I’m a “tight” writer. I rarely have the problem of having over-written and therefore I don’t have to go back to a bloated manuscript and cut thousands of words. This can be a good thing, to be able write with an economy of words…but there is such a thing as too tight. Which is why I often call my first draft an elaborate outline. I identified my problem. PACING.
Writers usually tend to err on one side of the pacing problem or the other – too slow or too fast.
If your pacing is too slow, the reader feels like “your not getting to the point or the action” and they start skimming or skipping pages, which often leads to a DNF (did not finish).
If your pacing is too fast, the reader feels like they don’t have a chance to get to know the characters, or the setting and though they may get to the end of the book, they’re left feeling unsatisfied.
I tend to fall in the too fast camp.
I was jumping from exciting plot point to exciting plot point, with no room to breath in between. Sometimes this technique is good–it keeps you on the edge of your seat. But in my case I knew that I wasn’t establishing key elements like setting or emotional conflict as well as I could.
I decided I needed to see how other writers were dealing with pacing so I picked a book off my shelf that was on the thicker side, TWILIGHT (this was back when I was writing young adult.) I wanted to see how Stephenie Meyers handled pacing.
First, it’s easy to recall her main plot points: Bella spotting Edward in the Cafeteria; Bella and Edward’s first encounter in Biology; Edward saving Bella from getting crushed; the sparkle reveal; the ball game; encounter with James and the beginning of the hunt; the escape with Alice and Jasper; James contacting Bella; her escape at the airport; the dance room scene; the rescue; the hospital; the prom.
If I had written Twilight it would’ve only been half as long, even while keeping all those scenes. (And yeah, maybe Twilight could have used a bit of thinning.)
So what did I notice?
Ms Meyers wasn’t in a big rush to get Bella and Edward to meet. Bella arrives at Forks, we meet her dad, see her house, go through a day of school, meet her friends, sure she sees Edward and we find out a bit about him through her friend Jessica’s eyes, but we don’t actually MEET him until his unusual reaction to Bella in Biology.
My instinct would’ve been to open with that scene.
Ms Meyers didn’t worry about giving us too much detail about setting. Sometimes we’d get two or three paragraphs detailing a room or forest. I tend to worry if I spend too much time describing setting, the reader will fall asleep, but actually it helps a reader to get rooted in a story if they can really see where they are and what’s going on. Of course you can go overboard with description, but in my case, I could see that I tended to error on the side of too little.
Her emotional descriptions were generous as well. We understood how Bella and her father were alike, and why it worked for them to live together, we understood her obsession with Edward, and even though we could’ve probably lived with fewer descriptions of Edward’s eyes and the wide swath of emotion that oozed from them, we were left in no doubt about the speed and intensity at which their love affair grew.
She also didn’t have a problem with a large cast. There are the kids at school, the Cullen family and a brief encounter with the reservation tribe. They all needed fair description and stage time over the course of the book.
The villain didn’t arrive until the last act. That was kind of surprising. I suppose that was part of the twist, although if you paid attention to the prologue, you knew she was going to get hunted.
Speaking of prologue: it was super short. The best kind.
Knowing that Twilight was the first book of a series, I also watched for how she planted clues for book two. I wonder how much she really knew in advance about how the story with Jacob and the Quileutes tribe would evolve. Jacob Black plays a really small role in book one, with only his ominous message from his father to Bella at the prom to hint at more conflict to come.
Knowledge gaps in a story are necessary to create tension and the need to “turn the page.” They’re connected to the story questions: Who? How? Why? Etc.
It’s important to create story questions. It’s also important to not answer them right away. As an author, you have to be fair about this. It has to be logical and reasonable that your main character couldn’t easily find the answer to the questions. If your character behaves in a way that’s not believable just to avoid discovering the answer, your reader may get too frustrated to finish the book.
For instance: Your main character has a secret. Her love interest knows she’s keeping something from him. All he has to do is ask – BUT HE DOESN’T. That’s not fair play. Unless he has a good reason not to ask her. Then you have to convince your reader he has a good reason.
Okay, so he asks her. And she lies. Great. Except she has to have a good reason to lie. If she just doesn’t tell him because you as the writer want to string your reader along, then that’s not fair play either. If she doesn’t tell him because his life would be at risk (or other reasonable conflict), great. If she doesn’t tell him because she just isn’t in the mood at the moment (and the author is using this delay in an attempt to drag out tension), not good.
The number one reason a reader keeps turning the pages is because she wants to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s up to you as the writer to pace out your information in reasonable doses and in a believable fashion, to keep her doing so.