Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Pace
A Guest Post by Author Mia Tsai
Pace and Structure
Pace is, I think, one of the toughest things to wrap your mind around as an author. The mechanics of writing can be learned; structure can be applied to give a story shape and direction. Tension and conflict can be created through character interaction. But pace can remain elusive no matter how many books you’ve written.
This is completely understandable as pace is something that is experiential, meaning that the pace we think is good, bad, or just right is a product of all the stories we’ve experienced already. Pace is cultural, of its time, and subject to market forces, which are not always within our control as authors.
Music of Pacing
I often frame writing with my experience in Western classical music. Here, what we consider pace can be spoken of in terms of intensity and momentum, which are also subject to outside forces: the culture in which the music was produced, the time period in which it was composed, and the market forces—otherwise known as ”who commissioned this piece”—dictating what the music should do.
None of these aspects of pace are inherent to an author or a musician. They all have to be learned through experience. In music, at least, this is made easier through coaches or teachers who will tell you to play more forte here, expand the sound there, to change the balance and texture of a passage so an inner voice can be heard. Eventually, you can feel in your gut when the momentum of a passage isn’t right and correct it.
This is much harder to do with writing. Beat sheets and act breakdowns can only do so much if the groove and momentum of your piece isn’t there yet. I often hear that authors know the pace is off, but they’re not sure what’s off about it. Their story is following the pace structure. The action is rising, the conflict is increasing, but something about the pace is simply not there.
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Tips on Pacing
I’m here to tell you a couple of things. First, your pace is unique to you and the experiences you’ve had in your life. This is not always compatible with your audience.
Second, if you think of pace as creating a set list for a show with an audience of yourself, you may find your pace improves.
Shows, like books, are specifically paced. It matters quite a lot what the occasion is, who’ll be there, where it’ll be held. Will there be dancing? If so, people need to be warmed up. Sometimes the occasion calls for a sustained level of energy with a big payoff at the end, which means the popular songs need to be interspersed with deeper cuts. In other words, the number of intersecting conflicts have to remain similar from chapter to chapter until all points of conflict converge.
The audience will also need breaks to rest. Where and when you’d like to rest is individual to you (or, at least, until you have an editor, whose view of your work is not necessarily the same as yours) and your experiences—and where you want to rest may change. This is okay.
When in revisions, if you’re confronted with a pace issue, look at the series of events that happen and how closely together they occur. Is that series—your set list—matched with the mood of the show? Are you asking people to get up and move before they’ve had a chance to warm up? Are you bringing the energy level down before they’re ready to take a break? Do the pacing comments you receive mirror what you’re unhappy with, or is the reader bringing a different set of expectations to your work, thus making them a mismatch for you?
Are you happy at a gut level with how things are proceeding in your story?
If not, give yourself permission to do the thing you want to do. Even if it breaks the rules, which are all arbitrary, anyway; the rules are more like guidelines, and those guidelines were created through cultural practice—even if it breaks the rules, let your lizard brain have what it wants. Maybe what you needed in that slow chapter was to wake up the audience with a hit song. Or maybe things are too intense and you need a breather, even if the guidelines say it’s not time yet.
It’s Up to You
Ultimately, what you do with pace is based on what you’ve absorbed in your life, and the pace scheme may not match up with what’s popular in the current culture. It’s okay to go against what’s commonly accepted. This may not lead to publishing success, but publishing is a business, and what you write is art. Let what you love guide you. If word counts and percentages confuse or annoy you, leave them behind. Maybe doing so will help turn pace into a more organic part of your writing, as well as a more enjoyable one. And that’s what is most important about your writing: that you’re happy with your vision for the story.
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About Mia Tsai
Mia Tsai is a Taiwanese American author of speculative fiction. She lives in Atlanta
with her family and, when not writing, is a hype woman for her orchids and a devoted cat gopher. Her favorite things include music of all kinds (really, truly) and taking long trips with nothing but the open road and a saucy rhythm section. She has been quoted in Glamour once. In her other lives, she is a professional editor, photographer, and musician.
Check Out Mia’s Novel BITTER MEDICINE
In this xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy, a Chinese immortal and a French elf navigate romance, familial loyalty, and workplace demands. In her debut novel, Taiwanese American author Mia Tsai has created an unforgettable paranormal adventure that is full of humor, passion, and depth.
Find and Follow Mia
Twitter at @itsamia
Instagram at @mia.tsai.books
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