PacingA Lesson by The Perfectionist
How not to smother your readers
In my lesson "Common Mistakes and How To Avoid Them", I brought up the issue of pacing. Now it's time to look at it in much more detail.
How many of you have seen this curve before?
Anyone? Nah, I didn't think so. Unless you're a video game designer, odds are not good you've seen that represented pictorially before. Never fear, for though I am not a video game designer either, I shall explain it.
Incidentally though, if any of you play video games, or if you just want to see someone more intelligent and articulate than me talk about this issue, go watch this:
Though they talk about pacing in video games, it applies everywhere, as I'm about to attempt to demonstrate.
Alright, let's do this thing.
The curve I've linked you to represents the arc of a good narrative storyline. The peaks and valleys represent highs and lows of intensity in your storyline (action-packed fight scenes could be a high, for example, but as can anything that immediately draws the audience's attention). As the curve demonstrates, the proper way to do this is NOT to start high and keep climbing. A good narrative follows this series of ups and downs almost exactly as the story goes along.
Why? Have you ever gone to a movie that was nothing but all action, all the time? You didn't really enjoy it, did you? You probably left the theatre exhausted, more relieved that the movie was over than anything. Afterwards, it's also kind of hard to remember anything about it. The human mind is not built to process and retain constant stimulus. In much the same way that our muscles only get stronger when you allow them time to rest between workouts, so too does your brain only really retain information when it's given time to process it. Constantly bombarding your senses with data will cause much of it to go in one ear and out the other.
Hence the curve. You begin high to suck in the reader, back off to allow them time to catch up, and then gradually build with a succession of excitement and relaxation, culminating hopefully in a grand finale and denoument at the end. The important thing to take away is that the low parts are just as important as the high parts.
As a writer, it can be hard to judge where a given moment is on your curve, and whether or not you're doing what you should be at that given moment in time. I'm not an expert in this field, and I don't claim to be, so instead of trying to blanket it, what I'm going to do now is explain how to get pacing right at the most important part: the beginning.
Everyone knows you need to start big, somehow. The "hook" that draws the readers in, as it were, is your initial spike on our curve. Funny enough, it is also the part where writers fail the most miserably. Sometimes, it's because their hook isn't big enough, but a majority of the time, in my experience, they have one of two of the following problems:
1. The hook is TOO big
This can occur in many forms, but is most prevalant in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, where the author is literally building a universe and the first chapter becomes an information dump. Do. Not. Do. This. Introduce elements as they become relevant. Not before. I will not remember the sixty planets you named on page one, no matter how much detail you go into, because I have no context for them.
Another way this one shows up is when the plot is central to a mystery, but the mystery itself requires some explanation (again, ESPECIALLY bad in sci-fi). Give information in pieces, never all at once.
2. There's no dip
As I said earlier, the valleys on the curve are just as important as the peaks, as they allow the reader time to process what has just happened. If you hit them with a load of characters, settings, and plots in the first few pages, and then plow straight ahead into the first item on your adventure, most of what you said in the beginning is going to get totally lost in the shuffle. Slow down, let the reader catch up for a while on what you've already told them, and THEN jump into that next peak. Don't forget the valleys.
Incidentally, if you want an excellent example of proper pacing, read a good thriller or mystery novel, like something by Jeffrey Deaver. When pacing is done well, you don't notice it, so you may have to pay close attention to take note of the valleys and peaks, but they're definitely there.
If you take nothing else away from this lesson, take this: Don't try to do too much too fast. You may understand your world, but your readers don't. Let them catch up. They'll stay longer.
Added on November 30, 2011
Last Updated on November 30, 2011
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