on November 29, 2007

I’ve been thinking about pacing a lot lately. It started when I began revisions on TEMPTING EVIL. My editor liked the book, but felt the pacing in the first 100 pages was off–too slow, too much set-up. She had other comments and suggestions throughout, but the only MAJOR change was in the beginning.

The thing is, you change the beginning and everything else changes. The last 350 pages could have been perfect, but by changing the beginning, most of the rest of the book had to completely go or be extensively rewritten.

One editor once told me that there were two things she couldn’t fix in a manuscript and would grant an automatic pass: pacing and character. If the story was paced wrong–too fast, too slow, too many unnecessary scenes, etc–or if she couldn’t connect with the characters to care enough that they overcome the obstacles they face, then “No thanks, it’s not right for us.” My pacing has never been off much. (Except I rush the endings, and in revisions inevitably have to fill them out and give them more depth.) But now I was faced with a major problem, and one I didn’t know if I could fix.

Last week, Tess Gerritsen addressed action in a fabulous post written as a reader–Action Is Boring. In it, she comments about a book she read on a plane, one action scene after another, and how bored she was by the story. She summarized: “Yet it lacked tension. It was all action, and no suspense.”

Some people equate fast-paced with action, one scene after another of something big happening. Yet Tess hit it on the nose: action isn’t suspense. Action is plot. Suspense comes from character. Characters drive the story, and if you don’t first care about the characters, you don’t really care if they make it out alive after the car chase. The car chase becomes interesting when there is something big at stake–like your heroine, the gal you really care about and are rooting for, is trapped in the trunk of a car being chased in steep mountainous terrain. But if the gal in the back is just another person, who cares if she goes off the cliff or gets winged by a flying bullet?

Pacing is more than action. It’s the words you choose, the scenes you show, the characters and the stakes.

Yesterday at Fog City Divas I talked about HEROES, one of my favorite shows, and what was wrong with it this season. It was pacing. Too slow at the beginning–great at character, but not enough answers to questions. (ASIDE: Robert McKee in STORY says that readers are curious, but it’s give and take. You need to open with questions they want answers to. Answer some of the questions, then introduce more. In the beginning of HEROES there were too many questions and not enough answers. Compare it to the first season and you’ll see exactly what I mean.)

Then after the episode called FOUR MONTHS AGO (which was great and gave you all the answers you wanted, but it also stuck out like a sore thumb), the pacing sped up at light-speed at the expense of the characters.

So I was faced with a similar conundrum with the revisions to TEMPTING EVIL. The beginning was all set-up–important things, I felt, that the reader needed to know. And while it built tension–the reader has more information than the main characters–there were no real high stakes.

I solved this problem by starting the story in a different place with a completely different scene. Once that first chapter was finished, I knew it was by far the best place to start the story. Instantly, the stakes were in place. I could then use a lot of the set-up (heavily re-written and tightened) to increase the tension. It took me days to get those first fifty pages working together fluidly. Once that was done, I ran with the story. (Until something completely different happened at the midpoint of the story, something I didn’t expect, and I had to rewrite the ending . . . but I digress.)

Because of this pacing issue, I thought for a long time about where to start SUDDEN DEATH (the new title for book three in the prison break trilogy.) I have a lot of set-up in this story, but decided to handle it differently. The prologue is both a flashback (nightmare) for the innocent escaped convict, then sets up his reasons for going back to the lions den to prove his innocence. Because, frankly, if I was innocent of murder and had escaped prison, I don’t know that I’d risk my life to prove my innocence after fifteen years. Tom needed a strong, compelling reason for doing it. He has two: he doesn’t want his only daughter to think of him as a killer; and he knows someone got away with murder. Justice is driving him. He had been a cop.

All that I knew and liked and had written ages ago. But where to start the story? When should Tom come to town? What’s the heroine (his daughter) doing? How can I avoid all set-up and no tension?

So he’s on-page in chapter one. Start at the beginning. The heroine has no reason to try to prove her dad is innocent until she is forced to face him. Why drag that out? Though initially I didn’t see it happening until chapter three or four, I couldn’t SEE what was supposed to happen in chapters one and two. So I started with the scene that sets everything in motion: when Tom sees Claire for the first time after spending fifteen years in prison.

What pacing problems do you see with books? Television? Movies? What do you love . . . and hate . . . about fast-paced novels? What movie are you looking forward to this Christmas season and why?

And, last but definitely not least, a big SHOUT OUT to my pal, award-winning mystery writer Lori Armstrong for her new book deal. You just have to check out the video her pals at First Offenders created to celebrate the news. Congratulations Lori!!