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“Nothing Happens In This Scene:” Brief Thoughts On Pacing and Context

If you’ve ever read any book reviews, or ever received any critiques on your work, chances are good you’ve heard the following feedback:

“I just wasn’t grabbed by this scene/chapter/story. Nothing happened.”

If your goal is to write a commercial book where everyone says “I read it in one sitting and I couldn’t put it down,” then this post is for you. Hearing that your pacing is bad and nothing is happening in your story is a frustrating critique, because pacing is so crucial, but also very hard to know how to fix. When I first started putting serious effort into honing my own sense of pacing, I approached it thusly: 

Readers say they don’t like the scenes where nothing happens. Ergo, I make something happen in every scene. All scenes are now perfect.*

*Except for all the other craft issues that could crop up, but shh.

By “I make something happen in every scene,” I mean that I put an event in the scene. The characters go somewhere. A fight breaks out. A conversation occurs. And so on and so on. The pacing, as a result, should be fast and relentless. But as I started investigating my favorite books, trying to figure out exactly how they achieved their elusive feats, I realized that I needed to reevaluate the way I approached this very common criticism.

Are people saying they’re bored because nothing happened? Or are they saying they’re bored because nothing that happened actually mattered? 

As an example, let’s use an argument scene. Argument scenes are great fun, because characters can be at their most messy and flawed and angry—and maybe, underneath, vulnerable. Things that have been stewing between them for a long time can finally come to the surface. They can insult each other and get vicious and maybe even start throwing things.

But where are they going to be at the end of this argument? In the same place? Or did something actually change?

I want to read an argument scene and feel that change. It can be internal or external, positive or negative, but I want to know that something was done that can’t be undone, or said that can’t be unsaid. I want to know that both of the characters involved are taking this forward with them, and it will affect them from now on, and they’ll never be able to un-have that scene. I want to know that this moment happened exactly when it needed to—that the author couldn’t just neatly excise it from that particular chapter and place it anywhere in the narrative. That’s how I feel like that scene mattered. 

If the scene matters, then the scene can be anything. A character sitting alone in a room can be incredibly dynamic, as long as something has changed when they come out the other side. That context—that importance that gives each scene a precious, weighty place within the narrative that’s all its own—is what keeps books from feeling not just like a series of things “happening,” but an actual story.

To me, a fast-paced book isn’t one where explosions happen and fights break out every second—it’s one that’s fast-paced for the reader. You rip through the pages because it all matters so much. Those are the kinds of books that I never want to put down.

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