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.”
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!