Jo Talks Books: On Pacing In Books

Hello everyone! I hope you’ve all had a good month since I last did one of these, this year seems to both be flying by and yet also 1000% feels like it should be over already, am I right? I swear January definitely feels like it was a different year!

Anyway, this month I wanted to talk about something that I bring up a lot in my reviews, but I don’t think I’ve really spoken much in depth about what I’m looking for when it comes to this particular aspect of a book, so I wanted to do that today. That issue is of course pacing.

So what exactly do I mean when I talk about a book’s pace? I’m talking about the speed at which a story unfolds: this doesn’t mean the time over which a story takes place, a story can take place over a matter of days and still be quite slow paced, or a matter of weeks/months and yet be quite fast paced, it’s more to do with how the action unfolds on the page. It is probably one of the biggest issues for me when reading a book, alongside obviously connection with the characters, because if the events of a book are unfolding very slowly, an author is almost guaranteed to lose my interest.

I say almost; obviously there are exceptions to that, I have read quite slow paced novels that I’ve really enjoyed: The Book Thief being an obvious example that springs to mind. That story definitely has a very slow unravelling and yet I was kept hooked because of the emotional beats in the story and the fact that I loved the characters. I’m currently reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and it’s definitely a slowly unravelling tale, yet again, I’m really enjoying it because that style really works for the story that’s being told. So slow pacing doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, there are some stories that demand to be unspooled slowly and savoured.

However, in general I do lean towards wanting a faster paced narrative. One of the main things I tend to find an issue with a lot of authors’ books is that they spend far TOO LONG on the build-up to the main event, that by the time you actually get there, you’ve had to wade through 200 odd pages of generally quite boring stuff and instead of feeling super invested, I’m usually like, “Okay so are we going to get to the GOOD STUFF YET?”. I understand needing some buildup, because being thrown straight into the action can be disorienting, but there’s a line between establishing a world so that readers understand what’s going on and spending all your time on buildup and not enough time on the payoff.

A good example of this for me is the Daevabad trilogy by SA Chakraborty. They’re quite chunky books and an awful lot of time is spent on buildup in each book before any of the real action happens. This is fine in the first book as it’s quite a complicated world and there’s a lot that needs to be established, but in the second and third books, the long buildup feels more like filler than anything else, and when the action does happen it feels rushed because Chakraborty has spent so long on the buildup, that there’s not enough time to fully explore the payoff.

It’s all about finding a balance between the two. Just as a long buildup with little time for payoff can be frustrating, so too can constant action. In order for the action to actually have an impact, there needs to be some slower moments, because the excitement will get lost if its happening all the time. A good balance between slower moments and faster moments will help to keep things even. I tend to find a lot of books give me whiplash with the change in pace from a slow beginning to a super speedy end, if you establish a balance early on, then I’ll be more likely to remain engaged the whole way through and your ending won’t feel massively rushed compared to your beginning.

I do find that pacing tends to be more of an issue over longer books, though this is not always the case. VE Schwab is an author that I find generally (there are some exceptions) always paces her books really well. The latter two Shades of Magic books are over 500 and over 600 pages respectively, and though they have their slower moments, I was kept engaged and interested the whole way through. Part of this is obviously loving the characters, but one of the things Schwab does quite well is balancing the slower moments with action, as well as keeping her chapters quite short so the book keeps ticking along. The same goes for Vengeful, the second Villains book, it’s almost 600 pages long, but it never feels like it’s dragging and actually was better paced than the previous instalment Vicious, which was over 200 pages shorter. If chapters are too long, I tend to get bogged down, even if the book itself is actually quite short.

The issue I tend to find with longer books is that there tends to be a lot more filler which mostly just feels like its there to fill the pages as opposed to actually serving a purpose for the plot. A recent example of this would be Queen of Volts, the final book in the Shadow Game trilogy. There’s a lot of talking and plotting and planning in the first section of the book and none of the characters really take any action, they’re not trying to beat the game, nor really actively participating in the game. I reckon that had the characters been more active in the first half of the book, and some of the plotting had been trimmed a little, then the pacing would have overall been better.

An older example of a similar thing is Queen of Shadows, the fourth book in the Throne of Glass series. The characters in that book have two main goals, it’s a fairly simple plot for what is essentially the bridge that gets everyone to start properly prepping for the war and yet a good portion of the book is stuffed with filler. Had some of the filler been cut and Sarah J Maas had just focused down on the two main goals of the book, I reckon we could have ended up with something that was more Crown of Midnight length and the pacing would definitely have been improved. Everything needs to have a purpose. If a scene is not adding anything to a book, if it doesn’t push the characters or the plot forward, then it’s NOT NEEDED. I have definitely found that authors who do this, who always keep their focus on exactly what is needed to keep the plot moving forward, have better paced books than those who don’t.

I’ve been talking mostly about slow pacing in this post because I tend to have an issue with that more than overly fast pacing, but that can obviously be an issue too. When an author almost rushes through the plot, so the reader barely has time to comprehend what is going on, that is just as bad as authors taking too long to build up to the action. I actually rarely have this issue, but I do have one example of a book I read this year that fell into that category and that’s The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant. She almost rushed through every event that happened in the book, and there were many confusing skips forward in time which actually made it really hard to follow the book.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance actually had a similar issue to The Court of Miracles, the chapters were very short (which I do usually like but didn’t work well here) and we kept jumping from different POV to different POV but you barely get time to settle before you’re moved to the next one. Again, it comes back to that balance, readers want the excitement but we also need the payoff, otherwise it has no impact!

A balance between dialogue and description is also key. Dialogue is a really great tool for shaping character relationships and keeping the pace of a story ticking over. I’ve definitely found in books that I’ve found lagging, a common trait is that there are huge chunks of text focused on description and not enough dialogue. Dialogue helps break that up so you don’t constantly feel like you’re facing a massive wall of uninterrupted text! Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House is a good example of a book that struggles with this, there’s a lot of dense descriptions but very little dialogue, which I felt bogged down the book and left a lot of the character dynamics unclear. I will say that I always tend to prefer books that focus on dialogue over description, but there is definitely a need of balance between the two!

Pacing is actually a huge reason why I tend to prefer YA over Adult books (still, even though I do feel myself naturally relating less to teenage narrators), because generally, YA books tend to be much more tightly plotted and faster paced than a lot of adult books.

Obviously good pacing will mean different things to different readers because we want different things out of books. For instance, I know that I like snappy dialogue and lots of action because that’s what tends to keep me engaged (though I don’t like to make generalisations as there are always exceptions) and so that means I lean towards enjoying faster paced books more. Other readers may prefer books that are heavy on description and character introspection that benefit from a slower paced narrative. I actually don’t envy authors trying to get this right because you’re never going to be able to please everyone!

What do you think? Is pacing an important thing for you/something that you notice when you’re reading? What makes a well paced book for you? I would love to hear your thoughts on this one as I know that pacing can be a very subjective thing!

So once again, I’m not really sure what I want to cover next month, honestly I quite like not feeling like I have to hold myself to the topics I have on my list if I get inspired to write something else closer to the time of writing up the post, so you’ll just have to see what I come up with for next month. In the meantime, I’m actually going to have another post up today, this month’s Book Vs Movie post, so keep an eye out for that in the next hour!


2 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On Pacing In Books

  1. Hanna (@bookinginheels) 03/10/2020 / 1:42 pm

    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here, and I also agree regarding the Daevabad trilogy. They’re chunky books, but the second and third books seem to drag because there’s STILL so much world-building. I like a fully fleshed out world, but (as you say) that needs to be balanced with action.

    This a great post šŸ™‚

    • iloveheartlandx 08/10/2020 / 3:51 pm

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, the author does a wonderful job fleshing out the world, but the plot does suffer a little for it because it takes so long to get the characters where she wants them to be!

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