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On Pacing: Faster than the Speed of Thought

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5038652874_0fdea9d138_c.jpeg?resize=525%The most misunderstood component of fiction craft is also one most commonly discussed: pace.  You hear it all the time, especially in critique.  “Pace” as a word seems inevitably coupled with words like “slow” and “drags”.  It speaks to speed—speed which always, pretty much without exception, could be faster.

But speed of what?  Plot pace is generally what people mean.  Keep things moving.  Get to the next event.  Don’t meander around, cut to the chase.  Get to the meat and quickly move on.  It’s as if story is a double-speed march, or ought to be.

As we know, however, story is not always about moving events along rapidly.  A novel is more than that.  It includes tone, atmosphere, mood, meaning, motives, world, relationships, reveals, deep dives into character and that’s just for starters.  Furthermore, some novels are deliberately “slow”.  The pace of events is a crawl and yet we readers remain absorbed.  Nuance is explored, moments are put under a microscope, people and places are “closely-observed”, hardly anything seems to happen but every mote of dust feels important.

So how are we to think of pace in a novel like that?  For that matter, even mile-a-minute thrillers need to convey a certain amount of information.  Circumstances need to be set up.  Characters’ thoughts need to be reported.  The past must be presented to prepare the present.  People have to talk.  There are slow-speed traps all over the place and yet when skillfully handled, popular authors never seem to be pulled over by the reader police.  Never.  How are they doing that?

What makes some patterns of words on the page always work, when other times—particularly when you are following the rules, it seems—you get slammed with the damning word pace!  Years ago, I introduced the term micro-tension to describe the line-by-line effect of creating uneasiness in the reader, which can only be relieved by reading the next thing on the page.  The term seems to have caught on and I continue to find that micro-tension is the secret behind any novel that we read without ceasing: what we call page-turners.

However, there’s another way to look at it.

The Squirrel in the Road

The other day I was driving my family to the beach.  Where we live, that involves a road that inclines sharply downhill.  Naturally, drivers tend to speed up.  It’s also a moderately wooded area and on that particular day, as I was rolling ever faster down the incline, right in front of us a black squirrel darted into the road.

Immediately, my hands jerked the steering wheel to the right.  My right foot flashed to the brake.  The squirrel darted to the other side of the road to whatever nutty reward awaited there.  I straightened the car and proceeded.  Having been trained not to panic, I wasn’t shaken.  My heart wasn’t racing.  My maneuver was simply an instinctive reaction, an instantaneous electrical impulse shot from eye to brain to muscles.

In the back seat, my son said, “Wow, you have quick reflexes, Dad.”  I didn’t say anything because I don’t, not especially, but for a rare second, I was a hero in my kid’s eyes and I’ll take that.

It set me thinking, though, about the speed of thought—and readers.  Readers think fast.  Readers anticipate what’s coming.  Readers guess ahead of the story.  That’s true on a macro-level but it’s also true moment by moment on the page.

Have you ever listened to a poorly-composed song?  One with obvious sentiments and predictable rhymes?  The singer sings a line and you know—you know—what the rhyming word is going to be at the end of the next line?  Have you ever watched TV and aloud said, “Just watch!  He/she is going to…”  And you’re right?  That’s you guessing ahead of the scene and, needless to say, you are quick.  Quicker than the writer of that script.

The same is true of your readers.  All of them.  They know where you’re going.  They know what you’re going to write next.  You think you’re surprising them all the time but often times you’re not.  When you don’t, they grow bored and eventually skim.  If they’re critique partners, they invoke the dreaded term pace.

Recently here on WU, my colleague and pal David Corbett posted about self-editing.  He explained how he cut 22,000 darlings from a recent manuscript, bravely including before-and-after examples of sheep-shorn passages.  The after examples are indeed better.  Swifter.  Pacier.  (Hey publishing community, there’s a new buzzword!)  However, I believe there’s another reason that David’s cuts work so well: Like a stone dancing over the surface of a lake, his edited prose on the page skips ahead faster than the reader’s mind does.

To understand that effect, consider a hypothetical character’s routine thought process:

Should I take flowers to grandma at the hospital?

Grandma is picky about flowers.

She thinks that carnations are frivolous but roses are serious.

But not just any roses.

Miniature roses, and then only pink ones.

Come to think of it, I hate picking out flowers for grandma.

Grandma is a thorn in my side.

No roses for grandma.

Maybe a holly bush instead?

Now, skip a stone and condense the thought process:

Should I take flowers to grandma at the hospital?  Forget it.  I’d rather dump a holly bush on her bed.

See?  Same process but by leaping ahead in the sequence of thinking, a reader can’t as easily think ahead of the writer.  The same effect can be worked in conveying information, relating backstory, portraying action, spinning out exposition, or in dialogue.  Jump ahead.  Yank readers along on a leap rather than letting them leap before you are finished looking.

Skipping Stones in Action

The-Burning-Girl-Cover1.png?resize=173%2Claire Messud’s literary novel The Burning Girl (2017) is the story of two childhood friends, Julia and Cassie, whose lives diverge as they grow.  Eventually, Cassie disappears, and why and where she went occasions Julia’s exploration of herself and her responsibility as a friend.  To set it up, Messud must deliver a certain amount of backstory, such as a summary of the two girls’ first summer together when they are twelve.  Here’s one paragraph of that backstory.  See if you can guess where it’s going:

If I could go back, I’d write it all down: the secrets we told each other and the plan we made.  The songs we listened to, even, when we turned up her iPod so it sounded like a scratchy transistor radio: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, and that hit Rihanna made with Eminem, so catchy but creepy when you actually listened to the words.  “Stand there and watch me burn…”  My mother changed the station when it came on in the car, shaking her head and saying, “Girls, I’m sorry, but as a feminist, I object.”

Ask me, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the budding friendship between these two twelve-year-old girls.  Secrets and plans?  No surprises there.  Summer music hits?  Sure.  Then again, not every parent is easy with those songs.  Julia’s mother objects.  What starts out as innocent summer fun becomes foreshadowing in a way that runs counter to our expectations.  Even in this routine piece of story business, Massud makes sure that we’re a bit off balance.

Warlight-cover.png?resize=173%2C266&ssl=Michael Ondattje’s Warlight (2018) is a post-war story of two teens, Nathaniel and Rachel, whose parents are unexpectedly called abroad by their work and leave them in the care of a possibly criminal lodger in their house whom the teens refer to as The Moth.  There are strange things about the whole setup and over time mysteries deepen about their parents’ whereabouts and connection to The Moth.  Midway through the novel, the situation is getting to Nathaniel, who has a working-class girlfriend, Agnes.  Ondattje needs to portray that relationship, and does so in part in the following dialogue.  See if you can anticipate where it’s going:

“What are you parents like, Nathaniel?”

“They’re all right.  He works in the city.”

“Perhaps you can ask me over to your house?”



“I don’t know.  I don’t think you will like them.”

“So they’re all right, but I won’t like them.”

I laughed.  “They’re just not interesting,” I said.

“Like me?”

“No.  You’re interesting.”

“In what way?”

“I’m not sure.”

She was silent.

I said, “I feel anything can happen with you.”

“I’m a working girl.  I got an accent.  You probably don’t want me meeting your parents.”

“You don’t understand, it’s a strange household now.  Really strange.”


“There are always these people there.  Strange people.”

“So, I’ll fit in.”  More silence, waiting for me to answer her.  “Will you come over to my flat?  Meet my parents?”



“Yes. I’d like that.”

“That’s surprising.  You don’t want me in your house, but you’ll come to mine.”

I said nothing.  Then, “I love your voice.”

“Fuck you.”  Her head moved away in the darkness.

Again, a routine piece of story business.  Show Nathaniel with his girlfriend.  Plus, a routine piece of conflict.  Agnes is trying to get closer but Nathaniel doesn’t want Agnes to find out how strange is his living situation.  Ondattje builds atop the dialogue’s subtext, using solid technique, but also keeps it moving quickly enough that the final punch—fuck you—arrives before we’re entirely prepared for it.  The conflict between Nathaniel and Agnes is a skipping stone, moving ahead a tiny bit faster than we can anticipate.

You get the idea.  Any routine piece of business in a novel can plod along or skip along.  Given the speed of readers’ brains, isn’t it better to skip?  Thus, whether your novel plots fast or dives slowly, you can jump-cut any passage on the page.  In action, skip to what we don’t yet expect to see.  In exposition, tell us what characters are thinking that we cannot anticipate or guess.  In dialogue, let characters leap ahead of each other like mind readers.  In delivering information, tell us what is unexpected.  In backstory, convey not a chronology of everything but highlights that artfully suggest what we aren’t being told.

Getting ahead of your readers doesn’t mean starving your novel of substance.  It means increasing a sense of surprise.  Pace is not only about rapidity, it’s about an arrangement of whatever is on the page in such a way that we can’t see it coming.  When we readers can call the turns, story feels slow.  When we cannot, we race to keep up.  Racing where, to what point and for what purpose, is your choice.  Spin out a busy plot or take a slow, deep dive into anything at all and you can keep us gripped…you can, that is, if you know what pace really is.

How are you skipping stones in your current manuscript?


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


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