5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined the story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi/fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction writers who are flunking the story pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things.

1. I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I become the unwilling listener. You are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one who paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

2. I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When your character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

3. I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

4. I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, that is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

5. Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there”? It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t become sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?

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Author: Rilla Z

I'm a scribbler. I'm genuine. Sometimes I'm too genuine. My topics of interest are: this world, the worlds inside my head, and the world to come. Oh, and cups of tea. Yes, I write about my cups of tea.

4 thoughts on “5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride”

  1. Dialog tags are a necessary evil… But mostly just evil. A neat trick to avoid them is to use narration of body language or other actions to attribute direct dialog. For example…

    Mariam laughed. “Great story!”
    Ralph clenched his fist. “I don’t see what’s so funny about it.”

    This kind of attribution does double duty, indicating who’s speaking and showing characters’ emotion in an unobtrusive way. It’s a small thing, but can make a tremendous difference in tightening up dialog-heavy scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! Fantastic advice! Also, some bodily actions can be used as dialogue tags. “‘I’ve seen better driving in a nursing home,’ Caroline snorted.” ‘Snorted’ is a bodily action that does not double as a way of speaking, but ‘joked’ or ‘teased’ would work, I think.

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      1. “Snorted” is great (my current story has a character that snorts lines of dialog… perhaps too much), but I would be hesitant to use “joked” or “teased”, since to my mind it is starting to cross the line from showing to telling. (Although that is just my subjective judgment.)

        If a line of dialog is obviously a joke, appending it with “…she joked” adds nothing but clutter– if it’s clear who’s speaking anyway just leave the dialog line tagless to make the punchline punchier. For example…

        “Well, I’m alive. Made it home in one piece,” said Caroline.
        Fred picked up a suitcase. “Rough trip?”
        “I’ve seen better driving in a nursing home.”

        If the line *isn’t* obviously a joke, the “joked” tag will just be jarring to the reader as they are forced to re-envision what just happened. For example…

        “Oh, it was the best drive I’ve ever had,” Caroline joked.
        (Even in context, the reader may not realize it was a joke until the tag.)

        Putting the “joked” tag in front is, if anything, actually worse…

        Caroline joked, “oh, it was the best drive I’ve ever had!”
        (This is just insulting haha.)

        In the real world, people usually use body language, tone of voice, etc, to indicate what they are saying is a joke (and this is true even of dry/deadpan jokes). It will feel more natural to the reader to be allowed to “see” a character’s body language and infer from that what’s really meant. Authorial hand-holding breaks the immersion. For a line of dialog that isn’t obviously a joke based purely on the literal words of dialog, it will be necessary to have the character smile or laugh (or snort or something).

        “Well, I’m alive. Made it home in one piece,” said Caroline.
        Fred picked up a suitcase. “Rough trip?”
        Caroline rolled her eyes. “Oh, it was the best drive I’ve ever had.”

        Liked by 1 person

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