Evaluating pacing helps an editor gauge whether or not a book will bore its readers during developmental editing. That sounds like a fairly straightforward appraisal (Is this book boring? Yes or no?), but in practice it gets complicated. Different genres carry different pacing expectations. An epic fantasy with a slow, setting-heavy opening creates a pleasant sense of grandeur. A political thriller with the same opening is likely dead on arrival. Properly evaluating pacing during developmental editing requires understanding reader expectations, knowing how to manage a tension curve, and spotting missed opportunities.
Reader Expectations for Pacing
When evaluating pacing, I begin by identifying reader expectations. Authors are often taught basic maxims for successful fiction along the lines of “Never let your tension flag,” “Open your book with action,” “End every chapter with a cliffhanger,” etc. The people teaching those maxims often forget to qualify them—they work for some genres, but not others. A cozy mystery doesn’t need to launch with much in the way of action. Most plots needs a few moments of low tension to develop subplots, introduce new characters and settings, and set up twists. And cliffhangers in character-focused contemporary fiction tend to feel laughably forced. Knowing reader expectations for the story’s genre helps you evaluate this story’s pacing, not pacing in relation to an imaginary ideal.
Managing the Tension Curve
Once you’ve identified reader expectations, you should have a general sense of the book’s ideal tension curve. Most narratives begin with low tension, ramp up toward a climactic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, and then lower tension again during a short denouement.
But not all stories follow the same curve, and even those with similar trajectories can look quite different at the chapter level. If you assign each scene in a novel a tension value between zero and ten (zero meaning no tension, ten meaning imminent risk of death), you’re likely to find that your values don’t increase uniformly. You may go from a five to a nine when the antagonist makes a sudden, dramatic appearance. You may drop from that nine back down to a six again when the protagonist escapes to safety and regroups for another confrontation.
Novels with successful pacing make those changes in ways the reader finds satisfying. Dropping from a tension level of ten to one just a chapter before the climax is going to confuse most readers. Bouncing between eight and ten for the entire first act of a book may burn them out, particularly if you then move into a more standard progression of sixes and nines in the second act. To do a good job of evaluating pacing, an editor maps out a book’s tension curve (either physically or mentally) and compares it to reader expectations in the genre.
Spotting Missed Opportunities
Spotting missed opportunities forms the last step in evaluating pacing during developmental editing. Most problems in a tension curve involve a failure to remind the reader of the danger threatening the protagonist, or a missed opportunity to get the protagonist to a place of temporary safety. I like to use Star Wars as an example. Moments of comparatively low tension are easy to identify, signaled by jokes and musical cues: Artoo and Threepio in the desert after their escape pod crashes, Luke returning to Obi-Wan after the death of his family, the heroes cleaning up after escaping the garbage smasher on the Death Star, the heroes celebrating escaping the Death Star.
In poorly paced stories, the author typically misfires on those moments of safety. Imagine the opening act of Star Wars if the Empire stays right on Artoo and Threepio’s tail. We would lose the chance to meet Luke and develop the protagonist of the story as a character. At the other extreme, imagine if Luke took twenty minutes of screen time to decide what to do after finding his aunt and uncle dead. At some point we’d get fed up and want the story to move along already, no matter how pretty the desert shots were.
When you’re evaluating pacing during developmental editing, you need to learn to spot those missed opportunities. Once you do, you can recommend putting some distance between the protagonist and antagonist where it’s necessary, and kicking them into gear more quickly when they’re taking too long to act.
Next we’ll talk about evaluating character. Or you can return to our developmental editing resources.