Pacing and Progression
By Noah Lukeman
A southern writer named John Kennedy Toole wrote a comic novel about life in
New Orleans called A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so relentlessly rejected
by publishers that he killed himself. That was in 1969. His mother refused
to give up on the book. She sent it out and got it back, rejected, over and
over again. At last she won the patronage of Walker Percy, who got it
accepted by the Louisiana State University Press, and in 1980 it won the
Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
-from Rotten Reviews (Pushcart Press)
When you reach the point when you can't find anything wrong with a
manuscript, when you've decided there are no egregious flaws and it's
technically correct in every way, then you look to pacing and progression.
The manuscript might be fine, but does it read? It might be on track but is
it slow? Boring? Is it leading to anything? Conversely, is it too fast?
Are events whirling by? Are we racing toward culmination by the end of page
A manuscript is such a tricky, delicate thing: even if everything
else is perfect, it must not be too slow or too fast. It is like a soup:
you may have included all the ingredients in all the right amounts, but a
touch too much salt and the soup is ruined. Forget all the hours you spent
chopping carrots and peeling potatoes-all the diner will remember is the
salt. A manuscript must give us a satisfying sense of progression-but not
too easily. It must make us work-but not too hard. It must keep us turning
pages-but not leave us feeling it is too much of a breeze.
Few writers comprehend the power of pacing and progression. Unlike
other elements-such as hooks, characterization, setting-which can be dealt
with in isolation, pacing and progression inevitably run throughout the
course of the entire piece, are affected by every single last word. They are
the spine of the book, the Central Processing Unit. They are like a spider's
web: always tenuous, ready to collapse, yet potentially strong, capturing
insects instantaneously and not letting them go. One tear in one corner can
bring the whole thing down and yet slight patchwork can strengthen the whole.
Even the slightest reverberation in the most remote corner will be felt
throughout: each strand is separate, but each strand affects the whole.
Pacing and progression are the most cumulative, most far-reaching
elements of writing and thus demand the greatest long-term concentration, the
ability to be able to retain 300 or more pages in your head at once, to be
able to play with the idea that these 50 pages don't work, or the first 200
pages are slower than the last, or pages 150-300 progress too quickly. This
alone is a master feat, but it doesn't stop there: whenever you make an
alteration, an adjustment, it again affects the whole and you will again have
to start at page one. It is not unlike fixing a car. But to make things
worse, you only get one or two shots at it because once you start playing
with it, re-reading it again and again, you will quickly lose objectivity and
soon be in no position to do anything. You will then have to put it down-for
at least a few weeks-before you can come back. Clearly, pacing and
progression are some of the hardest things to achieve in a manuscript. What
makes it even more frustrating is that, at the end of the day, they are
subjective: the reader of Conrad will react differently to pacing than the
reader of Grisham.
- Pacing and progression are among the hardest elements to self-edit.
Generally the best solution is to ask readers to read specifically for this.
Ask where the book lags, where it might be too fast, where progression might
be lacking or forced. You'll be surprised by their reactions because outside
readers, especially in this regard, can often see things you can't. Take
their comments-especially if there is a consensus-and re-read problem areas
with this in mind. Concrete steps (cutting, adding, usually plot or
character oriented) will generally present themselves.
- Although it is difficult and may not yield the best results, it is
worthwhile to at least attempt the self-edit for pacing and progression.
This edit is something of a paradox: on the one hand, you will first need to
get some distance from your work, take a few weeks (the more the better) away
to get a fresh eye. On the other, you will need to get as close to your work
as possible. While some criteria demand distance to evaluate, pacing and
progression, after an initial distancing period, demand proximity. It is
virtually impossible to evaluate pacing and progression by reading through
your work piecemeal over the course of several weeks. On the contrary, it is
most preferable if you read through the entire piece in one sitting, closely
evaluating it as you proceed.
Now that we have the means for evaluating and locating problem areas,
let's talk about some ways to fix them. There are no clear cut answers, but
there are some general principles you can follow:
- If you've determined that your pace is too slow, there are four major
reasons why this may be the case:
- The main cause is usually that you've created a world that is more
interesting to you than the reader (thus you feel no need to step up the
pace, whereas the reader does). Stop being solipsistic; assume for a minute
that no one else cares about your world. Try instead to come up with a
scenario that would interest anyone, including yourself;
- Another major cause is there not being enough at stake. If your first
chapter is about four friends chatting in their living room, a reader may not
be interested; but if it is about one friend holding the other three at
gunpoint in the living room, it might be more riveting. We've touched on an
issue that really has more to do with narrative tension than pacing, but the
two are closely linked. So if this is the cause, raise the stakes;
- You may have a good point A and a good point B but are taking too long to
get there. Maybe some of the plot elements are interesting, but not
interesting enough to be drawn out for 200 pages-maybe instead we should get
from A to B in 50 pages. This will help to increase the pace;
4) A major cause of slow pacing is too much telling, too much description
instead of scenes. Where appropriate, if you cut back on telling and replace
it with dramatization, you will greatly increase the pace.
- If you've determined your pace is too fast, ask yourself: what's the rush?
Usually writers rush through their work because they are overeager to tell
their story (often found in plot-driven novels). These writers rush because,
while they may have a story, deep down they know they don't have enough
material to fill in the gaps, to give the story a foundation, to make it come
Another major cause of too-fast pacing is dialogue. Dialogue is the
most delicate and powerful element that can affect pacing (see Chapter 6:
Between the Lines). Do you ever notice how quickly you turn pages when you
get to dialogue? It's not just because of the spacing on the page.
Dialogue, even in small doses, accelerates the pace rapidly, especially after
coming out of long passages. Be conscious of its power and use it sparingly.
(Of course some books are filled with dialogue and read quite well-indeed,
are classics-and the amount of dialogue palatable to one reader may be
abhorrent to another. Thus, like everything else, this is subjective. But
until you have mastered the craft of writing, I would recommend using less
than more.) The vast majority of writers abuse dialogue, never stopping to
consider they are disproportionately accelerating the pace. Books can read
too quickly. One good way of monitoring your dialogue is looking to see how
much you use in relation to the rest of the text. In other words, if you
have one page of description and then twenty pages of dialogue, there may be
Progression is slightly different than pacing. Pacing is the
measurement of how quickly you go from point A to point B. Progression asks:
is there a point B? Did you arrive anywhere? Readers need to feel a sense
of progression; they need to feel like they're getting somewhere,
accomplishing something-like there's a point to all this. It's possible to
have good pacing and poor progression. It's like flying a high speed jet
that circles the globe but lets you off where you started: the pace was
great, but where did you go?
- If a feeling of progression is lacking, it may be due to lack of
progression in the plot, the characterization, or in any number of ways.
Perhaps you haven't started the book with a clearly defined end in mind, and
thus are unsure to what event or culmination you're supposed to progress.
This usually comes hand in hand with lack of focus (see Chapter 17: Focus).
If this is the case, the exercise at the end of this chapter should be of
Or it may be that you do have an end in mind but you're just getting
there too slowly, which is a pacing issue. If this is your problem and you
like taking your time, one way of solving this is to give the reader small
points of progression along the way. This way he can feel satisfied as he
progresses and will keep reading even if you don't give him the whole thing
until the end.
- If your progression is too fast, too easy, then remember: readers like to
work. They don't want everything handed them-they want tension to be drawn
out. If this is your problem, you're probably underestimating them. Give
them more credit; make it harder on them. As Emerson said, "Treat people as
if they're real-because sometimes they are."
Mary was sitting in her apartment. She was looking at all the books on her
wall. She got up and walked around for a little bit and then she decided to
do some dusting. She dusted all the books and then she dusted the TV and
then the pictures and then the window sill. When Mary was done she decided
to sweep the floors. When she finished with that, she sat back down and
watched some TV for a while. When she was done, she turned it off and picked
up the paper. She read the entire paper, from cover to cover. She sat there
reading it for four hours. When she was done, she made dinner. When she
finished with that, she got ready to go to bed, brushing her teeth, washing
her hair. . . .
Here's an example of pacing and progression both too slow. Who cares about
Mary's domestic affairs? How does this differ from what we do every day?
What's at stake here? We have been given no reason at all to care, to think
it might be leading somewhere, and this results in a slow pace, certain to
make any reader put it down.
Russia bombed America. That was how it started.
There were fires everywhere, people screaming, floods, looting, you
Then America fought back, bombing the Russians. Everyone was
cheering in the streets.
Everyone was preparing for the next attack. People were getting
A third war started. Soldiers were called up.
John was called up, too. He couldn't wait to go. . . .
A too-fast pace. Any of these lines could construe an entire chapter-an
entire book!-and yet this writer's rushing through as if he has somewhere to
go in a hurry. Note the quick, short paragraphs, a common symptom of the
"I'm sorry sir, I can't do it. I can't loan you five hundred
"But it's my money!" Dave yelled.
"No, sir, it's the bank's money now," the bank officer reported.
"I'm going to sue you!"
"Well, go ahead, sir."
"Call in the manager!"
"I'm the manager," another man said. "How can I help you?"
"I want my money!" Dave yelled.
"You can't have it!" the manager yelled back.
"This won't be the last you hear from me!"
An example of how dialogue can unnaturally accelerate the pace. You'll
notice there is no break between Dave's asking for a manager and the manager
answering. Dialogue can do that, it can bridge those gaps; but while it may
work temporarily, much will be left lacking.
Here are some exercises that can help consciously familiarize you
with increasing and decreasing pace and instill a sense of progression:
- Take one page (or minor event) from your work and expand it into a
full-fledged story (about 10-15 pages) in its own right. This will force you
to slow the pace, as you struggle to make what previously filled one page now
fill many more. How will you expand it and still keep up the pace, the
intensity? What tricks must you use to increase the pace?
- Take an entire story (or major event) from your work and condense it to
only one page. This will force you to increase the pace, as you struggle to
make what previously filled many pages now fill only one. How might you
condense it without making it read too fast? What tricks must you use to
consciously slow the pace?
- If you suffer from lack of progression, here's an exercise which may be of
help. As my editor so keenly reminded me, writers (be it novelists,
screenwriters, journalists, even poets) are often unwilling to sketch out the
action or events of their work in advance; instead they progress by instinct,
relying on either vague plot ideas or the characters themselves to answer all
their questions. This often works partially but not completely, and can
result in alternate bouts of progression and idleness ("fast" and "slow"
sections), in a general lack of maintained progression and in an ending
lacking culmination. To prevent this, you might consider drafting even the
vaguest of synopses-either in advance or as you progress-in order to at least
lay out a path (feeling free to alter your synopses as you progress). At
least you will be following some course, even if crude and transient, and
this just may result in a manuscript with a fuller sense of progression, and
thus satisfaction for the reader.
Noah Lukeman is President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, a literary
agency based in New York City. Among his writers are numerous Pulitzer Prize
nominees, NEA and Pushcart Prize recipients, national journalists, professors
of esteemed universities, New York Times bestsellers and major celebrities.
He has worked on the editorial side of several major publishing houses and as
editor of a literary magazine. He has spoken on the subjects of writing and
publishing at many places, including the graduate writing program at Stanford
University, The Writer's Voice (63rd Street Y) and the annual ASJA
conference.. This excerpt is from THE FIRST FIVE PAGES: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO
GETTING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE, to be published by Simon &
Schuster/Fireside Books in January 2000. To read more from the book, join
the mailing list, or reserve a copy, visit its dedicated web-site at
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