Saturday, December 4, 2010

Writing/Editing Class - pacing your manuscript, beginning with the very first chapter

Problems with pacing generally fall into one of two categories:

1) the story is too fast
2) the story is not fast enough

When the story is too fast, too much is revealed too soon. Often, this will detract from the steady build-up of tension that stories require.

When the story is too slow, you will probably lose your readers well before they finish the novel.

When checking your manuscript for problems of pace, bear in mind that you need to pay special attention to your opening chapters, and in particular Chapter One because: a) this is the chapter that will determine whether your reader will read on, and b) mistakes made in Chapter One are often indicative of mistakes made throughout the manuscript.

The first chapter needs to hook the reader, and in order to do this, it’s important to raise questions that won’t be answered right away. Common hooks include:

· the arrival of a letter – what portentous information does it contain?
· the discovery of a dead body – who dunnit, how and why?
· a stranger’s arrival in a close-knit town – how will the dynamics of the community change
· anything that is out of the ordinary, that will effect a change in the status quo.

Whatever your hook, make sure your story doesn’t give away too much too soon. You want to keep your reader invested – guessing, wondering…

Yet while delayed gratification is crucial, it’s important to plunge your reader straight into the story. Too many would-be writers make the mistake of delaying the start of the story until after they’ve completed a lengthy set-up, including detailed descriptions of the characters and their backstories. This is not only unnecessary but counter-productive. Characters and the world they inhabit should be revealed as the story unfolds. Readers don’t want a character study; they want a story. And you don’t have a story unless something happens.

So when reading over Chapter One, ask yourself the following questions:
What happens in this chapter? (Something must.)
What is the hook?
Are readers left with unanswered questions? (They certainly should be.)

If you are satisfied that Chapter One is working, keep reading. Check the pace of the entire manuscript. If it feels too fast, it could be that there is:

a) not enough description
b) insufficient character development, or
c) insufficiently developed sub-plot/s.

If this is the case, your readers will probably feel dissatisfied, though they may not know why.

To slow the story down, increase tension, and provide a more satisfying reading experience, you may wish to:

a) add description
b) develop the characters, or
c) develop the subplots.

On the other hand, your story, or parts of it, may feel too slow. In this case, the culprits could be:

a) repetition
b) long-winded description
c) lengthy dialogue
d) too many sub-plots
e) overindulging in internal monologue
f) digressions into tangents that are not essential to the story you’re telling.

For all the above, the solution is the same: cut, cut and cut some more.

The beginning of a novel is a promise to the reader. Make sure you deliver, but slowly, so that your promise is not entirely fulfilled until the final sentence.


  1. I'm loving these editing posts, Robyn! Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. :)