Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

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).


9 thoughts on “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

  1. I’ve discovered that as a reader, “build to a crescendo” pacing annoys me. It actually makes the book *predictable*, and I’m tired of it (and unfortunately, authors who use crescendo-pacing tend to use it for *everything* they write). I’d rather pacing followed from the natural course of events, which might be anything.

    Hence as a writer, I don’t worry about it. Pacing exists as individual scenes dictate — it’s therefore a side-effect, not a goal.

  2. *sigh* The book I’m currently re-writing has a massive physically active scene… almost in the middle of the book. But the emotional climax is the next-to-last chapter. Please make my characters stick to predictable pacing, pllleeeeeeaaaaase!

  3. As a pantser I write first then figure out what I am missing. Will have to keep the pace in mind. Have a few stories that need to have the pacing redone I think.

  4. My characters don’t like to do anything, they like to stay home and play Mario Kart. So it is a bit of trouble to get them moving.

    Once moving, they get a bit excitable. Overkill is a hobby with many of them. Why shoot the evil squid demon with only -one- orbital plasma cannon? Why not let him have it with half a dozen or so? Why not build a bunch more for the specific purpose of blasting that one squid? Let that sumbitch know he’s been BLASTED!

    So, pacing becomes an issue.

    Last book I had Bob the demigod drop the problem on them, which worked pretty well. This book, Bob is on vacation. He keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’s on vacation.

    Today, the big problem is convincing the over-muscled Valkyries to hide. They’re getting pretty cranky. My pants are taking some friction burns.

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