While your novel doesn’t have to gallop along at a fast pace, sometimes storytelling gets bogged down and momentum is lost. Too slow and a reader could just give up. Be vigilant of anything that pulls your pace down. Here are 10 ways to improve your novel’s pacing:
1. Slow beginnings and world building
It is perfectly normal to take some time warming up your characters and world when you’re working on an early draft.
Later, when you have the story down, you can start to work on the beginning and other parts of the novel.
When writers don’t address their slow beginnings, this leads to plots that take forever to get started.
But in historical and fantasy fiction there can also be a lot of worldbuilding. I call this scaffolding. You’re erecting the scaffolding that your story will be partly built on.
Later, once your plot and characters can stand by themselves, you need to take the scaffolding down. Readers don’t need to know everything about the world of the story at the outset.
The point of the beginning is to hook the reader so they want to read more. Too much info dumping weighs the beginning down and could lead to readers abandoning the novel.
2. Sagging middles and drawn-out endings
If there’s nothing much happening in the middle of your novel, your readers will notice. They have reached the halfway point and the pace will be dragging. There is a good chance readers will bail.
After all, there are plenty of other books out there to tempt them.
Your midpoint is an important point in your story and you absolutely need to have your readers furiously turning the pages.
Likewise, a drawn-out ending will kill the pace there. Once all the major plot threads are tied up, there isn’t a reason to carry on. Resolution should be short. You also don’t need to explain the fates of all the characters, particular the more minor characters.
3. Large block paragraphs
If you have too many block paragraphs that run on a long time you are forcing your reader into visually tracking one long line after another. This can be tiring for the eye and the sight of a densely packed page can be off-putting for readers. Especially if they’re tired and looking to wind down.
The visual tracking of one long line after another also means that there are more words on the page and it takes longer to get to the bottom. This might work in some scenes, but beware of where you want your narrative to pick up and move more swiftly.
If you want your reader to quickly turn the page, it’s best to break your paragraphs up a bit so that the writing flows down the page rather than across.
There are other issues with paragraphing which I will address in another post. However, paragraphing is something you can focus on when you are polishing your manuscript. You don’t need to worry about it when you’re still getting your story down on paper.
4. Long sentences
Long sentences can work well in some places. But if you’re reaching a point of drama and high tension you should aim to break them up more. This helps create a sense of breathlessness.
Long sentences suggest a leisurely time for contemplation or reflection.
Short sentences in a dramatic scene suggest urgency and no time to dwell on less important things.
However, avoid too many short sentences one after the other of a similar length. This can create a monotonous staccato rhythm that will not read well.
5. Baton passes
It’s not unusual in a multi-viewpoint narrative to move directly from one POV in a scene to a different perspective in the same scene. There will be a line break to indicate the change of point of view. But in real time, the scene is just flowing on from the end of the last section.
Baton passes can work well, but if there are too many of them, they can slow the overall pace. Where possible, opt for a jump cut forward in time that propels narrative momentum onwards.
6. Nothing is happening
Every chapter in your novel should contribute something to the character and dramatic arc. Each chapter should also propel your story onwards.
While it might be fun to spend more time with your characters, the plot is ultimately the engine of the story.
If there’s little plot in chapter after chapter, the pace will drop through the floor.
This can leave the reader feeling that nothing is happening.
Dialogue and interaction alone will not drive the plot on. Even amusing characters can only keep your reader’s attention for so long.
Readers know instinctively that something is wrong with a story when nothing is happening for a while. They have the experience of other novels and films to teach them over time how story structure works. They might not be able to articulate exactly where things should be happening – they just know something is off.
I recommend KM Weiland’s books on novel structure if you want to dig deeper.
7. Too many long dialogue scenes
When dialogue is sparkling it leaps off the page, and the characters are shown off to their full potential.
Unfortunately, if dialogue goes on too long, it can become more tiring to read. Especially if it’s not important dialogue, and it doesn’t reveal anything or advance the plot.
Often you can summarise what characters are saying to speed things up and only focus on the most important speech. That also allows the most important parts of a conversation to stand out and not be buried among more mundane chat.
There will be times when it’s fine to report an entire conversation. Especially if it’s a tense one, or it’s not too long.
But if you find yourself always reporting full conversations, it’s fine for your early drafts. However, you should go in later and shape these scenes so they move better. Aim to highlight the most important speech and interactions/drama.
8. Too much backstory
While you might know a lot about your characters (because it helps you write their story), your readers should really learn about your characters through their actions, choices, thoughts, and words.
Readers don’t usually need a lot of backstory information.
It’s fine to include some, and it’s often a good idea to sprinkle it through a scene or story so it doesn’t weigh any particular part down.
If you weave backstory well through the story, not lingering on it longer than you need to in any one place, you can make it almost invisible at times. The reader gets the information but doesn’t feel bogged down by info dumping.
Is it possible for longer backstory to work? Yes. Just be careful where you do it – not interrupting a dramatic scene, for example.
Think about how long the backstory is, how it contributes to that part of the narrative – it might actually work after a more dramatic scene when the characters are catching their breath and reflecting on what has happened or what they’ll do next.
One problem with both flashbacks and backstory is that they both look to the past. They don’t drive the present day plot forwards, and therefore don’t contribute as well to forward momentum.
Does that mean they’re bad? No. It’s a matter of how much and where they are placed.
Flashbacks can be more dynamic than backstory because you’re taking the reader back into the past directly, like it’s happening now.
And some plots rely more heavily on the past.
Nevertheless, if handled badly, too many flashbacks can block forward plot momentum.
There are exceptions – when flashbacks through the novel build up a picture that explains a mystery in the present. However, that crosses over into multiple timeline storytelling.
Flashbacks should add something to the story you’re writing. Otherwise, the priority should be to keep things moving forwards where possible.
10. Watch your word count
While there is no ideal word count for all novels, each novel probably has an optimal word count range based on how complex the plot is.
It’s fine to have a 120,000 word novel if there’s plenty going on. It’s not so fine if very little happens.
The lack of action and plot development will bog the pace down to a near standstill.
Again, this is not something you need to worry about when you’re first writing your story. With each subsequent draft, you can assess how much can be cut for the benefit of the whole manuscript.
It’s not always easy to delete scenes you’re fond of, but if you want your novel to be read and enjoyed by others you’ll have to be more ruthless.
The good news is that while you might miss these scenes in the short term, you usually won’t in the longer term. Especially if you feel your manuscript is stronger for the cuts.
Looking for feedback on your pacing?
And if you think your manuscript needs to be checked for pacing and other issues, you can check out my services pages. Pacing is one of the things I look at when I do either a manuscript critique or a full developmental edit.
If you’re on a budget and you’re interested in an opening chapters developmental edit of your first 10,000 words or your first 15,000 words, then I’ll look at things like too much world building early on, a slow beginning, paragraph blocking, overly long dialogue scenes, and much more. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you want know more about the differences between a manuscript critique and a developmental edit, you can check my blog post on the subject here:
Developmental edit or manuscript critique? – IndieCat Editorial