Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pace Robbers

In our rush to write our stories, we focus on getting words on the page. The events in the story unfold. The characters face their challenges and overcome them. We've written a fantastic story, rich with details, humor, sexual tension and sensory details. Yeah!

Then, when we re-read or when beloved crit partners, agents or editors take a look, they flag certain sections and comment "the pace drags here". What to do? Become the pace police and hunt down those sneaky pace robbers. The ones that slow down the pace of your story like rush hour traffic. Let's profile a few of these nasty pace criminals.

Pace Robber #1 – Dilly-dallying Description

Description should have a purpose for the character. If it has a purpose for the character, it will have a purpose for the reader. I’m talking about more than just a line or two of description to set the scene. Pace-robbing description is whole paragraphs of scenery, landscapes, description of the architecture of a building or the d├ęcor of a room, or its occupants.

Even if you are using description as a way of slowing the pace, you can’t expect most readers to enjoy long paragraphs of description (even though some do). Many readers skim or skip description, but this doesn’t mean you should leave it in. Keep it trim, give it a purpose, or break it up and present it a little at a time as the characters interact.

Pace Robber #2 – Exhibitionist Exposition

Exposition is information. Usually it’s information you need your reader to know in order to understand the story. The trouble with exposition is that the characters in the book typically already know this information. It’s a bit silly to have your character, Jane, think: “I think I’ll call my Aunt Sally, the only aunt on my mother’s side who lives too far away for me to visit and who always has the best advice for me when I’m in trouble.” Not only is this “telling” rather than “showing” but it can jar the reader right out of the story when what you really want is for the reader to get lost in the story.

Exposition often equals “author intrusion” which means that the reader can sense the presence of the author, rather than the characters. You can treat exposition the same way you treat description by giving the characters a reason for talking about it or giving it a little at a time so the reader doesn’t notice your author intrusion.

Another exposition pace robber is the blow-by-blow form of exposition:

Joe got up and brushed his teeth, then showered. He dressed in his best blue suit. He left the house around eight and got into his silver Hummer. Driving the forty miles along Highway 17, he reached the city in about thirty minutes. He parked in the VIP spot in the Allied United underground lot and got into the elevator, pressing the button for the 9th floor. He stepped out of the elevator and walked the empty hallway to the corner office.

Um…I’m bored. Not only is this uninteresting, most of it is unnecessary. We don’t need to know how he gets ready for his day or how he gets to work unless these things are critical to the plot. Oh, that was just characterization, you say? Right, so um you wanted a cardboard character?

Pace Robber #3 – Dopey Dialogue

A partner to blow-by-blow exposition is bland dialogue. "Whudda you wanna do? Dunno, whudda you wanna do?"

What you wanna do is get to the meat of the conversation. Unless there is some special tension about these words for the characters, just cut to the point of the conversation and leave the rest out. The same goes for people greeting each other, thanking each other, ending a conversation, introducing themselves, and all those other polite social things we do every day. If it’s not crucial to the story, just leave it out.

Pace Robber #4 – Rogue Scenes

Rogue Scenes are scenes in which readers learn nothing new. Suppose your character Sally has just had an encounter at the bank with a handsome stranger who mysteriously gave her roses and kissed her hand. She gets home and repeats the experience to her mother, then phones a friend and tells her all about it. It’s a very realistic scenario, because that’s exactly what someone would probably do.

But this is not reality, this is fiction.

Each scene should have a purpose and the reader should learn something new in each scene. Sure, Sally is going to talk about it to other people, but let most of that happen “off screen”. For example, assuming she’s had her “off screen” conversation with her friend, she could have an “on screen” scene with her friend and say, “I’m going to meet that guy, you know, the one I told you about. The guy who gave me roses at the bank.”

It's fine to do a little recap now and then by giving readers reminders in the form of quick, small details, but don't let a great scene turn into a rogue later on.

Pace Robber #5 – Intrepid Introspection

Introspection happens when a character shares his thinking process. Character introspection is important for the reader to fully understand what your characters are thinking. Beware of overusing introspection to get your point across or simply using it to run through a list of possibilities as your characters think things over. Too many questions quickly throw the scene out of focus and rob you of the pace you set. It’s tempting to put in the questions that your character has and present a number of avenues for them to pursue because this can add to the tension, but don’t give the reader too many things to focus on at once.

There's no point in ranting a character's internal questions at your readers. They don’t know the answers, only you do. Your job is to pose a question and then reveal answers in a way that makes them want to know more.

That's my top 5 Most Wanted list of Pace Robbers. Am I saying you should never slow down the pace? No, you should slow down the pace from time to time and make sure the reader has a chance to breathe. But make the pace work for you by keeping these rotten pace robbers in the clink!

Interested in learning more about pacing? Join me for a year-long novel writing course at Savvy Authors where you can immerse yourself in craft and emerge with a completed, polished novel. Where do you want to be with your writing a year from now? Or stop by my blog for more great craft articles.

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  1. You can learn more about the Novel Course at

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  2. Now this was a great article on pacing.
    Thanks for this.
    BTW, the piece isn't that long, and the pacing in it kept me flying along!
    Cheers, Kelly

  3. Excellent post Kat! Those very things that I tend to skim in books, I find are thrown in my books during a first draft. Then I have to go through and delete it all. Seemed darn important at the time though, lol.

  4. Hi Whitley. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and that the pacing of it kept you going! That makes me smile!

    Hi Ann. Thanks for stopping by. I also have trouble with these tough guys after a first draft. I hate having to delete, but sometimes it's necessary.

  5. Great post, Kat. Now I have to go back and review my story. Thanks:)