Revising for Pacing
Sat Jul 09 2016
It's all about that pace, about that pace (no sagging)
Here is a sentence that can suck all the joy straight out of a novelist's life: "The writing is nice, but it kind of sags in the middle."
I'm engaged in pacing revisions on my current work-in-progress. This is typically an onerous task, mostly because pacing is such a difficult aspect of a story to pin down.
This article is all about the technique I use to pin down the pacing, helping me diagnose exactly what I need to do to keep the story lively from beginning to end.
I really like this method. And while I'm going to use my manuscript as an example and the specifics will be different for your novel, the general techniques should work quite well for most novels.
You can't fix what you can't see
You can't fix your novel's pacing problems until you can see them, any more than a doctor can figure out whether you need pills or a pacemaker before they look at your EKG.
Only how to do you see pacing? How do you look at fifty to a hundred thousand words all at once to see the ebb and flow of your story? How do you take your novel's EKG, as it were?
Make a spreadsheet
My novel takes place over 20 days/chapters, and has a dozen or so story elements—plots, subplots, and themes—I need to keeping track of. So, I decided to make a huge spreadsheet with columns for each day and rows for each element. I read through the whole manuscript again, and at each scene in the story made notes in the appropriate cells. The result looks like this:
That's just part of it. The whole thing scrolls down a ways, making me wish I had a bigger monitor.
Make a pattern grid
Now I have my essential data, but it's still too big to see. For one, it doesn't fit on my monitor. For another, all those words get in the way of seeing the patterns. So I reduced it even further: I replaced every cell with something in it with a '1' and left the others blank, except for the header rows at the top.
Then I used the "conditional formatting" feature in Excel (though I imagine Google Sheets and other programs have something similar) to turn all the '1' cells green:
Nice! Now all the details are stripped away, leaving me with just the patterns of the story.
Find your gaps
Now that the patterns are visible, I can see there are problems.
I was very pleased that row 4, the "Elam/Ky" thread, was well-paced throughout. This is a key thread in the plot, and now I can see it shows up frequently without being overwhelming. That tells me I did a good job while planning the novel to begin with, and executed on it well. Pat on the back!
But look at row 5, "Emma/Lewis". Emma's relationship to Lewis and her interactions with him are the second most important thread in the story. As such, I need to get that thread off to a good start. Yet there's a big old stretch of four story days in chapters 6 through 9, where Lewis doesn't appear at all. That's long enough to kind of forget about him. Oops.
The next line has an enormous gap too, from chapters 5 through 12. It's a significantly less important thread, but it's one that matters later in the story. I need something in that gap so that when the thread kicks into high gear, it doesn't feel like it's coming out of nowhere.
Similar logic applies all the way down. Look through your threads, see where they have gaps, and ask yourself if that's ok.
Make a pace graph
It's nice being able to see the holes and so forth, but it's not quite enough. Of those four story days where Lewis doesn't appear, which day(s) should I add him to? Ideally, I'd add material to chapters that are already a little thin. But which ones are those?
They're the ones with not very many '1' cells in their columns. But I quickly got tired of counting up the ones, so I added a new row at the bottom with a sum() formula that adds up each column for me. And with those numbers, I could make a bar graph that shows me my pacing quite directly:
Adjust the size of the graph so all the bars are underneath their respective chapters, and bam, the whole story jumps into stark relief. In one glance, I can see both where everything in the story happens, and how all those things add up to create a sense of pace.
Find your sagging middles
Here, the news is pretty positive. The story has a solid overall shape: it starts out pretty lively, settles into a more or less evenly-paced body, then takes a noticeable up-tick as the story reaches its climax.
But the graph shows problems, too. Chapter 3 is clearly a little thin, as are chapters 7 and 9.
I don't mind a little slow-down in chapters 12 and 13 because it can be nice to have a "calm before the storm" period right before a story hits the run-up to the climax.
Chapter 14 looks overloaded, though, and might be stealing some of the thunder of the climax sequence. And I can't in all honesty call chapter 15 anything but a hole in the climax sequence.
Chapter 19 looks weak on the graph, but I know that's an artifact of what's happening in the story at that point. Plenty of stuff happens, but it all relates to a crisis that has been simmering under the surface in one of the lower-down threads and thus doesn't hit a lot of cells in the table.
The pace graph plus your knowledge of what's happening in the story allows you to assess where the pacing actually needs work.
Grid + graph = solutions
The grid and the graph work together to show me specifically what I need to do.
If I'm going to fill in that four-day hole in the Emma/Lewis thread, chapter 7 is the obvious place to do it; in that span, it's the thinnest chapter.
In the Emma/Missus thread, I don't need much. Just something near the middle. Chapters 7 and 9 are already thin, but I like 9 better for this one because a) I already decided to put Lewis in chapter 7, and b) chapter 9 is closer to where the other Emma/Missus stuff revs up; if I add something to that thread too early, I still leave too big of a gap before chapter 13. So, chapter 9 it is.
This kind of logic, plus frequently flipping back to the story grid with all the notes in it, I can figure out exactly what I need to do.
I put '0' into the pattern grid to mark cells where I need to write new material (the conditional formatting turns those red so I don't get confused about what already exists and what I need to write) and added arrows to mark places where I decided to move existing material around or places where I have some flexibility in where I add new material:
Make a to-do spreadsheet
The grid and the graph have now served their purpose, and what I need to move forward is a new spreadsheet with notes in each cell telling me what specific material needs to go there. So I made a copy of the original spreadsheet and edited it to match all the additions and movements from the previous graphic:
And that's it. Now I have a specific to-do list to guide me as I make the real revisions. I know that when I'm done, my storylines will be more solid, my thin spots will be filled, and the story won't have any problems holding readers' interest between its fast start and exciting climax.
Poor pacing has killed many a novel, and revising a novel's pacing can be a horrendous nightmare. But it doesn't need to be, if you use tools like these to make your story's pattern and pacing visible. The difficulty with pacing is not the work itself, but in seeing what the work is.
Your story probably doesn't have the same structure as mine, but however many plots, subplots, and themes you have going, and however you've structured your chapters relative to the flow of time, you can probably use a spreadsheet to make this challenging task easy.
Got a favorite revision trick of your own? Share it in the comments!