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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It’s All About The Timing- Pacing Your Novel Correctly

How long is your novel? I’m not talking about word count or pages—I mean the length of time that elapses from beginning to end.

Does it take place in one afternoon? A few weeks? Several years?

While reading Betsy Lerner’s
The Forest for the Trees (highly recommended advice from an editor to writers), I came across a section about structuring the timing of your novel. Betsy says she’s worked with brilliant authors over the years who have committed all kinds of “time crimes,” not seeing the structure their own sentences and paragraphs suggested.

To me, timing can be controlled by two things:

How you pace each scene- Betsy notes a writer can use paragraphs and space breaks the way a poet uses stanzas. These are devices that instruct the reader, almost like giving a guided tour through a house:

“Here, this way, come with me over here, here’s a new room that we’ll check on later, be sure to remember that decoration in the bathroom, yes, there’s a basement, but it’s dark and we don’t want to go in there, interesting painting over there, let’s take a breather, relax and have a cookie while I tell you about the owner, etc.”

Long paragraphs can be like a realtor talking about a single room for an hour. Your eyes start to glaze over and you really just want to see the rest of the house—there are exceptions to this, of course, but it can be especially true in novels for younger readers.

and

How you transition breaks in time- Have you ever been frustrated while writing because your character has to change venues before a more exciting scene takes place? Don’t always feel like you have to document the car ride, train ride, plane ride, and fill it with inner thoughts, phone calls, or descriptions of what your character had for dinner (though, personally, I always love food descriptions). If you're doing that, there better be some important information revealed that keeps the plot moving forward.

If you’re writing it just to get to the next scene, it may come across as forced. That’s what chapter breaks are for. Your readers are smart enough to be able to transition their thought process—“Oh, it’s next week now. Okay.” Just be sure to do it in a way and at a place that makes sense, instead of jarring the reader.

Whether your protagonist’s journey is a week or a year long, you need to be aware of timing, and the structure of that timing. It’s kind of like the show, Next Food Network Star, where they give contestants 1 minute to do a food demonstration.


Some of them start really slowly and comfortably, then have to squeeze all their information into the last ten seconds, which just doesn’t work well. Others get nervous and talk so fast that they’re out of important things to say by the time the clock hits 30 seconds, and they end up trying to add awkward filler. Try to strike a balance.

That’s all for today :)

26 comments:

  1. Great tips! We're so used to authors conveying only the important details, that it can be confusing when people add something extraneous. "Oh, she's brushing her teeth now?" I think. "Well, there must be something important that happens while she's brushing. Oh. Maybe not. Guess I'll have to remember it for later because it must be important at some point." It's exhausting having to remember all these things that end up not being momentous at all.

    At the same time, I find myself feeling like I have to put in all those details, too, as if the reader won't know that my character brushed her teeth (or went to the bathroom or drove tos school) unless I tell them. Thanks for the reminder!

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  2. I am delighted to read this post at this time. My character is in the process of a time transition. I have been contemplating how to best do this. Timing is everything. Thank you. Will check out the book too. Again thanks!

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  3. Great advice. Usually my first draft is full of things like characters brushing their teeth and getting from one scene to the other. Thank goodness for second drafts!

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  4. Great tips in transition and breaks in time. Hard stuff to deal with at times without it sounding forced or unnatural.

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  5. I use both chapter and line breaks. You're right, no one wants to read the boring stuff in between.

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  6. I love this post! If you're not careful with the breaks (letting everything run together) it can come across as a travelogue, too. Not good.

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  7. Jess, thanks for the great tips on pacing! You've given me a lot to think about.

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  8. Great post! My impatience usually shows in my writing as the majority of my manuscripts take place in a short space of time. Ticking clocks are fun! Though sometimes it's a good idea to slow down and smell the roses.

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  9. So glad you posted this! I've been thinking about timing/pacing lately and my next blog post discusses this. I'll definitely include a link to your blog when it goes up.
    :)

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  10. I'm glad to report that I think my pacing is spot on.

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  11. Great post! You tackled a really difficult topic and covered it lovely!!! I wish there was an "easy" button for timing issues. . .

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  12. Good advice indeed. It's definitely a difficult topic. I am going to check out The Forest for the Trees. :)

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  13. Great advice! i especially like the analogy about being like a house tour - very good point.

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  14. Good advice, particularly about transitioning breaks in time. It's so true that we don't need to see everything a character does or says at all times.

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  15. In my novel the prologue spans a couple of hours in May, and then the rest of the story takes place from December 22nd until New Years Eve. I spent numerous hours mapping out what needed to happen when because it is a very time-sensitive plot. Pacing is very critical! :)

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  16. Obviously it totally depends on the book, and although I don't usually like to have the characters span more than a year or two, my current WIP covers a good four years of time.

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  17. Great tips. I've had to cut whole scenes in the past because of poor pacing. I got wrapped up in the travel to a destination or something like that and forgot about keeping the plot moving forward. Hehehe.

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  18. Great advice. Sometimes I have to cut scenes because I'm explaining way too much, on re-reading, even my eyes glaze over!

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  19. I started out writing epic novels that spanned decades... then slowly discovered it was more expedient and just as much fun to compress the time into one year, or even one summer!

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  20. I started Forest for the Trees some time back--and realize it got buried under the pile and I never finished it. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention, and for the timely tips. Great post!

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  21. Pacing is MUY importante. Avoid the lulls AMAP -- and cut the boring parts we always skim as readers.

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