By Miranda Paul
We've all got that uncle or colleague who knows how to captivate a crowd. Even when they're repeating a "Guy walks into a bar" joke, we'll stop what we're doing and lean in. Why?
They're masters at pacing. They know how to hook a listener.
Comedians, speakers, actors, and storytellers understand that how they tell a joke or a tale is as important as what that joke or story is about. The best stories are ones we want to read or hear again and again because the way they unfold is just as intriguing as the outcome. The journey is the story.
When I critique manuscripts (and sometimes when editing my own WIPs), I may think a story needs different pacing. I think this when I'm not gripped or hooked early in the manuscript—usually by a unique character and his or her conflict. Other times, things get "muddled in the middle" because there's not a structure that keeps the book moving forward. Occasionally, I get to the end of a story and realize that the author focused too heavily on the punchline or ending twist. While punchlines are often funny the first time they're read, if there's not a lot of substance leading up to that last line, the book falls flat.
I've compiled a list of 12 books I love. I believe each of these has a unique rhythm. In some ways, they're like songs, despite the fact that they're all written in prose. They've got clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Each has a hook or setup that pulls the reader in. The middle then raises the stakes and keeps us interested, and the endings are satisfying—often with a twist or surprise that feels like a bonus.
#1 SOPHIE'S SQUASH
Pacing techniques: Foreshadowing, seasonal timeframe, rule of three
It's no wonder Pat Zietlow Miller's story got picked off the slush and has found wild success. From the first page, the squash's fate is foreshadowed: "Her parents planned to serve it for supper, but Sophie had other ideas." It's late summer in the beginning, and the author paces the middle of the book with chronological clues such as "as winter neared" and "when the snow finally melted." Other foreshadowing includes Bernice's "freckles." Miller also employs the rule of three throughout—three reasons why Bernice was "just right," for example.
#2 CREEPY CARROTS
Pacing techniques: Rule of three, ellipses
Aaron Reynolds's exposition is entirely written in "rule of three" sets. Page one gives three reasons why Crackenhopper's carrots were the best. Page two shows three times of day that Jasper pulled, yanked, and ripped them. On page three, we get the first ellipsis . . ."until they started following him." Ellipses and rule of three sets dominate the rest of the pacing, which makes the story unfold quickly at parts and more slowly and with suspense during other parts.
#3 RAILROAD HANK
Pacing techniques: Rising action, parallel series
This book is lovely to use with any group of new writers when you're discussing the story mountain, because Hank is literally chugging up a mountain to help the ailing Granny Bett. Each time he adds some cargo, though, (the parallel series) the plot gets a little more extreme. Lisa Moser uses a similar structure to her language in each scene of the parallel series, but adds a unique flair to each one's voice so that the repetition is anything but dull.
#4 THE OTHER SIDE
Pacing techniques: Temptation, repetition, symbolic object
Pacing a "quiet" book seems challenging. But Jacqueline Woodson begins with exactly what will tempt a reader to turn the page and see what comes next: A Mama saying "Don't."
That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.
We lived in a yellow house on one side of it.
White people lived on the other.
And Mama said, "Don't climb over that fence when you play."
Woodson begins a number of pages with "That summer" to echo the beginning, and changes the phrase slightly just before the pace changes and the girls go closer to that fence. The fence remains a focal point or symbolic object throughout the book, and the final page reads:
"Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down," Annie said.
And I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "Someday."
#5 BILLY TWITTERS AND HIS BLUE WHALE PROBLEM
Pacing techniques: Immediate conflict, satisfying (but surprising) end twist
At a lengthy 936 words, pacing is a must in order to keep the attention of a young listener. Mac Barnett makes the conflict immediate and hyperbolic. The first spread says: "Billy Twitters, clean up your room or we're buying you a blue whale." By the third spread, the FedUp truck is delivering a Balaenoptera musculus. The book's middle is just as hyperbolic, and the conflict continues to get worse. The ending wraps up the unclean room problem in a surprising way.
#6 PRUDENCE WANTS A PET
Pacing techniques: Strong emotional build, parallel series
You'd never think this book was 709 words—the humor and heart break up each scene. Cathleen Daly narrates with a unique and distinct voice that pulls the reader in so strongly we are captivated. The repetition of "No" from Mom and Dad builds tension. The parallel series of Prudence caring for five random objects one after another proves her worthiness to be a pet owner. The emotional language pulls us in deeper and deeper each time. When she's got a shoe for a pet we learn it "never licks Prudence. Or jumps in her lap." By taking us on the emotional journey, we're invested and, ultimately, satisfied by the very perfect ending.
#7 NOAH WEBSTER AND HIS WORDS
Pacing techniques: Character motivation; diction
From the get-go, the text and illustration work together to show a young boy at odds with his parent. What youngster can't relate to not wanting what their parents want them to do? Jeri Chase Ferris goes on to pace the story with specific CAPITALIZED words that are defined throughout, to set up that Noah was destined to be a wordsmith. It's a great nonfiction example of a narrative structure that's highly stylized. And how does it end? Again, it echoes the beginning: "He always knew he was right!" (P.S. if you don't know what diction is, check out my Grammar Groove course, which was launched on Noah Webster's birthday!)
#8 THE SANDWICH SWAP
Pacing techniques: Mirror begin/end; establishing the status-quo
Kelly DiPucchio and Queen Rania's co-authored book tells us exactly how the story starts and ends. But instead of feeling like a spoiler, it's written in a way that tells the reader up front: the important part is how it all started with peanut butter and jelly and ended up with hummus. Out of 14 spreads (609 words total), seven of them set up the story of their perfect friendship. (But these seven spreads only comprise about 75 words, mind you.) The reader is now invested and ready for the status-quo to be turned upside down in the middle. It's a different approach, but it works in this case. Why? Because DiPucchio already told us what's going to happen in the end. We're more concerned with how these two are going to return that wonderful status-quo (plus a transformation).
#9 HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA
Pacing techniques: Clear timeframe, sections/headers
This book is paced in two ways. First, it takes place all in one Grandpa visit. The reader knows at some point, Mom and Dad will come home, and the book will end. Jean Reagan also does a great job of pacing the books through individual sections that directly involve the reader. The idea of sections or headers is one that's very popular in the blogosphere—breaking up a longer article into sections (sort of like this) makes a story less daunting and allows each part to have its own pace and mood.
#10 OWL MOON
Pacing technique: Building suspense/holding back
"Sometimes there's an owl and sometimes there isn't." The language in this book is so perfect, it invites a quiet hush. There's a sense of waiting and longing on top of the fact that it's very late at night. The first attempts to see an owl aren't met with success, and this builds anticipation. I often notice that new writers solve the conflict or are so quick to resolve the book that they forget that the story is the journey. Jane Yolen does a great job of holding out and drawing our reader so deeply into the stillness of the forest that we can almost feel our heartbeats and the heat in our mouths.
#11 A DAY WITH NO CRAYONS
Pacing techniques: Setting changes, clear time frame
The first four spreads of exposition through conflict all happen in one setting—Liza's room. We know she has to go a whole day without her crayons as punishment for drawing on the walls. In order to keep the story moving forward, it's imperative that the setting changes. Each spread moves to a different location—bathroom to basketball court to grass to swings. At the end, the day-long time frame is up and the crayons are hers to have again, if she wants them.
#12 17 THINGS I'M NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYMORE
Pacing technique: List
Bloggers use this "list" technique all the time. (Did you notice the title of this post?) By setting up the reader's expectations, they'll know exactly where they're at in the story. While Jenny Offill's list isn't numbered in the actual text, she fits the list into a single day from morning to evening, giving a second clue. This "list" technique is also applicable to counting and alphabet books, and the numbered list is what Offill uses again in her sequel, 11 Experiments That Failed.
That's the end!
See how well a numbered list works?
(P.S. If you want an encore, here's a post about another pacing technique called storyboarding.)
Miranda Paul is a mother, therefore she's always moving at a fast pace. She is the author of One Plastic Bag (Millbrook, 2015), Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015), and Helping Hands (Millbrook, 2016). In addition to being an instructor for the Children's Book Academy’s newest course on grammar, she is the founder and administrator of RateYourStory.org, an online service dedicated to helping writers prepare their manuscripts for submission. She loves to hear from readers what their favorite books are, so feel free to message her titles of perfectly-paced books on Twitter (@Miranda_Paul). Her website is pretty easy to figure out: www.MirandaPaul.com.
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