Lately, I’ve noticed a large problem with understanding pacing. The last three manuscripts I’ve read have started obscenely slowly. I had one book that took ten chapters to have the main character leave home and get to his new house. Needless to say I nearly fell asleep.
Part of the problem with pacing is that many people don’t understand how to set pacing and that’s one of the things that grabs the reader. If you spend the first thirty pages of the book dragging it out with extraneous information (or information about the world that is better explained in the preface) then no one is going to likely enjoy it.
Writers can do so much to help themselves here, and they so often don’t. The solution is simple. Get into the story. Jump in with both feet. Start with something compelling enough that the reader won’t be able to put the book down right away. It doesn’t have to be an action scene – a murder, a cataclysmic event, or a battle – to get the job done. It just needs to be something memorable enough to avoid the letdown of a too-slow, too-meandering start.
(Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, Random House, 2003)
There are two types of pacing errors I have encountered so far. The first is because the author has too much information and not enough plot and the second is because the author is timid about starting in media res.
The first type of author tends to have done their research, extensively, or is unbelievably imaginative about the world in which their story is taking place, and they have to share all of this information with the reader at once because they fear that the reader needs all of that information to understand the story.
If you are creating a world where certain facts are necessary to understand the story and the world, the place for the base background information is in the preface. Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders Of Pern” series had an effective preface that set the location and basic information about the series:
Rukbat, it the Saggitarian Sector, was a golden G-type star. It had five planets, two asteroid belts, and a stray planet it had attracted and held in recent millennia. When men first settled on Rukbat’s third world and called it Pern, they had taken little notice of the strange planet swinging around its adopted primary in a wildly erratic orbit. For two centuries, the colonists gave the bright Red Star little thought. Until the path of the wanderer brought it close to its stepsister at perihelion. When such aspects were harmonious and not distorted by conjunctions with other planets in the system, the indigenous life form of the wanderer planet sought to bridge the space gap between its home and the more temperate and hospitable planet. At those times, silver Threads dropped through Pern’s skies, destroying anything they touched. The initial losses the colonists suffered were staggering. As a result, during the subsequent struggle to survive and combat the menace, Pern’s tenuous contact with the mother planet was broken.
(Anne McCaffrey, Dragonriders Of Pern, Tor Publishing)
While a preface may be longer than that, the above paragraph gives the most pertinent information about the planet and its occupants. The rest of the information given about the world is given in the narrative. When you have a world as varied and complicated as one that is a complete fabrication (or even one that is set in an alternate reality) the best way to explain it is as the story unfolds.
The unfortunate habit of feeling the need to plunk the info down in large chunks for the reader is called “information dumping”. It’s a problem that many writers struggle with. The best suggestion that I can offer is to give the information out as it becomes pertinent. Don’t give it all at once, or if you have to lay out the world all at once – do so in a preface. But give them parts as they become relevant. It’s the kind of thing that you want to trickle in.
The type of writer that has to do their research and wants to show that they know what their talking about is an easier fix: don’t. While you might have researched for years about the mating rituals of the Siberian Yak (I am aware that no such creature exists) the reader doesn’t need to know every intricate and intimate detail of their acts of procreation. If the mating ritual’s details are not directly pertinent to the plot then leave them out. While that sort of information and gratuitous research is fantastically useful to a writer, giving all of it to the reader only works if you’re Tom Clancy. And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t.
The best way to convince your readers that you know all about what you’re writing about is to do it with subtlety. Give details that are pertinent to the plot and story, maybe a splash more for flavor, but don’t dump in the whole bottle. It’s like spicing your food – a little in there for warmth, maybe a little more for kick, but generally speaking you don’t want to melt your readers’ face off. The people that do like mouth-melting chili are a minority compared to the majority that want to just maybe have a bit of warmth to kick them off.