"The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain whatsoever on his habitually slack attention."
~ EZRA POUND
You can teach thirty kids at once the rules of grammar and punctuation. Sentence structure is a snap. The difference between adverbs and adjectives? Piece of cake, as is their proper use. Articles, prepositions, conjunctions all have hard and fast rules of use that can be learned by rote. More advanced classes can teach story structure in all its aspects from plot development to subplots to point of view, but pacing seems to be a sort of voodoo aspect of writing that comes from within the writer, and cannot be imparted by an outside agency. Like the intangibles that make a great halfback, you have it, or you don't, and it can't be coached.
That said, you can explain the concepts, and the artisan, halfback or author, can develop the skills he or she has to their highest attainable degree. So, pacing in the novel. Plotter or pantser, you have a story that you want to tell. You want to tell it in its most enjoyable form to give your readers the best experience they can have. That's commendable, and a goal worth achieving, but a problem immediately presents itself.
You have this story either outlined in a notebook, or swirling in your head. You know a great deal about what's going to happen during the course of it. You're proud of it as a work of your Craft, or you wouldn't be considering embarking on a year of getting it down on paper and gifting it to the world's readers. You want it to be told, and you wish you could finish it now, today. So the fledgling author tends to put everything he can possibly fit into every scene he writes, because he can't wait to share it.
Imagine a scene that opens a space opera. Our intrepid heroes are approaching a derelict ship when suddenly a small warship, obviously pirates or scavengers of some kind, darts away from the opposite side.
"All ahead flank!" the intrepid captain shouts, intending to run these miscreants down and make them pay for their assumed wrongdoing. And then, instead of taking us on a pulse-pounding thrill ride, our author, our narrator, our guide then spends six pages describing how the faster-than-light drive works, and the stasis field that prevents everyone inside the ship from becoming strawberry jam on the instrument panels. Exciting? Yeah, I know. A couple of weeks back, I posted a piece about a published novel that had exactly this problem. The author had done all this research, very commendable by the way, but having done it, he couldn't bear to leave a word of it off the page.
Consider two movies, Kurt Russel's Tombstone, and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp. Tombstone, in its just-over two hour run time, focuses tightly on one series of events from the larger-than-life figure's career. It is tense, gripping, suspenseful, action-packed, and I've never heard a fan of westerns, morality tales, or the action genre in general speak ill of it. It remains, 23 years later, a shining example of how to take a viewer on a concise, edge-of-your seat journey from start to finish. Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, is a rambling, disjointed, often boring mosey through the back alleys of a man's life of which no less a personage than Roger Ebert said, "Wyatt Earp plays as if they took Tombstone and pumped it full of hot air. It involves many of the same characters and much of the same story, but little of the tension and drama. It's a rambling, unfocused biography of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), starting when he's a kid and following his development from an awkward would-be lawyer into a slick gunslinger. This is a long journey, in a three-hour film that needs better pacing."
And there's the word: Pacing. I'm having the same difficulty trying to think of a way to impart that intangible skill to young writers who need to learn it, and here's what comes to me. The next time that you are left on your own for a day to entertain yourself, instead of binge-watching old Seinfeld episodes, watch those two movies back-to-back. Watch Wyatt Earp first, followed by Tombstone. You will see the same subject done wrong, then done right, and as opposed to this blizzard of words that I'm offering here, and that have been offered countless times by smarter folks than I, those two examples may set it in your mind. Maybe you don't like the western format, or the violence of gunslinger movies, and that will make it a tough go, but if you need help grasping the concept of pacing, watching these two films together should bring it home for you. You've sat through boring classes that made you a better writer, accountant, nurse, or whatever. Just view this exercise as another one of those boring classes, and suffer through it. Your writing will improve dramatically!
Just remember, you don't have to tell me everything you know about your world and its characters. Hold something back. Let me discover it. Make me think, let me get to those "ah ha!" moments, and you'll quickly find a place on my Favorite Authors list. Much of writing is a science; pacing is very much the art, and if you learn it well, I'll keep coming back for as long as you care to keep delivering.
In news of my own writing, I got two chapters of Beyond the Rails III completed in draft form, and posted to my writing group this week. Things are going nicely. It's frustrating for me, because this brought me to the halfway point of the book, where I work to place a bone-jarring surprise as part of my formula, and no one there has read it yet! It's not a problem; we all get busy now and then, and let things slide. When everyone gets busy at the same time, the dark, sinister corridors of a fiction writer's mind start reeking of conspiracy theories and black-hearted plots. That's okay. They'll get to it, and things will be great again. Meanwhile, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, read well, and write better!