4 Tips for Identifying Pacing Problems

Is your pacing too slow or too fast? Pacing is a major part of the reading experience, and if you have the pacing wrong, your readers aren’t going to enjoy the full story and some may even stop reading. While pacing problems boil down to basic errors (too slow or fast), identifying them and fixing them can be more problematic.

4 Tips for Identifying Pacing Problems:

There are two main pacing problems: the pacing is too fast and the pacing is too slow. While alpha and beta readers can help identify some of these issues, you need to be able to identify them on your own, too. Here are a few tricks to help you start evaluating your own pacing.

#1 Map out your character and plot arcs

Mapping out your character and plot arcs helps you see what’s important and non-important in character and plot progression. Map out the main plots, the side plots, the main characters, the side characters, everything. Make sure it matches what you’ve written, not what’s in your head.

Editing Tip: Use plot diagrams to map out main plots, side plots, main character arcs, side character arcs, etc. based on your current draft. This will help you see the rising and falling action, what's important and non-important in character and plot progression, identify excess or missing information, and help identify pacing issues.

This may require a full read-through of your most recent draft. You can do this by hand or use a software program for mind mapping. It may also result in several different arc maps, especially if you have multiple complex plots and multiple characters. However, you should still map out the small, side plots or side characters. Their actions and scenes matter, too, especially when dealing with pacing.

plot arc/diagram made in Scapple
plot arc/diagram

Once it’s all mapped out, study the maps and arcs. Ask these questions:

  • Is something missing from a character or plot arc that is needed?
  • Are there too many scenes or steps to a final conflict?
  • Are there not enough scenes or steps to a final conflict?
  • Do some of the scenes or character arcs conflict with other character/plot arcs?
  • Are there scenes that don’t contribute to a character or plot arc?
Editing Tip: Study your manuscript's bare-bones to help identify what isn't needed and what's missing.

Studying your manuscript’s bare-bones helps you identify what isn’t needed and what’s missing. Often these issues affect pacing, and cleaning them up can fix some major pacing problems (outside of writing and narration techniques).

What if I already mapped out my plot and character arcs as part of my outline?

If you’ve already done this as part of your outline before you started writing, do it again and base the arcs on what you wrote in your most recent draft (this is similar to the re-outlining method but for arcs and diagrams). You want to map out what you’ve written, not what you meant to write. Compare the two and ask the following questions:

  • Do the mapped arcs differentiate? Where?
  • Is one cleaner than the other?
  • Does one feel like the plot progresses more smoothly than the other? (Smooth as in the pacing is right, not that everything goes well for the characters.)
  • Does one feel more complete? Or does one more have loose ends that need addressing?

Pick the mapped arcs that you feel has better pacing, plot progression, and character progression. Was it the original one or the one based on your most recent draft? If it’s the original outline, then you need to see where the plot points and character progression/trials deviated and revise as needed. If the mapped arcs based on your most recent draft have better pacing, plot progression, and character progression, then ask the questions in the previous section and see if you can find more scenes that could cause pacing problems.

#2 Read your work with a different medium

Using a separate medium puts your mind in a different focus. Did you write on a laptop or computer? Print it and read it from a 3 ring binder. Or use a free file converter and convert your file to read on your ereader (I personally like Calibre for converting .docx to .mobi files). Reading your book on an ereader is also handy because you can have the book read to you (see next section).

Editing Tip: Read your manuscript in a different medium.

As you read on a different medium, do you find yourself skipping some sections? Or skimming bigger paragraphs or long scenes? Make a note that the pacing may be too slow in these places.

Do you find that some sections look significantly shorter? Or that you feel they need more detail? Or do you find yourself needing to reread something? The pacing may be too fast in these places. Take note and re-evaluate them when you finish your read-through.

#3 Listen to your book

Copy and paste your scene into google translate and listen to it. Or listen to it on a different software program, such as your ereader or an app–it doesn’t matter. But you want to listen to your words be read aloud to you. Use an AI reader as it will be more methodical (and boring) than a human voice.

Editing Tip: Listen to your book.

Audibly listening to your book or scene can help identify a variety of problems, such as grammar mistakes or missing/double words, but it can also help you identify issues with pacing, especially places where pacing is too slow.

Does a scene (or even sentence) seem too long? Boring? Did you find yourself daydreaming instead of listening to your story? Then your pacing is probably too slow in these sections.

Do you think, “Wait, what?” or “Who is the narrator referring to here?” Do you notice that all the sentences are very short or there is a lot of dialogue that seems flat or isn’t pushing the plot? These can be indicators that the pacing is too fast (although pacing in dialogue could also be too slow). The reader doesn’t know what is going on or who the narrator is referring to when there are multiple characters.

If every sentence is short, you may be missing some key factors such as sensory details or character motivations and the pacing will seem choppy. And while dialogue can be great, too much dialogue that confuses your readers has negative effects on your pacing. Dialogue should interest readers and make them want to keep reading; it should not make them question who is talking and why they’re still talking about a subject that should have died long ago.

#4 Print your book and grab a highlighter

Or a chapter. A scene. Any section you feel may not have the pacing down or isn’t working for you for some reason (maybe the pacing is off?).

This seems old fashioned, but the advice really works. If you don’t want to use paper and a highlighter, use the highlighter in your word processor. Printing out your scene will, however, benefit your read-through because you are working in a different medium.

Editing Tip: Print your book and mark with a highlighter. Use different colors for description, exposition, and dialog. Or change it up to match your editing/revision focus.

Using a highlighter helps you visualize what you see on the page. Pick different colors for description, exposition, and dialogue. (And/Or) Use more colors for short, medium, and long sentences. Work a scene at a time. If you notice large clumps of a particular color, it may have pacing issues. Read it through again and see why it’s mostly one color. Is there a strategic reason for it, and is that reason working? Or does it need revision and pacing adjustments? Visualizing with a highlighter can help identify spots where a particular narration style is heavily used, but it won’t identify pacing problems concerning character or plot arcs.

If you don’t want to focus on description, exposition, dialogue, and sentence length at the same time, consider breaking up this process into two highlighting sessions. In the first, focus on description, exposition, and dialogue. In the second session, focus on sentence length. Mark short, medium, and long sentences. Compare how the colors match up from the two different highlight sessions, which should help you identify patterns for future editing and revisions.

Essentially, the highlighting will help you visually identify where you are extra heavy in one form of writing or sentence length. These writing forms and sentence lengths dictate pacing, and you should determine how you write something based on how you want the reader to read it.

The benefits of identifying pacing problems

Identifying pacing problems will help you determine what kind of editing your novel, scene, or section needs. When you identify issues with pacing, you can then evaluate and revise those sections, strengthening your writing and helping your readers fall into your world. A good book has strong pacing, and identifying pacing problems in your drafts is the first step in achieving strong pacing.

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