Season 2, Episode 1: Three Ways To Fix Your Pacing Problem


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Season 2, Episode 1: Three Ways To Fix Your Pacing Problem Transcript

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

My friends, I hope that you’ve been safe and well since season one, and the people you love have been safe and well.

I’m so excited to be back in my recording booth for season two, and I hope you loved the bonus episodes from Marie Lu, Ellie Marney and Ryan Graudin as much as I did.

The reception for season one was so wildly in excess of my expectations, and it’s been wonderful to hear from so many of you about ways you’ve used episodes in your writing, or to pry open that book you’re reading and learn its secrets, or in some cases, in your classrooms.

Before we jump into this week’s episode, I wanted to tell you quickly that I have a new book out!

It’s called The World Between Blinks, and it’s co-authored with my friend Ryan Graudin. She featured on the bonus episode that came out before this one, when she talked about historical research. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of twisty history in The World Between Blinks.

It’s about two cousins who slip from our world into a world where all our lost things end up – from people to places to that pen you were sure you had in your bag.

Everywhere they turn, they find mysteries from history – they hitch a ride with Amelia Earhart, visit Queen Nefertiti’s court, hang out with a Tasmanian tiger called Oz, snack on those light brown M&Ms you don’t see anymore… but the one lost thing they have trouble finding is the man who holds the key to their journey home. And if they don’t catch him fast, they’re going to be lost forever.

It’s the start of such a fun, whimsical, fantasy adventure series – it’s for readers aged eight and up, and it’s also a great one for parents and kids to share. Ryan and I are both huge history nerds, and there’s an appendix in the back telling you about all of the things in the book that you’d never believe were real, true, but definitely are. Did you know the river Thames in London used to freeze over, and the locals would hold fairs on them with temporary shops, taverns and performers, and on one memorable occasion, an elephant? Right there on the ice!

This book about lost things is also a book about figuring out when to hold on tight, and when to let go—to people, to places, and to moments. I had a truly wonderful time writing it with Ryan, and it’s really special. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Now, on to the writing advice.

This is Season 2, Episode 1: Fixing Your Pacing Problem

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Rosalie, who says: I’m currently revising my novel, and I know I have a problem with pacing. Some places feel like they drag, and I think there are probably more I don’t know about. Do you have advice for making sure your story has good pacing?

Rosalie, this is a great question, and I know we all know this feeling. You’re reading a story you should be enjoying, but it’s taking a while, and your mind is starting to wander, and… eventually you start to skim, or worse, you put the book down, and you don’t come back. Whether this is a book you’ve written, or someone else’s that you’re reading, it clearly needs tightening – so how do you do that?

There are many, many things we do when we revise a novel, and we’ll talk about lots of them in future episodes, but for today, here are three ways to look at your pacing, which cover diagnosing when you do and don’t have a problem, and an easy way to fix it.

Tip one: This one’s good for figuring out where there might be dips in the action, and it creates a tool you’ll use for lots of other parts of your revision as well.

Make a table with four columns. In the first goes the chapter number. In the second goes a summary of what happens in the chapter – it should be short, no more than a sentence or two. I’m talking something like “The kids follow the treasure map and end up slipping into a magical world.” That’s an example from my latest, The World Between Blinks.

Obviously a lot of things actually happen in this chapter – two cousins borrow-slash-steal the family boat and head out to a local lighthouse, where they find themselves shipwrecked. They manage to break in, hoping to signal for help, and as they climb the stairs inside, the stones around them begin to disappear. Suddenly they look out the windows and spot a completely different world outside! They head down into it and explore their surroundings, finding a house, a chicken coop made out of a car, all kinds of things, before they spot an old sailing ship on the horizon, and wonder if it’s friend or foe…

When it comes to my summary, though, it’s short – ‘The kids follow the treasure map and end up slipping into a magical world.” I’m just telling you what happens, not how it happens. If I add too much detail, that could conceal a lack of action, and that’s what I’m checking for.

Into the third column of your table goes a tension rating out of ten. Into the fourth go any notes you’ve immediately thought of during this process that you don’t want to forget – this column stops you getting sidetracked and running off to fix or change other things.

You’re looking for chapters that aren’t tense, and don’t seem to have much happening. If you find them, that might be a sign you need to either cut, or edit. Sometimes when I do this after a first draft, I genuinely do discover chapters where… nothing happens. If you can’t cut a chapter like that, then I’ve got a tip in a minute for how to make it more interesting.

This table is also useful for tip two, which is about identifying when you have too much pace. Relentless action becomes exhausting – when you’re watching a movie, I bet you jump in your seat at the start of a car chase, but if it goes on too long, you find you can think about something else while idly noting the action. You can only take so many bangs, crashes and near-misses before your anxiety about whether they’ll be okay begins to die down. When everything’s exciting, nothing’s exciting. We need little moments when the tension breaks, which allows us to appreciate it anew when it begins again.

You can insert these any number of ways – a joke always works well, helping people relax for a moment before you stress them out, or a brief moment of safety, or domesticity, or downtime for the characters. If that quieter moment is a whole scene then you’ll want it to serve other purposes as well – for example, we might see two characters have a quiet conversation and witness a shift in their relationship, as well as getting a break from the action.

That’s one of the approaches we used in The Other Side of the Sky. There’s a moment when North and Nimh have fled for their lives—don’t worry, not a spoiler, that’s guaranteed to happen in all my books—and have managed to get a boat so they can escape along the river. We’ve just left behind some of the most dramatic scenes of the book, and there’s a lot to process. It’s a moment when they can pause and catch their breath—their recent experiences have changed their bond, and they demonstrate that by sharing new parts of themselves with the other, by talking and telling stories. That slowing in pacing is just as important as making sure the action that preceded it was heart-pounding. Both the characters and the reader need to rest and process.

So, tip one is to make that table and look for moments when not enough is happening. Tip two is to look for moments when you actually need to slacken the pace. 

Tip three takes us back to the problem of dragging sections of a book, the boring bits. When you look at that table you’ve made, and you’ve adjusted the chapters where nothing happens by either cutting them, or adding in some action or conflict, you’re sometimes left with the chapters where something does happen, but it all still feels slow as a wet week.

When it comes to these chapters, your issue might be that your scene is too internal. The character is spending a lot of time thinking things through, drawing conclusions, processing their feelings, wondering about the questions that will drive the action in the next part of a book. I’m an expert on these chapters, because they’re something I need to watch out for in my own writing.

When it comes time to fix them, I usually do it with one simple question: what would happen if this was a movie? In a movie you can’t just have footage of a character sitting there, staring into space and thinking hard. Even if you add a voiceover, there’s a limit to how long they can navel gaze.

Characters in movies still need the same realisations, questions, self-doubts and deductions we see in books, but they have to do them externally. They have to find something out by going somewhere, they have to draw a conclusion by talking to someone. Every one of us – even those who have never written a word – knows a lot about story, because we’ve learned over the years by reading and watching stories. We often have a sense of what will happen next. Asking yourself ‘how would this be done in a movie?’ is a great way to tap into that knowledge, because often we find we immediately know what it would look like onscreen – and you can probably translate that idea onto paper.

So there you have it – make your table, identify what (if anything) happens in each chapter, rate your tension. Cut or improve your chapters where nothing happens. Insert breaks where the tension goes on too long. See if making your low-tension chapters more external makes them more interesting, and improves the sense of pace for the reader.

Easy, right? Well, maybe not, but I bet it’ll be interesting – and that’s the goal.

Here’s an exercise: Re-watch an episode of a TV show that you know has a lot of action in it with a notebook, and each scene change, jot down a tension rating out of ten. Note how it goes up and down, and in the moments when it goes down, think about the ways in which the show is keeping you interested. Can you apply any of that to your writing?

That’s it for pacing, at least for now. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about a phrase you might have heard before – or maybe a new one: we’ll be talking about what it means to hang a lantern.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new readers find the podcast, and I really appreciate it.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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