It is the same with a novel. There isn’t just one way to pace a novel, as each novel is unique in its execution.
A mystery or a thriller should have a fast pace. A character in such a novel might have times where they are running for their life. A good author will leave her readers feeling breathless as well. This is achieved by staccato writing: meaning short, precise sentences. Now is the time to tick-off English teachers everywhere, as you will use incomplete sentences and sentences that start with conjunctions to create a sense of immediacy. For example:
The door. She could see the door. She had to make it inside. And fast.
There isn’t a lot to think about in those sentences, making it easier for the reader to become immersed in the story and feel the same panic the character is experiencing. Most books in suspense genres aren’t very detail oriented, as taking time to describe houses, food, flowers, etc, would detract from the urgency of the storyline.
However, historical novels are a place where greater descriptions are appropriate. A historical novel does have a slower pace, as the day-to-day life at that time was indeed slower. (Read that last sentence again. It was SO profound!) In a historical, you want your reader to take time to absorb their surroundings. The Seasons of Mae is set in Bozeman, Montana in the 1880’s, and here is the scene where Mae sees her surroundings for the first time:
As they approached the mountains, the scenery grew even lovelier. The large pine trees towered like stately statues guarding the earth’s most precious treasure. The smell of the evergreens was medicine to Mae’s soul. She closed her eyes, tipped her nose in the air and drew in a deep breath, relishing the aroma. It had been ages since Mae had felt such inner peace. Instantly, she had fallen in love with the Gallatin Valley.
This passage is slow, serene, and descriptive. It’s exactly what it needs to be at this point in the novel. However, the general pace of the novel is off. Mae makes an impromptu, life-changing decision within the first 20 pages of the novel. When I wrote the book, I never thought of Mae’s character as being rash and impulsive, but after letting the book sit for a decade, I realize that is exactly how I have portrayed her. In several instances, she reveals deep inner desires and personal secrets with people who are practically strangers. After meeting someone once or twice, she feels like they are family or like she has known them her entire life. This isn’t really her true personality: it’s my own weakness as an author.
In addition to allowing the characters to make hasty decisions and not giving them adequate time to develop relationships (one couple goes from strangers to secret lovers as the result of one conversation! This would have been highly unlikely during this time period, especially considering the proper upbringing of the characters.), I also didn't allow scenes to fully develop.
Picture a balloon. A few puffs of air and you have a toy that will instantly entertain a child. But if you spend a bit longer and sacrifice several more precious breaths, you can make the balloon bigger, more interesting, and a lot more fun. A word of warning though: just like a balloon can be overfilled and therefore pop, so can a story. Don't fill your story with unnecessary verbiage. Don't weigh your story down with TOO many details. You want your balloon to be just the right size.
In most of the chapters of Seasons of Mae, I only skimmed the surface of each scene. Take this scene for example:
“If he has enough money in the bank, I dare say they don’t care what type of man he is,” Joseph said harshly.
Mae said that she was surprised to hear Joseph saying such things, for it was usually she that brought the conversation down a notch. She was worried that her bad example had rubbed off on him, but he replied by saying how the focus of Alice’s courting this past year had left a bad taste in his mouth.
I don’t know why that entire conversation wasn’t written out. Oh wait, yeah I do! It’s because I was cheating my way through this novel. This example is just one of thousands, making it obvious that I didn’t take the time to give details. And if the author doesn’t take the time to build a solid scene, it will crumble.
Think of each scene like you are watching a play. If the scenery has changed since the last chapter, we need to know that. We need to know if the lighting has changed: indicating day or night, or possibly one character taking the spotlight for a time. And then most importantly: dialogue. What is being said? What is not being said, but is being implied through body language and sarcasm? Write all of that down. If my book was a play, the actors would be standing on stage, looking confused (twiddling their thumbs and possibly picking their noses) and not acting. The narrator would be saying, “Mae did this and then Joseph did this and then she decided to ….” Essentially, the narrator has hijacked the story!
Your characters have mouths: let them speak! It is through their words, their actions, and their thoughts—not the narrators—that your reader will see what is happening on the stage you have built in their mind. You are the producer/director/writer of the production: it is your job to make certain your audience is properly entertained. Slow the story down enough to let them visualize what is happening on stage. Let them get to really know the characters. Pull them to the edge of their seats when necessary. Don't cheat them, after all, they've paid for the best seat in the house. :)