Nano Tip #13: Pace Charts

It was only four days ago that I promised to do a multi-day post on meta-documents, but then I got distracted by Passages of Disbelief, and failed to follow up.

So now it’s time to double back and discuss another meta-doc I like to use: the pace chart!


Now, you may ask, what in the world is a pace chart? Basically, it’s any method you use to track the ups and downs of momentum in your book, the shifts from action to conversation to tension. Like all meta-docs, a pace chart allows you to step back from the trees of your text and see the forest.

A quick note: Often when we say a novel is well paced, we mean it’s full of heart-pounding action. This is mono-dimensional rubbish thinking, of course. Well paced should mean “strikes an elegant balance between fast and slow passages.”

There are lots of ways to track pace. As Justine revealed here, I used to keep spreadsheets to track many things, including pace. But these days I use Scrivener’s corkboard feature.

Here are the first 12 chapters of Behemoth, Book 2 of Leviathan, shown in corkboard mode. Don’t worry, the chapter captions have been blurred to prevent spoilage.


I distinguish among three levels of pace: ACTION, Tension, and “nothing.”

  • ACTION means fighting, pursuit, or any other sort of physical peril.
  • Tension means sneaking, arguing, or the revelation of horrible facts.
  • “nothing” means mostly conversation, exposition, and looking at stuff that may be wonderful, but isn’t threatening.

Of course, pace is context sensitive. In the world of Leviathan, Tension means sneaking through enemy lines, and ACTION means the pitched battle when the enemy spots you. But if you’re writing a high-school melodrama, Tension might mean someone giving you the cold shoulder, while ACTION is discovering them snogging your boyfriend in the janitor’s closet.

As you can see above, Behemoth starts with a fairly large ACTION set piece (a battle), and then the book settles down into a bit of exposition. There are moments of Tension punctuating a long stretch of mostly “nothing,” as the characters explore how alliances have been shifted by the battle, but no explosions until another fight gets started in Chapter 12. (The whole book is 42 chapters, so this is just the first bit.)

I usually mix in other data with my pace charts, because comparing data points is useful. The red pushpins above denote chapters in Deryn’s point of view, and blue are Alek’s. This way, I can make sure that one character isn’t hogging all the exciting scenes.

But the main purpose of a pace chart is simple: to make sure that long sections of “nothing” are broken up with Tension or ACTION, so that the reader doesn’t get bored. And, conversely, to make sure that long sections of ACTION are broken up with Tension or “nothing,” so that the reader doesn’t get frazzled. (Unless you want them frazzled.)

In even plainer words, your novel should have talky bits where stuff is made sense of, punctuated by fast bits where stuff explodes, and not too much of either in a row. A chart simply makes that structuring obvious at a glance.

Pace charts can also keep you from getting mechanical with your pacing. If you notice that you have three-chapter segments that repeat the sequence “nothing”, Tension, ACTION! several times in a row, you might want to break that up. A steady drumbeat of build and release can be just as boring as ten chapters of exposition. The point is not to straight-jacket you into a pattern, but to reveal where certain patterns might be getting tedious.

(And, yes, there are many formalists who intentionally subvert pace to great effect. But that’s different than simply screwing up.)

Now, if you don’t use Scrivener (you fool) you can scrawl a pace chart on a piece of graph paper, stick three colors of post-its into your MS, or graph it with Excel. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as your pace chart is simple to make and simple to read. If it takes more than ten minutes, you’re doing it wrong.

Because here’s the reasoning behind all simple meta-docs like the pace chart: it’s easier to look at one piece of paper or one screen than to read through your whole novel One More Time to figure out why everyone hates it.

Don’t forget to check out Justine’s post yesterday, and her new one tomorrow. See you in two days!

38 thoughts on “Nano Tip #13: Pace Charts

  1. Okay, second comment! I agree with this completely. I don’t like to read a book with long sections of nothing and all the action/tension all jumbled up into one blob. But when you’re writing, you don’t always realize that this is happening. So a pace chart seems like a great way to organize that. Once again, Scott-la, great advice!!!

  2. Scott-la, I noticed that you didn’t completely blur out the writing on the note-cards. Was that by accident, or on purpose? Because now I really want to know what Alek explains in C.8, where the airship arrives in C.10, and what Deryn regains control of in C.12…. Waiting for Behemoth to come out is going to kill me…….

  3. thanx for the great advice!

    i love to write, and trying my best to do NaNoWriMo, but i’m just so disorginized!

    i’m going to buy a cork board and do this as soon as possible!!!

  4. Diana:
    1) Make sure you’re showing the “Inspector” (the sidebar to the right of the text). 2) Look in the second-from-the-top part, labeled “General.”
    3) There are two drop-down menus. The top changes the color of the pushpin. The one below that is called “Status,” which is the one you want.
    4) The bottom item on that menu is “Edit.” Open that, and you can change the terms to anything you want, including nothing.

  5. LOL @ Kelsey-wa’s comment. Scott sooooo did that on purpose 😛

    This really makes me want Scrivener now!

  6. Amazingly simple, amazingly helpful. Nice work. I’m not doing NaNo but you can be sure I’ll be using this method (sans Scrivener) for my current work. Thanks for the tip!

  7. That is really cool! I always wondered how Scott-la managed to write the perfect balance of action and characters thinking. I will definitely use this in my nanowrimo novel, although I’m not organized enough to write it all down! 😀

  8. Hmm, I hadn’t even thought of the pacing in my story. Probably because it’s more slice-of-life instead of central plot driven which leaves the chapters fairly seperate as well. Guess I have some action in about half the chapters, tension (if tension means, explaining how stuff works) in all of them and then some downtime in most of them as well. I’ll be keeping an eye out on the proportions of it when I edit.
    Oh and not nano related but one of the webcomics I read (Unshelved) has a sort video of you doing a blurb about Leviathan at a book fair/signing thing. Link here:

  9. 1. What in the world is Scrivener? Scott-la and Justine keep referring to it, and I’ve gathered that it’s some sort of writing program (le duh), but wat’s so great about it?
    2. I noticed that Scott went off track with his original POV pattern: 2 Alek, 2 Deryn, 2 Alek, 2 Deryn… I think it will make the book better in a way, because when I got caught up in one characters plot and then got swtiched to another part of me would be thinking “Two chapters ’till I find out what happens!”

  10. Scott, I use Scrivener religiously. I use “Label” and “Status” to track character POV, but I have never seen those items overlaid on the cards as you show them above (for “Action” and “Tension”). Is there another option you’re using to make that happen? I’m on version 1.53.

  11. Hi Scott, I am really loving these tips – they are helping me no end.

    A question re pace – is there a “rule” about different genres and pace? I am writing a thriller which I want to be somewhere between James Rollins and Matthew Reilly pace i.e. fast!
    and is there also some rule that “literary fiction” has to be very slow paced? 🙂

    Thanks, Joanna

  12. Ping to ♥DAVID&ZANELUVER!(I used to be Jessie-wa)♥ ,
    I know! I don’t think I can wait another year for Behemoth! I am rereading Leviathan and Uglies over and over, hoping the time will pass faster. Does anyone know what the 3rd Leviathan book is called? Or has it not been named yet? 😀

  13. Scott Sigler (comment 15)

    To see the words across your index cards – after you adjust the status:
    Go to View, Index Cards, Show Stamp.

    Have fun with it!

    – Laura

  14. Ok, Scott, In my book I have chapters that have both tension and Action or maybe “nothing” all at the same time. Should I leave them or should I break them up into different chapters or sort of mush them into the surounding chapters (like the 1st paragraph would be Action, then follow with a big huge hunk of “nothing” with a little tension in it then the last page is Action). So how would I do that?

  15. Whats the news about Uglies movie? I must know 😀 Its dissapointing that they change books when they turn into movies because your #1 writer 😀

  16. OH!! I can’t wait for Behemoth! Looking at the cards I think I can make out chapter 12. I think it says, Deryn takes back control of the… The what? The Leviathan? Did I just get it right? Is the Leviathan Stolen? Did I just give away part of the book? Am I asking to many questions? AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

  17. That’s very cool. I did something kind of similar with Excel on my last major writing project, but I had way too many categories for it to be terribly useful, and yet it didn’t occur to me to have a category such as “Tension.”

    I wish Scrivener were available for the PC. I’ve got trial versions of WritePro and . . . the other one whose name escapes me . . . that I’m trying to choose between, but Scrivener looks far superior.

  18. @ Joe #29, I’m on a PC too. While I pine for the advent of Scrivener for the PC, I use Supernotecard for the corkboard functionality. It might help you.

    For other word processing/writing funcions I use Liquid Story Binder.

  19. I really didn’t like Pretties as much as Uglies. I soon plan on reading Specials but I’m going to read it later.

  20. Just curious – are there any other kinds of meta-docs you use when writing a novel other than Pacing and Timeline?

  21. A good idea is to hang all the pieces of a particular outfit together. Keep in mind the goal is to maximize the amount of space you have available in your closet.

  22. Holy-FREAKIN-moly. i just finished Leviathan and am cringing for Behemoth. Is there any way that it can be published sooner. I hate waiting for such a good book. Oh well i guess it’ll just have to be a Christmas present, if i can wait 2 extra months. I might just die in that amount of time. i mean 7 months, thats harsh.

  23. omg!i hav already read leviathan a million times and i made my friend read it and i cannot wait untill behemoth comes out!i wonder if u can read an excerpt from the book anywhere…can anyone tell me if there is!!!!!!!!?????????!!!!!!!!

  24. O.O omyflippingpancakes I was soooo excited when I found this page. I was like WOAH nano tips?? really?? I am super excited for the next book I absolutely adored Leviathan, it was totally Awesomazing (and so was the Uglies series)

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