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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 one?

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.

Solutions

  • 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:
  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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 alive.

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 a problem.

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 help.

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."

Examples

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 name it. Then America fought back, bombing the Russians. Everyone was cheering in the streets. Everyone was preparing for the next attack. People were getting ready. 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 too-fast pace. "I'm sorry sir, I can't do it. I can't loan you five hundred thousand dollars." "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.

End-of-Chapter Exercises

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 www.lukeman.com/thefirstfivepages.



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