Pacing - what makes a book feel "slow"?

I’m currently reading a novel that is really good – but which a number of readers have commented feels slowly paced. I’m about halfway through, now, and I can feel the pace accelerating – which is good.

But I’m curious: for you, what makes a book feel slow? What do you think is the usual cause?

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What is the novel?

I’ll have to think about it next time I come to a place in my reading that feels slow. I know recently I did not finish an adventure book because there was too much reminiscing by the characters I didn’t feel was relevant enough to the present story. Also the POV kept changing so often I couldn’t really develop any sense of caring about the characters. That made if feel slow for some reason.

It varies for me. Sometimes it’s because there’s too much unnecessary description that causes the narrative to drag. Other times, it’s due to my not feeling invested in the character or their goals/desires early enough in the story. So, I suppose the core problem would probably be a lack of balance in the writing. A story that grabs the reader’s attention needs a balance of character, action, and description that all work together to draw the reader along and keep them interested in the story.

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Reedsy did last week a really helpful (I wanna say webinar? It lasted an hour) video on pacing. The editor Anna Bierhaus was the speaker.

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For me:

  1. Too much detail
  • Example: Describing every little nook of the room the character walks into… Sorry… but I don’t really care
  1. Extensive introspective passages
  • Example: The character(s) sit around and contemplate how they feel about other people or events in the story. I get pieces of introspection here and there. Sometimes, it’s fine, but anything longer than a couple sentences at a time, and you’ve lost me.
  1. Excessive repetition
  • For example, I read a novel a couple years ago where one character kept rehashing the same thing every time he had dialogue… It got super old super quick.
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Although I complain more often about too much action at the beginning of a book than a novel being too slow, I do find it ‘slow’ when there are too many characters each with their own story (and I don’t know how important all the details are going to be) and wading through backstory near the beginning of the novel. I do want to be involved with one or two characters enough that I can tolerate the backstory when it comes (or even enjoy it!). Same with the action.

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I’ve been pondering this for a few years now. In a writer’s conference I asked the panel how one could examine your own work to judge the pacing. In my mind their answers boiled down to how many words you spent on ‘stuff’.
I think readers want to feel there’s enough stuff happening per page: ‘stuff’ can be action, gaining insights into an intriguing character, evocative passages to appreciate a landscape… But if it’s not showing them enough that’s in some sense surprising, or intriguing, threatening, funny, beautiful, … they’ll start to yawn.

The novel is Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I just finished it. It’s very good and I see why it’s done so well with so many readers. But the first half does feel a lot slower than it might be.

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Pointless and confusing plotlines slow things down for me.

Using “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James as an example, this is one of very few books that has gone into my DNF pile. I persevered for around 200 pages (about a third of the book) because I’d heard so many positives about it initially. The protagonist was not particularly likeable, quite two-dimensional and wishy-washy, the storyline itself meandered, then jumped, then meandered - to no obvious purpose (perhaps if I got around to finishing it, who knows?), and the vulgarity seemed without purpose (not that I take offence easily, but it truly seemed pointless). For me those elements combined to create confusion and seemingly no direction, resulting in a slower and slower pace, until I finally gave up on it. Maybe the “pace” was not the problem, but the lack of interest for me slowed my reading down instead.

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My take might be a little backwards, but I get frustrated when I can skim every few pages, or skip entire chapters, and still have a firm sense of everything that’s happening in the story.

That feels “slow” to me.

When a book doesn’t give me anything to sink my teeth into or feel curious about, if I can burn through 300+ pages in a couple hours without missing a beat, I feel short-changed. Like food that goes right through you – I won’t be ordering more of the same.

For example, a contemporary novel (Sue Monk Kidd) that switched POV between a slave and her master every other chapter. If you skip all the master chapters, it’s a much more enjoyable book, and you don’t miss a thing. Why dilute the soup?

N.K. Jemisin on the other hand… Gosh, you could teach entire graduate courses on each singular novel. Everytime I read through her work, I come away with something new. There are so many layers and secreted nuggets of nourishment that it can feed your heart for days – years even, if you can savor.

That pacing pulls me in – it feels rich, and worthwhile, and before I know it, the sun’s come up again and I’m still knee-deep in her dreams. It makes my lived-time pass by more rapidly, if that makes sense, where work with a lot of empty space or fluff allows me all the bandwidth to keep pace with my own clock’s tick-tock.

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Loved The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)

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For me, I feel that a story begins to drag when the internal values of the protagonist remain stagnant. I need the character to change, whether it’s their decisions or actions that cause the growth. It could be a positive or negative fluctuation. If they remain the same, whether confused over a constant detail in a mystery or unsure about a romantic partner for way too long, I feel frustrated as I wait for their movement. This may also happen when I feel a connection loss to the protagonist when I am smothered with too much information or simply do not understand them.

Some books are like potato chips: you eat them quickly, almost without thinking, but they’re fun and sometimes you want that snack. They’re also not filling or challenging. They can be fast paced but ultimately forgettable.
I find Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series to be like a seven course meal where every page has something going on, a reveal, an insight into a character, etc. I read them slowly because I don’t want to miss anything. Also true for more recent Charlaine Harris and for Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series. Strangely enough, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series is very slow paced and very gentle but I like the people and place so much I’m glad to be in their world for as long as I can.
Maybe my definition of slow is when nothing of significance is revealed or happens for many pages AND the characters and what they’re doing isn’t interesting enough for me to want to ride along to the next exciting bit.