Effective Pacing in Novels

 

I’ve read manuscripts where the story doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. There may be a climactic scene, but if the story doesn’t anticipate a climax, doesn’t prime the reader for multiple possibilities regarding that climax, the story loses much of its punch. It loses its power to hang on to the reader. A big climax means little if there was no anticipation leading up to it, no ties linking story events and character actions to it.

 

A series of episodes, linked only by the presence of the same character, does not create the sense of anticipation that a story building toward some unknown but hinted-at ending does. In novels, for the most part, you want the reader eager for what comes next as well as eager for the big moment that solves the main character’s problems. And to have readers eager for not only the next problem stirred up by the antagonist or story situation but curious about what will ultimately happen, you have to build in the anticipation.

 

 

Where Is The Story Going?

 

To give readers a sense of expectation that keeps them turning pages in order to find out not only what’s going to happen next but what’s going to happen at the end, you’ve got to show that the story (and the characters) are moving from one place to another. You have to imply that the characters are going to end up in place other than where they began.

 

This can be a physical place, a mental place, or even an emotional place. But you want to give readers a sense of something happening, of forward movement. Chapters that read like unconnected episodes, with no sense that they will lead to anything or any place new, don’t create anticipation. Episodic events can be entertaining in themselves, but in novels we expect effect to follow cause, reaction to follow action.

 

So when something happens, we expect characters to have moved toward something new or different. That something can be a positive thing but until the end of most novels, that thing that characters move closer to is often a negative. A character performs an act, hoping to get himself or someone close to him out of trouble, and yet inevitably gets himself into more trouble. When the character acts, something negative befalls him or his family or his friends.

 

This pattern of cause and effect, these linked moments of action and reaction, propel the story forward toward a confrontation or showdown. And this anticipated showdown keeps the reader turning pages, wondering how the story could possibly work out in a way that benefits the main character while at the same time it deals justice to those who get in his way.

 

Some stories are different, of course, with the main character fighting himself rather than another character, but still there is a sense of anticipation, a sense that the story has a destination, a climax, a peak moment that all events are leading toward. As a writer, you have to be the one to fold in that sense of anticipation.