What Beta Readers really mean by “Pacing” problems

I’ve ran into an interesting problem with my beta readers that’s baffled me for weeks. Pacing. Every single one of them said my first chapter’s pace was just too slow. But that didn’t make much sense to me. I have prose scuffed down to a satisfying crisp. I had a sequence of events moved by the main character. I had a hook and a page-turner, everything a Chapter 1 was supposed to have. Sure, some people noticed the work I put into it, how beautifully crafted it was, even said “wow!” but then the pacing complaint came soon thereafter. Why?

Then I decoded the beta-speak. It wasn’t a pacing problem, it was an urgency problem.

Let me explain what I mean by urgency. My main character was in danger, but it was a “possible” danger. He’s hiding, and if he’s caught he could die. You know what would be better? If he were being chased. Then it is an “immediate” and “urgent” problem. The reader has to jump to action NOW and flee the scene, rather than scratch their nose and wonder what might happen if they step out of the shadows.

Passage A: Example of a present but not immediate danger:

Henry grasped the stolen fruit, desperately wishing he could shove it into his mouth. But if he did, the merchant would hear him. And if he left his cubby in the wall, he’d certainly be apprehended. Henry didn’t move a muscle, and waited for the merchant to leave.

Passage B: Example of an immediate danger:

Henry clutched the stolen fruit to his chest like a football as he ran. The merchant roared behind him flailing a knife that glinted against the sun. Henry’s heart jumped in his throat and his feet flew like the wind, taking him to the one place he knew he’d be safe: the graveyard.

This is just a quick example I wrote for the purposes of this blog, and I think it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Passage A may be interesting, but it’s a dull and slow kind of interesting. Then Passage B comes along, and we’re launched into the ride, ready and excited to see what’s going to come next.

So consider what your beta readers are saying the next time they complain of slow pace. It just may be that your action isn’t present and immediate, and that’s the change you need to focus on.

For more writing tips on how to construct a compelling chapter, I suggest Making a Scene by Jorden Rosenfield.

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