Tools for Writers: A Pace Sheet for Your Novel

Pace chart for writing a novelKeeping up with the pace

I don’t know about you, but when I’m down in the weeds of writing my novel, it’s hard to figure out if the pace is right or not. I have to pull my head out of my, um, fiction and see if the story is bouncing along as it should, speed-wise.

That’s what pace is – the speed at which your novel clips along.

Elements of pace

There are a lot of different aspects to pace:

  • The amount of action in each scene. The more action in a scene, the faster its pace.
  • The length of the scenes. Shorter scenes strung together tend to quicken the pace.
  • The number of action-poor scenes in relation to the number of action-rich scenes. The more action-rich scenes you have, the faster the pace.
  • The length of the paragraphs. Shorter paragraphs create a sense of urgency, which quickens the pace.
  • The length of the sentences. Shorter sentences also create a sense of urgency, like shorter paragraphs.
  • The words used. Using plainer, more terse words quickens the pace; for example, “pusillanimous” will slow you down compared to “chicken.”

Okay, fine. There’s pace, more or less, but a definition of pace is not really what I’m after here. I mean, it’s great to know what it is, but how do you know when it’s right? You’re sitting there with fifty or seventy or a hundred scenes and the trouble is, how do you hold them all in your head so you can step back, look at the pattern they make and see whether or not they combine to produce the pace you want for your novel?

Well, you can’t. I can’t, anyway. Maybe you’re some kind of memory genius who can envision all that material at once, but not me. My brain is just too tiny. So, what’s a writer to do? Figure out a tool, that’s what.

Making a pace sheet

Enter the Pace Sheet (insert imaginary triumphant trumpet fanfare here). I use this device to help me visualize the pace of my novel. Here’s what you can do:

  • Have a novel planning matrix, beat sheet or outline. If you’re not clear on that, check out <planning matrix post> or some other worthy source.
  • Rate each scene on your matrix for Pace, scoring them as 5 = very fast, 4 = fast, 3 = medium, 2 = slow, 1 = very slow. Use the factors of pacing, along with your gut, to make your judgment.
  • Using a spreadsheet program, create a spreadsheet with one column labeled “Scene” and one labeled “Pace.” Enter the scene numbers and their corresponding pace scores in the rows as needed. Here’s what I mean:

    Spreadsheet columns for a pace sheet for your novel
    Pace sheet columns. Click to enlarge.
  • Highlight the data and create a chart with it. I ended up using a bubble chart, and here’s what I got for one of my drafts:
    Bubble-chart pace sheet for a novel
    Pace sheet bubble chart. Click to enlarge.

    As you can see, my novel is pretty fast-paced, which is what I wanted. I’ve got plenty of 4s and 5s with enough lower scores to balance things out. Notice at the tail end I’ve got a load of 5s crammed together; that way I know my ending has the excitement I want.

    So, there you have it, a simple tool for pulling back from your novel and checking the pace.

    One last note: If you want to do this with pencil and paper, you certainly can. Graph paper would work well, I think, with five pace rows on the left and a column for each scene. You’d just mark the intersection of pace score and scene number with a dot, then connect the dots with a line or make bubbles around each dot.

    If you’ve got a spiffy definition of pace, or a clever way of judging the pace of your fiction, please let the rest of us in on it with a comment, okay?

    Happy fictioneering!

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