Faster and With More Intensity: Pacing in YA, by Nansi Kunze
There is a story (how true it is I can’t say – sadly, I’ve never met any of the people involved) that George Lucas, while directing the original Star Wars movie, used to watch the actors do a scene and then ask them to do it again, but ‘faster, and with more intensity!’. Now, while our buddy George may have made a few mistakes in his time (don’t get me started on what happened to Padme), this particular command is sheer genius. I find it incredibly helpful, not only with redrafts and action scenes, but also with that most daunting of tasks: working out the pacing of a novel.
The concept of ‘pacing’ can be terrifying. As if plot arcs and character development aren’t enough to worry about, as a novelist you have to know when to set each of those in motion and how much time to devote to them. And, unfortunately, there’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all method you can apply to your manuscript (if there was, whoever invented it would probably be richer than Mr Lucas by now). One of the wonderful things about the Young Adult genre, however, is that fast-paced writing is usually seen as a positive attribute … and that makes our task as YA writers all the more fun.
When I’m working on a novel, I initially plan the general plot, character development and back-story, and then stop to plan out each section in greater detail just before I get to it. One of the advantages to being a planner is that I have a fairly precise idea of where I’m going at any given time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t change where I’m going. If you’re looking at your plan and thinking: ‘Oh man – I have to do that whole school scene before I get to do the chapter where she makes out with the rock god!’, it’s time to take George Lucas’s advice. Make your story faster and more intense: go straight to the rock-god-snogging scene, and explain what happened at school in brief flashbacks or as part of a conversation. Frankly, if it’s boring to write, it’ll be boring to read. When in doubt, allow yourself to skip anything that isn’t appealing to you, because the chances are that’s what your readers would do with what you’re writing anyway.
So are there any times when it’s not good to go faster? Well, yeah: when your readers can’t follow you. Don’t be afraid to spend time where it’s needed to make your plot development clear. A slower pace can be great for building suspense, too, but that doesn’t mean abandoning Lucas’s approach. A suspenseful scene should be an exciting part of your story; you can make the most of it without stretching your readers’ patience by writing scenes around it that are – you guessed it – fast and intense. There’s nothing like contrast to make a scene stand out.
And finally, if you’re not sure how to pace your next bit of writing, put yourself in the readers’ place – if you were reading this story instead of writing it, what would you hope was going to happen next? Chances are, your answer will be something exciting. After all, how often do you hear people say, ‘I really wish the author had told that story slower, and with more lethargy!’?