I first learned about the concept of pacing when I became involved in sports. Most of my experience in athletics was involved with one-on-one competitions, such as judo, boxing, karate, or wrestling. This participation taught me a lot of things, but most particularly, I learned the importance of endurance. When you’re facing an opponent in an extended, physical confrontation, you’d better know how to pace yourself. Even though you might be bigger and stronger than your opponent, if you get tired, you’re toast. It’s all about the pacing.
Old time boxing trainers were against their protégés lifting weights, for instance, for fear of them becoming musclebound. “The guys with the big muscles always get tired in the later rounds,” Angelo Dundee, one of boxing’s greatest trainers, once said. Angelo preferred his boxers to have a smooth muscularity. His opinion was possibly validated during the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” when Angelo’s fighter, Muhammad Ali, beat the bigger, stronger, more muscular George Foreman for the heavyweight championship.
On the other hand, former heavyweight champ, Mike “Black Hercules,” Weaver, had a bodybuilder’s physique, and limitless stamina to go with it. He knocked out Big John Tate with a tremendous left hook in last few seconds of the fifteenth round of their championship match to win the title. And this was after losing the majority of the preceding rounds. Of course, there are those who would say that Tate had a weak chin, but Weaver still had to muster the power for that knockout punch after almost an hour of exchanging punches. He knew he had to keep something in the tank. The will to win is worth nothing without the will to prepare. What it boils down to is doing your roadwork. Those early morning runs are perhaps the most important training aspect of getting ready for a fight. They not only build stamina, but they teach you to pace yourself.
Since everybody’s probably pretty tired of me talking about boxing, I’ll transition to writing where pacing is equally essential. It’s no secret that real life runs at a different pace than fiction. In order for a story to be entertaining, it must be told at the proper, dramatic pace. This dramatic pacing is something that every writer should take pains to get right. One way is to use a good outline. If you outline your story the pacing is readily apparent. You can check the ebb and flow of the plot, see if there are any weak spots, any places that need shoring up, and get a good overview of the pace at which the story unfolds. If you want to keep the reader turning those pages, you’d better be sure that the pace doesn’t falter.
Keep in mind that a story’s pace is intrinsically linked to that old three act structure. In the first act you introduce the characters and the problem or conflict. In Act Two things generally get worse. If you have some subplots and red herrings, these also tend to get some development in the second act. In the third act you want to wrap up your subplots as the conflict continues to escalate until it reaches its climax. Toss in a denouement and you’re sailing across the finish line. The trick is to have enough gas left in the tank so you don’t tank. If you run out of steam at the end of Act Two, you’d better transform that novel into a novella.
Another of the benefits of outlining your story out beforehand is that it gives you the ability to work backwards. I often liken outlining a story as working on an algebraic equation. You can work both sides. If you get stuck in the middle, but know where you want to end up, try taking a shot at listing in reverse order what scenes you need in between. If you know what’s coming, it’s easier to adjust your pace.
I can remember signing up for an annual, ten mile race during my competitive racing days. I wasn’t familiar with the course and I was doing okay until we rounded this corner and started the last leg, which went through a forest preserve. After another mile or so, the path proceeded up a very steep hill. Needless to say, I hadn’t paced myself correctly and the sight of that hill up ahead knocked the starch out of me. I finished the race, but not with a very impressive time. The following year I ran it again, and kept something in the tank for that incline. I finished with a much better time.
Well, it looks like I’ve segued back to sports, which means I’ve come full circle. So, thankfully, it’s time to quit.
Just remember, whether you’re writing, running, or boxing, make sure you pace yourself appropriately.