Pacing . . .

. . . is more subjective than you might think, and I think I’m starting to figure out part of why that is. I think there are elements that contribute to a feeling of slow or dragging pace even when the pace could objectively be described as fast.

You know, a couple of years ago now, I was having dinner with my agent and various of her other clients and Robin McKinley’s book DRAGONHAVEN came up, and I said I’d loved it and everybody else said NO WAY, IT WAS TOO SLOW. And I was shocked. Shocked!

Not that it wasn’t slow, but it didn’t strike me as too slow. I really loved the story, I loved the protagonist’s voice, and it didn’t bother me one bit that the story took its time getting anywhere. For me, the pacing of DRAGONHAVEN was just right.


I’ve been re-reading Eric Flint’s 1632 series lately, whenever I want to read something but don’t want to get too caught up in a new book. And so I recently re-read THE BAVARIAN CRISIS. And, whoa, was it slooooow. It wasn’t just that nothing much was happening, it was that nothing much was happening to dozens and dozens of point-of-view characters. Who were all named Ferdinand or Fernando if they were male or Maria or Anna if they were female, and were thus impossible to keep straight. Slow, slow, slow AND confusing.

Well, at least until (at last!) Grandduchess Maria Anna’s storyline took over the book as she fled her arranged marriage and headed for the dashing romantic Don Fernando instead. She finally gave me a character and situation I could care about. But this illustrated one major problem that can make a book seem to be slow even if exciting stuff is happening: lack of a main character to attach to. Although THE BAVARIAN CRISIS really did not have exciting stuff happening either, until quite late in the book, so really almost anybody would probably find that it dragged at first.

Now! For a completely different problem! The other day I read a book by Mark L van Name called ONE JUMP AHEAD and it dragged and dragged. Only not really. Objectively, there was all this stuff going on. The protag has to get this crucial piece of equipment only the guy who’s selling it to him tries to rob him, only he knew that was going to happen so he Took Steps. And then he kidnapped this one guy and then this other guy and then made an alliance with this violent female leader of a small mercenary troop (who didn’t turn into a love interest, and that was an interesting choice on the author’s part). Anyway! Plenty of action!

So why did it seem to me that ONE JUMP AHEAD dragged so badly?

Because (I figured this out afterward) the back cover copy had made it clear to me that the main character was going to have this important discovery where he realizes that he only THOUGHT he rescued this kidnapped girl right at the beginning, because instead he was tricked by the bad guy into recapturing her after she had escaped his evil clutches.

And, see, because the back cover copy gave this important plot development away? I spent like 2/3 of the books going HEY, DUDE, FIGURE THIS OUT ALREADY. It made the WHOLE THING before the protagonist figured out he’d been used seem to drag — and it made everything AFTER that realization seem anticlimactic.

See, I think pacing is complicated. More complicated than “This book has too much description” or “There’s not enough going on in this story” or “Can’t the characters quit talking to each other all the time and DO SOMETHING?” even though all those elements can make a book seem slow if you don’t happen to appreciate plenty of description or interior monologues or whatever.

So . . .

1) Too much description (this will not usually in itself strike me as a problem)

2) Not enough action (ditto)

3) Too much space spent on interior monologues / dialogue (ditto, if the monologues/dialogues are good)

4) Too many point-of-view characters and too little attachment to any of them (I will not be able to get interested in this book)

5) An important plot point is foreshadowed but does not get delivered in a timely fashion (I hadn’t realized how much I hate this until ONE JUMP AHEAD, but it’s not unique).

6) Is there anything else?

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4 thoughts on “Pacing . . .”

  1. I didn’t like DRAGONHAVEN much, although I credited McKinley for doing something different in her narrative voice. I just couldn’t STAND the voice, especially when I noticed he was presented as writing it from the perspective of a few years later.

    On pacing, though, part of my problem with it – aside from the teenagerness of it – was the lack of variety. (working off memory, here, so don’t hold me to extreme accuracy.) It was all on one note: No rhythm, no rising or falling, just a monotone of teenage stuff. This made it seem slow. There was stuff going on, but there was no sense of motion or change to the narrative, it was all the same. And that is pacing, too. The monotone made it easy to put the book down, and gave the impression of slowness.

    I’ve read action scenes that were very slow because the writer went with the blow-by-blow video-slo-mo style of doing it. The trouble was NOTHING else was happening. I was only reading blow-by-blow, not getting character, plot progress, world-building, etc. from it. So another part of pacing is amount of story stuff included in the scene. I remember Wrede at least once pointing out that she sped up the pacing of a scene by adding to it, fleshing things out, giving it more to do, so it read shorter, although it was longer in words.

    Hope this helps, too!

  2. So interesting about speeding up a scene by adding more words! I’ll have to look at a couple of her books and see if I can catch her doing that.

    I get what you mean about the unvarying pace of DRAGONHAVEN. But I wasn’t bothered by that at all — and I really enjoyed the teenage voice.

    Though you know what I REALLY wish? That McKinley would write a sequel to SUNSHINE. How’d you like that one?

  3. SUNSHINE is my single favorite McKinley, I think, and I’d love a sequel.

    So I went on a hunt for where Wrede talked about pacing that way. She touches on it here ( referencing TALKING TO DRAGONS, although there she just cut; and in general here ( [i] “What to do if the story really *is* bogging down and “too slow” in opening may not be at all intuitively obvious. The usual reaction, when someone feels that
    the pacing is “slow,” is to cut stuff — fewer words read faster, right? Well, no — fewer words only read faster if they’re the right words saying the right stuff. Sometimes, what is needed to pick up the pacing is *more* words. Possibly the reason the exposition is all crammed in the beginning is that the story is opening too late — you’ve actually started with Chapter 3, and you’re trying to provide two chapters-worth of set-up and fill-in, when what you really need is to back up and write those chapters. Possibly the story opens in the right place, but ” [/i] I couldn’t find where she provided examples of adding to speed things up from her own work. Still, those discussions are interesting, regardless. (I hope my attempt at italics works.)

    Pacing is complicated. BTW, I enjoyed 1632, but haven’t read the others yet. My husband has, but only likes some, some of the co-authored installments he finds way too slow. Speaking of pacing. :-)

    And referencing your next post, you’ve finally planted something I recognize! Nandina. It’s a fairly popular border/hedge plant around here. We’ve got Nandina Gulf Stream alongside the garage.

  4. Wow, Nandina sure is flexible. I think we’re kind of on the edge of its hardiness zone, but there are cultivars that work for us. Lots more Nandina 300 miles south in Arkansas, where many of my relatives live. That’s where I first saw it and decided I had to have some.

    Yes, how interesting, that part where Wrede talks about accidentally starting on Chapter Three and slowing things down because you have to integrate too much backstory. I’ve totally done that on a ms I’m working on, only I’m not sure I like the Chapter One I added later. Have to let it rest a while and go back for another look. I didn’t think of it specifically as a pacing issue until now — but it clearly is.

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