Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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.

Amtrak_train

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

200px-Hunger_games

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.

200px-Sabriel_Book_Cover

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.

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27 thoughts on “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  1. As a scriptwriter for film and tv, and now a novelist, I found that the discipline I developed writing comic books and film scripts really helped with the pacing of my novel. Cut back to the bare bones and what you have left is your story. You can clearly see what it is and ‘grind’ the pace accordingly.
    Okay, my novel is super fast in its pacing, helped along by the clipped style of prose that I chose to reflect the young protagonist’s state of angst. It’s kinda written at the speed of a punk song and could have probably started ‘one, two, three, four…’ Although I used an ‘ebb and flow’ method to let the reader catch breath now and again. The sea features heavily as a metaphor in the book. The story ‘pushes’ forward, then recedes, then pushes further forwards, building into the climax and high tide.
    I don’t think this ‘tidal method’ is a known writing device, but I feel it worked for this novel. In a fast moving narrative, written in the first person, it gave me ‘lulls’ to sink the reveal more of the characters subconscious life, the depths and currents battling away beneath the choppy waves and stormy clouds.
    Yes, I live by the sea. Sometimes, in it.

    • Wow! A scriptwriter. And you write comic books? So cool. How did you get started doing both? I’ve thought about writing a graphic novel. At one point I dreamed about writing for DC. But I don’t have a solid story yet. And I made one attempt at a screenplay that is currently moldering in my bureau drawer.

      I’ve heard picture book writers say that learning to write a good picture book is great practice for pacing. Pacing is clearly a weakness of mine!

      • I was a comic book writer first, working mostly for Marvel (on my own book The Sleeze Brothers) and I adapted The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy into comic books for DC. Lots of my friends still write for Marvel and DC – but I went off to write for the theatre and then film and now TV… and finally my first Novel Thugs Like us. It’s been… interesting. I think out of all the disciplines writing a novel is the hardest. I can write a screenplay in three to four weeks! My novel, even though it’s only just pushing novella aside at 162 pages, took a year and a half to write! Excellent discipline for a motorhead like me.
        If you ever get that screenplay finished, I’d gladly take a look. 🙂

      • Wow!!! That’s awesome! Such a varied experience you’ve had. And thanks for the offer to look at a screenplay. I used to watch Hitchhiker’s Guide on Sunday nights ages ago on PBS. I’d like to see your adaptation of it. Will look that up. I already Googled Sleeze Brothers. 🙂

        Let me ask you this since you’re in the industry, any chance of a Wonder Woman film? I’ve seen the animated movie.

  2. I love a fast paced novel, but it’s a difficult task to accomplish as a writer. You don’t want your readers to become out of breath, but you don’t want them skipping the slow parts. As an adult, I took the auto train from Virginia to Florida and it was the longest night of my life. I stick to airplanes. 🙂

  3. I respectfully disagree that L. Marie has a pacing problem. She is excellent at setting up obstacles and ending each chapter in a way that urges the reader to turn the page. The ticking time bomb, like the one in L. Marie’s manuscript, is a wonderful way to build in tension and force the pacing. There was a great post on THROUGH THE TOLLBOOTH on pacing: http://www.throughthetollbooth.com/2013/02/25/pick-up-the-pace/. I particularly liked the advice from Janet Burroway regarding story action. It’s about halfway through the post. Pacing is not only about moving a story forward, it’s about moving the story forward in a way that thwarts the main character’s external desire while simultaneously revealing her character and her story world. This is a great topic to mull as I complete final edits on my manuscript and thanks, L. Marie, for mentioning SABRIEL, which I’ve been intending to read, but hadn’t yet. I understand it also demonstrates an excellent example of the price of magic.

    • Oh, good!!! I’m glad you found a definitive post on pacing. I was fumbling around, but this post really helps. Thanks for that. I loved Sabriel. It’s dark, but extremely compelling. And yes the cost of magic is well explained. This book is the reason why I wanted to include a prologue and an epilogue in my book. But I bowed to pressure and changed the prologue to chapter 1. Actually, it could have gone either way.

      And thanks for your kind words. 🙂

  4. I love The Hunger Games. I don’t remember how long it took me to read all three books, but it was extremely quick by my standards. Maybe for some it could be too fast-paced, but that’s better than too slow, in my opinion. I’ve read many books—some of them are modern classics—where I found myself waiting impatiently for the story to move or for the characters to develop in such a way that I could care about them.

    If only one could combine the literary merits of, say, James Joyce with the pacing of more ‘pop’ literature such as Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or Robert Ludlum, or John Grisham, or Dan Brown. Oh, wait— that’s why I love Haruki Murakami. 🙂

      • Actually, I’m reading 1Q84 right now. I know I’m biased, because I love Murakami as well as Orwell’s 1984, but a lot of my friends who have finished reading it told me it’s his magnum opus, so far.

        Is it a good place to start? I don’t know, to be honest. If you’re into surrealism, absurdism, and most importantly, magical realism, you can start anywhere, IMO. Some of his novels are better than others, sure, but they’re all worth reading. Usually, however, I would recommend starting with Norwegian Wood. After that, Kafka on the Shore. After that, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

        You could always start with his short story, published in the New Yorker, Town of Cats, before deciding to commit. 😉

        I’ve written an article about this for a free Australian magazine. Perhaps I’ll post it later.

      • Thanks for the info! I’ll start with “Town of Cats,” then move on to Norwegian Wood. Is that a stand-alone? I do like magical realism (ala Like Water for Chocolate).

      • Town of Cats is actually an excerpt from 1Q84, a short story the protagonist is reading while in the train. But it stands on itself as a complete piece. I have to check out Like Water for Chocolate. Recommended?

  5. Good to remember–keep the pace going but it doesn’t have to be a rollercoaster. I like what Nancy said about the characters building and growing even in the quiet moments.

    • Me too, Naomi. That’s how Sabriel is. Though the character is on the run for her life like Bourne, there are many quiet moments, but not so many that you get bored.

    • I loved the series too. And I just finished the last book last year! Small world! I can tell you why it took me so long to finish. *SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THE SERIES* Whenever an author skips ahead many years in a character’s life, I feel disappointed, especially if I loved the characters in the time frame of the first book. That’s how I felt about Lirael at first. I wanted Nix to follow up when Sabriel was still a young woman. But I did like Lirael. *END SPOILERS*

      • Oh, I hear you. That mirrors my feelings pretty much to a tee, but like you, I came to appreciate the new characters and I do like that Nix brought them all back around in the end.

  6. I’ve had The Hunger Games loaded and ready on my Kindle for a while now, but still haven’t started it yet. Working through the backlog…

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