The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

After a much deserved Thanksgiving break (you did deserve it, right?), I’m back, with more of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide. Today’s post starts a sequence of posts covering the Pantser Body of Knowledge. This your standard writing techniques like pacing, plot, character and the like, from an extreme pantser perspective. Odd as it might seem, this actually isn’t in the least bit contradictory, so long as you squint a bit and look at it from just the right perspective.

Oh, who am I kidding? Anyway, on with the motley.

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This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).

4 comments

  1. Nah, for frou-frou I think it either has to be pink or have lots of lace.

    Pacing problems are one of the things I have trouble seeing in my own stuff. However, I think I managed to snag some beta readers out of the local NaNo group, so I’ll have more people, and more experienced people than me, to read and, hopefully, not run away in horror.

    1. Pam,

      Not if it’s new-agey enough – you know, the fluffy-bunny-frou-frou stuff about wishing yourself wealthy (a close relative of the Church of God the Eternal Money Spout, and the Church of Jesus the Genie), visualizing yourself healthy and all that taken to the kind of extremes where there are special crystals on every flat surface.

      For pacing, try seriously analyzing the pace of one of the first three in the Anita Blake series. Take note of what Hamilton is doing in the fast scenes vs the slow ones, the rhythm of faster and slower, and see if you can graph it out in a way that shows the pacing. Those three books, she had it down to the page number. I’d start thinking “okay, it’s about time for all hell to break loose” (given the nature of the books, usually literally) turn the page, and the end sequence would start – usually with all hell breaking loose all at once.

    1. A dance through a maze with brambles and midden pits. And I get dragged backwards through it (I did mention I can’t dance worth anything, right?)

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