue tags with colored pen, often red though I despise red pens.

Beth Shope on Books and Writers did an exercise with this technique years ago. Margie Lawson also teaches this in her Empowering Characters' Emotions workshop.

It helps some people and others find it less than useful. It does help me because I can see patterns where I have too much or little of something. If you don't mind ruining a book, you can also examine patterns of how a favored author writes. They do all develop their own "waves" just as we have speech patterns that are recognizable.

Mark Thurber said...

I find that reading out loud is very effective at sussing out pacing problems. In fact, reading the first seven chapters of my WIP to my kids is what launched me onto my current revision. Some parts I was excited to read, other parts not so much.

Echoing E.M.'s and Kitty's comments, I am also trying to make each chapter work as a self-contained story (albeit with some information you need to know coming in). My goal is that I will be equally happy to read whichever random chapter Terry Gross happens to pick!

JulieWeathers said...


I completely agree.

Sherry Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leah B said...

Another movie example!

In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, after the Kremlin is bombed and when the Secretary is outlining Ethan's mission, the car is attacked. The Secretary is killed, the car goes off the bridge and into a river. As the car is filling with water, Ethan formulates a plan to get him and Brandt out of the river without getting killed by the attackers. All he says to Brandt is "Wait here". No explanation. Ethan distracts the bad guys, and the pair swim away.

Once they are on shore and safely away from the bad guys, Brandt asks about the plan and Ethan explains. Ethan doesn't slow down the scene by explaining to Brandt--as the car is filling up with water--"yo I'm going to float some bodies for the baddies to shoot at while we swim parallel to the river and towards our ultimate goal of reaching the trainyard". Brandt doesn't potentially get them into trouble by asking as soon as they break the surface "yo what was the deal with the body?"

Ethan acts and shows off his agent skills, and in case people watching didn't follow his thinking, he give Brandt a short (keyword!) explanation.

When I write action scenes, that's what I keep in mind.

Claudette Hoffmann said...

RachelErin- Everyone is lauding Six of Crows so will have to give it a read. Is there internal dialogue and deep POV when each character enters into their action sequence?

The first chapter from Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, somehow mixes all kinds of elements, including interruptions, and still seems to pace well.
It reads like one of those movie scenes you have to watch with one hand over your eyes because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen, but just have to peek through your fingers to see how things will turn out.

Off Topic and from last Thursday, to:
Somehow, even with typos, you all still come off sounding clever and creative (‘Vomment’), but I appreciated the "don’t worry" shout out.

Would have commented sooner, but
Julie & E.M.’s evocative language about dogs and corn going and coming and other diet related items, gave my stomach bug that extra little push overboard. All better now.

Colin – know you gave directions on how to bold and link in comments to blog-where might I find that?

Donnaeve – your book is pre-ordered on my e-book device. Waiting as patiently as I can to read it.

A good week to all.

Joseph Snoe said...

Great topic. I wish a group of us could sit in a room and discuss pacing for a few hours.

I decided early on to focus on pacing AND balance AND rhythm. Now in my major revisions I’m adding the accessories I’ve been convinced I needed—eviscerals, internal dialogues, body movements, thought processes, metaphors, similes, etc. (I’ve gone from packing for a vacation to packing for a cross-country move)—while trying to keep any chapter from dragging. It’s challenging but entertaining so far. I’m way too slow at it and there’s the uncertainty of not knowing how readers will receive it, but I’m too far into it to let the doubts derail me now.

Sherry Howard said...

link text is a wonderful source for learning pacing. Truby's screenwriting expertise translates to excellent pacing tips. Warning: This is a tedious read, but worth it.

Sherry Howard said...

Okay, sorry for my inept attempt to linkify! John Truby's Anatomy of a Story is the link. Wonderful resource!

JulieWeathers said...

Oh, Claudette, I am so sorry. I should have been more sensitive. I put Janet on a diet and made you sick. I'm glad you're better now, though.

Bold or italics is < b > text < / b > minus the spaces or insert I for italics.

this is a good link format. < a href=""> here < /a > put the url in between the " " marks and the text where "here" is and remove spaces.

Claudette Hoffmann said...

Julie, much appreciated!

Lucie Witt said...

Timely post. Pacing in my WIP has been killing me.

I have a hard time mentally tracking pacing when I'm drafting. I got to almost 60k in my WIP and ran smack into a pacing brick wall.

I ended up going back and creating an old school style outline (chapters and bullets) for what I have so far in my WIP. There are two plot threads I'm having a hard time pacing, so I made each bullet that addressed the plot point a different color font. So now I can see that I dropped the kale eating zombie plot for ten chapters just by scanning my outline and focusing on the green bullet points.

So, yeah, I basically created a 3250k word document just to help me get unstuck.

Susan said...

Glad to see everyone from NYC/NJ is safe and sound!

I had a huge problem with pacing in my book during the first few drafts. I tend to write quieter novels, but it was too quiet--there wasn't enough at stake, and I knew it. So I ended up completely rewriting it by reimagining the beginning with a new character that became pivotal to the story as a whole. This also added a sense of intensity to the voice and upped the level of emotion there. I once told someone that, on an emotional level, I want the reader to take a deep breath when they start to read and not let go until they're finished. I think it's those small changes--along with a lot of cutting of superfluous scenes that didn't serve the story--that helped with the pacing and that end-result.

Even quiet stories need to find their flow.

Cheryl said...

One of the other things Scrivener is great for is tracking plot points. Each scene in the sidebar has a hovercard that you can put notes in (hover your mouse over the scene title and you'll see the notes). Or you can put each scene/chapter in a folder with its own colour coding and notes.

Julie: I have a missing fish story too. I was looking after my sister's tank while she was away at university. She'd just gotten three small mollies and one day I noticed one was missing. I figured it had been eaten, shrugged and moved on. Until about a month later when I cleaned the filter and found the poor little molly swimming around inside the filter basin, half the size the rest now were. It was both hilarious and sad.

Colin Smith said...

I deleted my comment from earlier because the link to the Treasure Chest was incorrect. This is what I said back around 9:30am-ish:

Arrrggg!! Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties! 'Tis truly an international day, co-created by John "Ole Chumbucket" Baur, who does frequent there 'ere shores... at least he used to! ;)

OK, enough of that. Pacing. One of the fun things about writing is realizing how much you can toy with your readers. It's amazing how, with words and punctuation, you can build tension, exhilarate, chill, and create...

... anticipation. :) This is part of the craft. One good way to see how effective you are at conveying the correct sense of drama, action, or whatever it is you're trying to do is to read your work aloud.

Lisa: If that booklet was a freebie, I'd be glad to make it available in the Treasure Chest. Just email it to me and I'll add it to the other gems.

Colin Smith said...

Claudette: I swear, it's the accent. :)

The only link to my blog I feel comfortable posting is to my article on How to Hyperlink. This is how you do the linky thing.

Steve Stubbs said...

There is one other example of prepping an action scene that I didnot thiuk to mention.

There is a technique – very seldom used – in which a character acts against type. In other words, you set up the audience or reader in prep scenes to expect the character to act one way, and then have the character surprise the ^$#&* ouf of them.

There are two classic movie examples anyone can check out. One is the James Bolnd film GOLDFINGER in which an old woman with her hair done up in a bun suddenly pulls out a machine gun and opens up on James Bond. This one is not well done because the old woman does not do anything prior to the shooting scene except look harmless. A much better example is SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, in which Bridget Fonda’s boss is carefully set up as a bad guy (i.e., he sexually harasses Bridget Fonda’s character) and he unexpectedly puts his life on the line to save hers. The word for that one is awesome.

The 1992 film by the name SWF is a very good movie. If you overdo this technique, though, you will ruin it the way they have ruined so many other things (especially cars going off cliffs or crashing into each other and nude scenes, which have become a real snooze due to overuse.) If you use it at all you have to really know what you are doing.

Nothing to it. Simple. Why doesn’t everybody tdo this?

Calorie Bombshell said...

I always think to myself: why cut through an action scene with exposition when a perfectly good push knife will do.

BJ Muntain said...

I've been told I do action scenes quite well by critique partners. I took one such scene to a blue pencil session with C.C. Humphreys, and he said it was pretty good, too. I know that's not much of a platform to give advice from, but it's all I've got right now.

When I critique action scenes for others, I find myself crossing out things that interfere with the action more than adding things for clarity - though clarity is important, too. Action scenes are where a vivid vocabulary shines.

Short vivid sentences increase tension. Long sentences can be used, but they need to be used with specific precision for a very implicit reason. In an action scene, every word counts, more than in any other type of scene. The rhythm is faster, so needs to be more on-the-beat. Even one extra word will be noticeable.

This is so hard to put into words, because writing action can be so intuitive. You - the author - need to be able to feel the rhythm, to see where everything is but only put in the necessary details, the pieces that do the work, the action and its immediate effects.

But part of pacing is the slowing down. Emotions slow the pace. Descriptions slow the pace. And sometimes the most effective slowing is when you can almost stop time in the middle of an action scene, so the point-of-view character seems to be watching things in slow motion, almost from a distance, to add a touch of horror. (Hint: once per novel is enough for a slow-motion action scene like this. Maybe twice, if the scenes are separated enough.) But this sort of slowing down takes a real feel for the way the words are working right then and there.

I think that's the important thing for action scenes - a feel for the way the words are working, for the rhythm and movement of the sentences. And that's the sort of thing that can only be learned by writing a lot - fast scenes, slow scenes, love scenes, action scenes, emotions and actions and descriptions. Even writing poetry - especially the kind with rhythm and rhyme - can help you get a feel for rhythm in your prose.

Sorry for the lesson in how I write action scenes. I hope you find it helpful, though.

Lucie: I've created novels to help me get unstuck in a current novel. The more writing you do, the more you learn. It's never wasted writing.

Calorie: Beautiful!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I feel pacing is important in any type of storytelling. I recently completed a chapter in my WIP (nonfiction) where it seemed to me the progression moved too fast. I wasn't allowing the reader to savor the moment or absorb the impact of what had just happened. By slowing down this particular scene and offering a descriptive, layered atmosphere, the reader's own reaction and emotions become a part of the experience. Which is what we're striving for, right? The reader fully engaged in the story. Great topic, terrific conversation. Thanks Janet!

Matthew Wuertz said...

I've heard so many things about pacing over the years. But I read this post today, and the idea just hits me. Bam! Like something in an action scene.

I just did this yesterday in a novel rough draft. An action scene is going, and I had the main character think about something from the past that was related. It just kind of came out - two or three paragraphs. But the action stopped while he's thinking. Now, after reading this, I'm wondering where else I might have committed this atrocity. Where else am I screwing up the pacing because I'm mixing actions with backstory - something I've heard not to do and thought I was handling fine. Except I wasn't - not with this latest scene and likely not with others.

I love the idea about writing an action scene like a screenplay. I'll consider that.


JulieWeathers said...

I'm doing some research on San Francisco ghosts and ran across something I thought was interesting. There's a piece from a Mark Twain newspaper article about a ghost.

Here's a sentence from it: (Don't count the words, but do look at the use of the word "shy".)

The moment a new and unsuspecting servant-maid gets fairly to bed and her light blown out, one of those dead and damned scalliwags takes her by the hair and just "hazes" her; grabs her by the waterfall and snakes her out of bed and bounces her on the floor two or three time; other disorderly corpses shy old boots at her head, and bootjacks, and brittle chamber furniture - washbowls, pitchers, hair-oil, teeth brushes, hoop-skirts - anything that comes handy those phantoms seize and hurl at Bridget, and pay no more attention to her howling than if it were music.

And shy again in another context:

Disreputable: "gambling hells and shy saloons."

They are going in my vocabulary journal.

Mark Thurber said...

Julie, What a sentence indeed! As a Bay Area resident I'd be very interested to learn where your research on San Francisco ghosts leads.

Karen McCoy said...

It's weird how much this has come up lately--at a conference I was at two weeks ago, they did a "First Pages" session where a panel of agents raised their hands where they would stop reading. And most of it was when the author stopped the story to explain it.

It's kind of like the Bob Mayer quote that kdjames paraphrased a week or so back: "You don't get to send an explanation with your book. It has to make sense on its own." Looks this this is true for both queries and novels.

One suggestion from an agent on the panel was to highlight every section where the story stopped to explain backstory. I started doing this with my first chapter and figured out places to reinsert the content at a later, more natural time.

So, highlights. Basically, what JulieWeathers said.

Karen McCoy said...

Mark, you're in the Bay Area?

*waves from Sacramento*

JulieWeathers said...

I'm going to have to ban myself from this blog.

A writer by the name of Douglas MacKinnon wrote a piece about his favorite author, mystery novelist Donald Westlake. MacKinnon was 12 when he found The Fugitive Pigeon. He picked it up because the titled amused him. He read the first page and was still reading when the local library shut off the lights and kicked him out.

By the time he was seventeen, his family had been evicted thirty-four times, so local libraries didn't stay local very long, but he started a life long love affair with Westlake's writing and with the written word. It got him through some tough times and sometimes that's all a kid or even an adult needs, is that one straw to hang on to until the sun shines again.

This is the power your words have. That book or story you write may be the thing that lifts someone up when they need it most or just gives them something else to think about for a while. Don't ever think, "I'm just a writer."

If you have time, make it, go to Amazon and read Westlake's biography. It's funny and interesting, but most important, it has some valuable information for writers at the end.

Andrea said...

RachelErin, thanks for recommending Akata Witch. I'll be sure to check it out!

I recently finished The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge. What a great book, and perfectly paced, at least I think so. Everything that happens/is said/is thought/is described matters to the overall plot and development of the main character.
This summer I also read another (YA fantasy) book that I absolutely LOVED. Things (relevant to the plot) were happening all the time, and some surprising things too. The thing I expected to happen about half-way through the book happened at a quarter of the way through, and from there it took me further into unexpected and unknown territory. But... at the end I was getting a bit exhausted. It's like going for a walk in a beautiful landscape, with unexpected, stunning views, but in the end your feet get tired from all the uphill walking and the views less interesting because of your tired feet. Something like that... There was so much happening that at some point I just wanted it to end. Fast-paced, not too fast, but maybe the plot was a tiny bit overstuffed.

As for Scrivener, I had it for the trial period (and yes, I did the tutorial and all that -- I once said on a writers community blog that I didn't like Scrivener, and people started doubting my computer skills, the amount of effort I'd put in to learn Scrivener, and my state of mind in general... I hadn't realised I was in a Scrivener place of worship) but it didn't work for me. Too many bits and pieces which became distractions, and too many clicks to do simple things. I prefer the blank page of Word. I used Excel for a while for outlining, and OneNote to keep all my notes together, but I keep coming back to Word. Or just a notebook and pen, for brainstorming. That still works the best. Eventually my outline is in my head, and that's when it all really starts coming together.

JulieWeathers said...


I also write for a game company. They are doing a soft launch of their new game in October. One of the lead in stories is a haunting tale that takes place in the Muir woods. The game they're launching is a gps based game like the Pokemon platform. They released their first one three years ago. The launch is going to kick off with haunted places of the Bay area for people to find among other things. It will be a great way for people to get to really know the place.

Since it also has a virtual mode, people from around the world can hop down to the streets and see the site.

It's been fascinating reading about the history of your city and area.

Barbara Etlin said...

Pacing is one of the things I have the most difficulty with. When my agent suggested that I speed up the pace in the middle of my manuscript, I used this advice from William Goldman's book, "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Basically he advises screenwriters to start the scene late and leave it early.

Now I'm going to read all the comments to get other pointers on pacing...

Colin Smith said...

Andrea: Just so you don't feel alone, I had the same experience as you with Scrivener. It simply doesn't work with the way I like to work. As you said, all the features and bits and pieces become a distraction to me. Give me a blank Word screen, or a blank sheet of paper. However, there are many good writers who love Scrivener so to each their own. :)

Mark Thurber said...

Julie- Wow, that sounds fascinating, and should be especially so for Karen and me and any other Reiders in the Bay Area and surroundings. (I'm in San Jose.)

Andrea said...

Thanks, Colin. And I agree, each to their own.
Just remembered other software I tried. Aeon timeline, I believe it was called. That was more straightforward (only for plotting, not for writing an actual draft) and I did like it, but it still didn't beat pen and paper as far as I was concerned.

BJ Muntain said...

Andrea: Aeon Timeline is more of a program for keeping track of your book's or series' timeline. I have a long, complicated series, and I use Aeon to keep it sorted. I discovered a few places where I didn't leave enough time for something to happen properly, and had to change a few wordings and scenes to make it all fit together properly. I love it.

Panda in Chief said...

All this talk of pacing and plotting is way helpful to a pantser such as myself! Thank you all.

OT sort of, but not entirely, I just finsished reading A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan, suggested here by La Sharque. Great pacing with more information being revealed as you get deeper into the story. I highly recommend putting it on your list.

Have a good week, everyone!

Claudette Hoffmann said...

Colin Thanks to you as well for the HTML linking directions.
Adding HTML/Website Creation to my list of Must Have professional writing skills.

Back to Pacing and Yes, I love thrillers and working to get my present revision crisp and tight and gut-grabbing (just not sure about hunting per se).

If it weren't for this post and everyone's comments, I wouldn't have gone back to re-read Point of Impact.
It is a neat lesson in how to:
keep the action going
pull the reader into the book's world
make the MC likable
show what can be at stake for the MC
And Done With
a whole bunch of emotional buy-in from the reader-All in the First Chapter.

Not quite a real live mentor, but a pretty good model to revise by.

Thanks to all for the helpful comments, too!

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I like what Calorie said.

Here are some scenes from my favorite movies. For some reason I can't link the youtube vids. Indiana Jones
James Bond - Golden Eye Divergent

In all of these scenes there is the same structure that I learned from K.M Weiland.



Here is a link to her graphic that helped me understand the wheel that propels a story. I remember the excitement I felt when I learned what it meant ot propell the story forward.

Each scene rolls into the next. The Sequel to the Scene is paramount to the 6 part structure. In Sacred Games Gary Corby does this seamlessly. I read Sacred Games while I did a scene draft of the first 140 pages to a manuscript. This made me see how the six part structure works in writing.

If you read K.M. Weiland's blog on how to structure scenes you can find another graphic that gives some options to all of the six parts. Based on what she writes it is easy to understand how to pace different scenes. The dilemma is the part where the character has internal dialog or maybe runs his hand through his hair or bites his lower lip. In the scene with Indiana Jones, he rolls his eyes.

Each scene in a story is one turn of the wheel. Each rotation rolls into the next. It's boring to go fast or slow all the time. It's boring to follow a scheme that many stories copy. But it's important to build tension and think of the three part act. Or other classical story structures. I haven't studied screen writing, like Janet suggests, but friends who have tell me it's a good idea.

One of the best paced books I ever read was The Tesseract.

I never finished editing but I learned that using different colors to highlight dialog, backstory, and other things helps when you print out a copy. Lisa, Julie, and Karen mentioned this. Angela James alos suggests this in her editing class. Another class I took through SCBWI, also suggests highlighting.

The Sleepy One said...

I went Darcy Pattison's Novel Revision workshop, and she had some good suggestions using a "shrunken page" theory to work on pacing. Here's a video tutorial:

Between Darcy's theory and Save The Cat, I think I'm finally getting a handle on pacing.

Side note, I love Scrivener. But I don't think I act like I've drunk the scrivener kool aid, so I'm happy to answer questions about the program if anyone wants to PM me. I like being able to write in scenes and navigate easily through my manuscript without having to scroll through a few hundred pages.

Colin Smith said...

Angie: When I saw your list of words, my heart jumped--I thought it was a flash contest!! ;)

Here are Angie's links:
Indiana Jones
James Bond: GoldenEye

And here's The Sleepy One's link:

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

RachelErin, I don't know if this might help, but once I printed out a few chapters in ss 8pt font, laid them all out, then colour-coded what every sentence did. Action? Red. Dialogue, blue. Info/desc, green.then I stood back and observed what the colour patterns looked like. Any blocks of colour meant that spot needed revision. The size of the patterns also indicated pacing. The wider the stripes, the slower the pacing.
Okay, the analysis is a bit more complex, but issues become more apparent in this method.

nightsmusic said...

Because I'm a Windows gal (I'd be a Linux one if I could get the same programs!) I'll post a link to a full class on Scrivener for Windows. She also offers one for Mac. I've taken some of her smaller classes through my RWA chapter and she's great. So, if you want to really learn Scrivener (which was a doorstop for me until I took my first class) this would be the place to be.

Scrivener for Windows

Janet, if this is not allowed, please delete.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling it's going to take me a few days to get through all these links. Thanks to everyone for providing them.

The only thing I know about pacing is there's a difference between pacing a scene and pacing an entire book.

I just watched both clips Janet embedded in her prior linked post about the movie Heat, which I haven't seen. Wow. Whole lot of bullets flying in the first scene. Hardly any dialog in either. Off topic, but I did notice that Pacino's character took more careful aim than others and tended to fire more single shots instead of a stream of auto. The sound effects were interesting: his shots were louder and deeper than the bad guys'. The background music escalated. Not sure how to write something like that. Sound effects are a definite advantage for film makers.

Allison Newchurch said...

"picture yourself in the action as the protagonist. Are you going to shoot the guy, or are you going to stop to explain to the other characters and the trees why he needs to be shot?"

I love that.

I'm currently re-attacking a section of my WIP. I have a large hunk of back story that I'm endeavouring to cut back to a couple of lines. I think I'll put this on a poster by my monitor.

It'll sit next to: "I only want to know what the time is, not how to make a watch."

Colin Smith said...

The booklet by Leslie Miller, "How to Rock Your Second Draft," mentioned by Lisa earlier today, is now in the Treasure Chest. Don't worry, I contacted Leslie first to get her permission to re-post it. :)

Claudette Hoffmann said...

Lisa: Multiple appreciations for letting us know about Ms. Miller's revision booklet.
Ms. Miller: Thank you for letting the Blog post it.
Colin: You're great for for filling the Treasure Chest again.

Janet: What an awesome Blog community lives in this protected Reef!

Charles Coleridge said...

RachelErin, since you use Scrivener, you might consider using Keyword tags on your scenes to track backstory or other such elements. They wouldn't be too efficient at tracking things like "snake venom kills zombies", but they'd be serviceable for "special powers" or "world-building" or "magic system".

John Davis Frain said...

I hit capacity at comment #42. I can't learn anymore tonight!

Thankfully, it's 11:52 in my part of the world, so tonight ends in 8 minutes and I can't wait to get back to the rest of the comments and learn a little more.

I'm working on this exact issue by practicing with a couple short stories before I knock out a novel which, if I'm smart enough to follow Steve Stubbs' advice, will be pretty simple.

Thanks to all of you in the advanced class for helping this kid from the remedial group. Wait, it's 2016, we're not remedial anymore. Thanks for helping this kid from the Bluebird group.

CynthiaMc said...

It's 4 am here. Don't know if anyone will read this or not, but it might help someone so here goes.

Jack Bickham's scene and sequel is very similar to what Angie mentioned:

Scene - moves story ahead

followed by

Sequel: (I call it the Now What?)

Scene leads to sequel back to scene etc. and all move the story forward.

On The Board - I don't have a lot of free time. I have a full time day job, and the older I get the more quickly I want results. I'm also very visual and love art so this combines my love of writing, the fact that I'm constantly on the go, and my love of pizazz.

My Board is a sketchbook (I like the big hard-cover ones) and my index cards are neon-colored post-it notes. I lay out my 15 beats (for Save the Cat screenwriters) - 1st row is Act 1, second row is Act 2 to Midpoint, 3rd row is the second half of Act 2, 4th row is Act 3. It's portable. I can take it to the beach, out in the garden, or on set. For Save the Cat screenwriters, I use different colors for my A and B stories so it's easy to see where they cross. Laying beats out on the board shows me exactly what I have and exacrtly where the gaps are.

Strangely enough I can tell my subconscious "I need this beat by 4 a.m." (my usual writing time) and most of the time it'll be there (or I'll get another scene in its place). I only get a little bit of time to write on workdays and this moves the story (or stories - it's a big book) forwars so I'm always moving ahead on something. If I'm stuck I look at another story and often find those kinks have worked themselves out.

It's easier to see what's working and what isn't with the post-it notes and if something needs to be changed it's easier to change it before I've written a lot of pages I might get stubborn about.

I'm a color-code pen person too, usually later drafts but mostly marking up favorite writers' work - I call it my Master Class exercises.

CynthiaMc said...

I hate typos but not enough to post this again.

Donnaeve said...

Allison I'm glad you liked that! It definitely helped me, and for me, I need to understand something by the KISS method (keep it simple stupid)


Claudette, Thank you!

Adib Khorram said...

Super nerdy time... You can use HTML names to make characters. For instance, &lt; and &gt; make < and > So you can write <b> and </b> without triggering the code for bold.

Who knew the GeoCities pages of my misspent youth would end up being so handy?

Jennifer Moorhead said...

Beta reading! Having beta readers and being a beta reader. That's my best place to see pacing (or lack of). Nothing like happily tapping away in the comment box and realizing I'm commenting on the very thing I do. Perspective is a gift and it certainly helps my pacing.

AJ Blythe said...

Another for the wall:

None of the info about how you learned to fend off sharks is needed in a scene where you're actually fending off sharks. Action means just that: ACTION. Save all the explanations for later.