Yes, the title is an overt reference to the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin. But this post isn’t about that movie.
My parents once told me that our family took a long train trip when I was a baby. Funny. I don’t recall that excursion. But since they never mentioned a second train trip, perhaps taking my older brother and me on the train filled them with such horror, they couldn’t bear to take us again.
Recalling some of our antics during long car trips to visit relatives, I can see why they would wish to avoid being on a train with us for days on end. They were forced to live in the same house with us, but were wise about not inflicting us on the public very often.
Now that I’m an adult, I can take myself on a train trip across the country. Alas, I’m too type A for a leisurely train trip. I like to get where I’m going as fast as possible, you see, which is why the airplane is my favorite mode of transportation next to my car. Unfortunately, some airport security lines are about as slow as taking a leisurely train trip these days.
Now that I’ve mentioned all of the means of transportation in the title, I can finally get to point of this post: pacing. I’m cutting paragraphs and scenes out of my work in progress for this reason.
As I pondered the problem of pacing, I asked Nancy, another friend from VCFA, for her definition of a well-paced novel. She had this to say:
A well-paced novel never loses your interest, but is not a constant roller coaster either. But even in the quiet moments, the story and characters are building and growing.
That makes sense to me. How about you? What would you add to that definition?
While you consider that question, I’ll mention a novel that YA author and Nerdfighter John Green described as “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced” in a review written for The New York Times. It is
You can read Green’s review here. If you read the book, perhaps you agree or disagree. I’m on the side of agreement. As I followed the journey of heroine Katniss Everdeen, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, even in the slower moments. The action and the quieter moments worked like a waltz—the rhythm perfectly measured.
Another book I consider well paced is Sabriel, a young adult fantasy novel by Garth Nix, book 1 of his Abhorsen trilogy. You can find out more about this book here.
From the first page of the prologue (and Nix makes a good case for its inclusion) to the last page of the epilogue, the pacing never flags. Yet it’s not so frenetic that you feel exhausted at the end of the book (like I felt at the end of watching Bourne Ultimatum). Nix, like Collins, includes quieter moments as heroine Sabriel catches her breath or basically tries to survive during the harrowing search for her missing father.
My problem with pacing comes with my tendency toward the sagging middle. And I don’t just mean my own sagging middle as a result of quick pacing at the dinner table. (Now there’s an image you probably didn’t want.) As you know, many stories have a three-act structure (the setup; the confrontation; and the resolution). (For a great post on plot and structure, see Ingrid’s Notes here.) The action of the story rises toward the climax. But in the second act of my WiP, I included scenes that do little to advance the plot. In fact, they stopped the forward momentum. It’s like being forced on a long, leisurely train trip when what you really need is a quicker mode of transportation to get to the end of the line.
Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, cautions, “It’s not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax” (150). As I read that, I went, “Huh?” until I realized what he meant: Make stuff happen. Keep raising the stakes.
Another friend sent me a link to a post written by another well-known YA novelist, Libba Bray. It’s hilarious, and I urge a read. But this quote from the post really struck me:
Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story.
I don’t have a magic formula for writing the well-paced story. But what Libba says also makes sense. Pacing takes thought and an instinct for “what feels real and right and true.” Even if a beta reader points out scenes that sag in your WiP (as my beta readers did in mine), you still have to know how to pick up the pace. For me trial and error works. For some of you, maybe you troubleshoot early on through an outline.
Regardless of how we define well paced, I think we can all agree that good pacing, like good taste, is something you sense right away, especially its absence.
What books do you consider well paced?
Train photo and book covers from Wikipedia.