During Japan’s era of modern literature (Taisho era), there was a much-publicized argument between two famous Authors. Their names may be familiar to you: Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and Tanizaki Jun’ichirou.
Tanizaki claimed a story’s content was more important than its structure (which I understand to mean pacing), while Akutagawa argued the opposite. Before moving forward, let’s define those two terms.
- Content: The actual events/beats of a story. When you tell someone what happened in a novel, you are referring to its content.
- Pacing: Most believe this to refer to how fast the content of a story happens. In truth, it refers to the ‘flow’ of your story. Meaning, how fast or slow it feels to a reader.
Tanizaki prefers a story that disregards good pacing in favor of brilliant content, while Akutagawa prefers one that might not have the best content, but has perfect flow and is a pleasure to read.
Both make valid arguments.
Tanizaki is renowned for his evocative stories with beautiful writing and shocking content. His works suck readers in and are always engaging, but can be somewhat of a chore to read due to questionable pacing.
Akutagawa is equally famous, but his works often feature simple stories about mundane people, places, and events. They may not be interesting at first glance, but are hard to put down and tend to stick in a reader’s mind long after they’ve finished reading.
I love both Authors and understand the benefits of one approach over the other, but ultimately have to side with Akutagawa. And no, his being my favorite author of all time has nothing to do with it…probably.
I side with him for two reasons:
It’s Hard to Write Good Content
I hate to tell you, but unless you’ve received a blessing from God, writing brilliant content is hard for fledgling Authors. You should always strive for it, but it’s not something you can guarantee.
And even if you do come up with something good, it’s probably been done a thousand times over already. Tanizaki had the benefit of writing a century ago. We, living of the era of Books-A-MILLION, will have a much harder time standing out from the crowd.
You Can Guarantee Good Pacing
Good content is subjective. Some readers may love it, while others hate it. But good pacing is objective. If your novel is well-paced, no matter how boring its content may be, readers will have to admit that it had good pacing.
Akutagawa’s stories are rarely exciting, but always have good pacing. Readers never get tripped up, bored, or confused due to bad pacing.
You can do the same with your Light Novel (LN). Even if your content is comprised of a trip to the barber and back, it can be made interesting via lovable characters, a well-realized world, and, most of all, proper pacing.
But what is good pacing?
I’m glad you asked, but won’t answer that question in full here. You can find an in-depth guide to mastering good pacing in this article.
However, I will say that well-paced novel is one with balanced pacing. Meaning, a 50/50~ split between fast and slow pacing. You probably won’t achieve that perfect balance (and don’t need to), but you can come close.
What I will cover in this article instead is a different definition of pacing. It’s not the correct one, but one I mistakenly believed when first hearing the term. To illustrate, I must tell you of my first Tanizaki novel.
Hold on a Minute. How’d We Get Here?
My first Tanizaki novel was recommended to me by one of my college professors. He, knowing of my undying love for Akutagawa said they were similar and that I’d probably enjoy it.
And enjoy it I did. Its title is Some Prefer Nettles and I reflect on it to this day. It is undoubtedly a great novel, but as you might’ve already guessed, it didn’t have the best pacing.
I paid it no mind until about halfway through the book. One chapter ended with the main character on one end of Japan and the next chapter began with him on the other end.
I could gather what was happening in the story, but was rather confused as to the how of it. I flipped back to the last chapter, read through the last few paragraphs, read the first few of the next chapter, but never discovered how the protagonist went from one end to the other.
Was it by plane? Boat? His own two feet? Did he have enough money for travel expenses? Was the trip long or short? How long did it take? I knew why he changed locations, but not how.
But isn’t all that completely pointless? I mean, who cares about all those little details? It’s not like knowing is going to make the content any better, right?
I agree. Pointless details have no bearing on story content, but they have all the power over immersion. And in that moment, my immersion was completely destroyed.
That sudden shift from one location to another in-between chapters caused me to stop reading. I panicked, wondered if I had missed something, if a few pages had been ripped out.
That’s called bad pacing. And bad pacing may not make detract from your content, but it can hurt your LN as a whole. The best content can never make up for bad pacing. But good pacing can carry boring content.
But again, you ask: what is good pacing?
It is many things, but for this article I’d like to cover what I’ve alluded to just now. Not the structural elements, writing style, etc. I discussed in my article on pacing, but the immersive elements of pacing.
Ha! I tricked you! You thought this was just an article on the merits of content vs. pacing, but no! It’s an extension to my article on the power of immersion! One you’ll find here that teaches you how your Light Novel will be better if it’s boring.
So, let’s learn even more about pacing. Because, yes, it’s that important to writing a successful LN.
H and the 5 W’s
No, not that kind of H.
My original understanding of the term ‘pacing’ referred to the logical elements of a story. I thought it referred to the how, who, what, when, where, and why of the story.
What it actually means is as I defined earlier, the flow of a story, but my initial definition shouldn’t be disregarded.
I adore Akutagawa’s stories because their structure and logic makes perfect sense. Everything that happens in the story happens for a reason and the logic behind that reason is made clear to the reader.
Good pacing not only creates perfect flow, but also immerses the reader.
And to achieve that immersion, you must answer the H and the 5 W’s.
Note: The following will seem obvious, silly, and contrived, but I encourage you to think of stories you enjoy and how they answered the following questions. You’ll be surprised how much effort goes into immersive pacing.
If you’ve yet to figure it out, I like to know the ‘how’ of a story.
This can refer to an infinite number of elements, here are a few examples:
Travel – How Did They Get There?
If your characters attend a high-school, do they drive or walk? You could just cut to them being in homeroom, but wouldn’t it be more interesting for readers to know how they got there?
If a character arrived by car, we might infer her to have overprotective parents or be filthy rich. If she walks, we can wonder if she’ll offer to walk home with the boy she likes.
Combat – How Will They Battle Their Enemies?
Your protagonist could pick a fight with the first Minotaur he sees, but readers would first like to know whether or not he has a chance.
Detail his combat ability, weapon of choice, skillset, fighting experience, and anything else that might raise or lower the tension. An interesting battle is one with clearly established stakes.
Vision – How Can They See?
You want to write a spooky nighttime adventure through a dark forest. We can see what’s happening, but can your characters?
The moonlight probably can’t pierce through those trees and most highschoolers don’t have night vision, so I’d better see some flashlights or torches before I get confused as to how they’re navigating said dark forest.
And to go even further, note whether or not the flashlights are battery powered. If they are, you can add tension by having them start to die.
Survival – How Will They Survive?
Your characters are trapped on a deserted island. Robbed of the comforts of modern life, they must secure food, water, and shelter by themselves.
How they do so is up to you, but readers will be confused if you don’t say anything at all. Besides, doing so will beef up your word count. Acquiring each element necessary for survival will provide several extra scenes and plenty of tension.
I could go on and on about every ‘how’ of your LN, but you should have a good understanding by now.
Onto our next act, the W’s.
It’s important for readers to know who is involved with your story. The ‘who’ are your characters whether they be major, secondary, or minor. Of whom, you can learn how to create by checking out this article.
That may be painfully obvious, but I encourage you to ask: do my readers really know who my characters are?
Oftentimes, a novel will introduce a bunch of characters that are important to the story, but fail to introduce them in a meaningful way.
I’ll be reading a scene and constantly be wondering who this character is, when they were introduced, if I missed something. In most cases, it’s not the reader’s fault, but the Author’s for not establishing just who that character is.
And it isn’t hard. You should thoroughly develop your major and secondary characters at some point, but as a baseline for them and all you need for minor characters, establish their:
If they’re important, give them a name. If not, it can be a title such as ‘innkeeper’ or ‘librarian’.
So readers can associate a mental image with the name.
Doing that is much easier for readers rather than associating it with details about the character’s life.
Make it super-detailed for important characters, but don’t describe too much if they’re not. ‘Old man’ is a good enough description if there are no other old men in the scene.
So readers can separate one character from another.
Your characters should all have distinct personalities if you want them to stand out. Some can similar personalities, but avoid putting them in the same scene lest readers get confused or bored.
So readers can know whether or not they’re supposed to remember that character.
The innkeeper can be forgotten, but not the emperor. Make clear how important a character is to your story and what role they have to play.
Without those, readers could waste time worrying about some minor character and be annoyed if they never show up again. Or, vice versa, be thoroughly confused as to why the emperor keeps showing up despite seeming unimportant at first.
You don’t have to do much to establish the ‘who’, but you must do it. Even if it’s no more than this: The innkeeper was a jovial man in his sixties.
‘Innkeeper’ establishes his name and role, ‘jovial’ establishes his personality, and ‘man in his sixties’ establishes his appearance.
And that’s all readers really need to understand a character’s ‘who’. You can and should strive for more evocative, meaningful description, but only if it helps your LN as a whole.
The ‘what’ of your story could refer to an infinite number of elements, but my definition is concerned with objects and concepts. Whether it be a building, a character’s outfit, or their weapon, it’s important to establish just ‘what’ they are.
If your character wields a sword, readers will subconsciously be wondering:
- What does it look like?
- How long is it?
- Is the blade broad or narrow?
They may not care on a surface level, but such details can add layers of immersion to your story.
If the protagonist just starts swinging ‘a blade’ without any details, some readers will imagine a dagger, many a longsword, and few a buster sword.
This can be detrimental to your story as those who imagined a dagger will be confused when the protagonist stabs their enemy from a meter away.
As for concepts, such as your magic system, you need to think of and answer any questions readers might have about it.
The same logic applies to any superpower, Sci-Fi technology, and so on. The two most common questions for concepts are:
- How does it work?
- Where did it come from (superpower) or who invented it (technology)?
Be clear as to ‘what’ each object and concept in your story is and readers will be that much more sucked into your world.
The ‘when’ of your story is exactly what it sounds like. Establishing your story’s time frame makes it easy for readers to imagine your world. Plus, it gives you more opportunities for worldbuilding and unique scenes.
Here are what you should establish the ‘when’ with:
Year – When Does the Story Take Place?
Is it the present? The past? The near future? Each time frame suggests something about your world without you having to say anything.
Your characters won’t be able to call each other via cellphone in the past, while they might just use nanomachines to communicate in the future.
Season (Month) – What Season Is It?
Each season has a unique feel and will do a lot of the heavy lifting that is description for you. Spring is pleasant and full of life, while fall is chilly and somber.
They also have unique events that make coming up with scenes much easier. Summer = a beach trip and winter = a Christmas party.
Day(s): How Long Is the Story?
A common feature in Dating Sim Visual Novels is the Date Counter. This provides players with a sort-of countdown, as many are set two weeks before Christmas or Valentine’s Day so that the climatic event of the lovers confessing their love happens on that special day.
You can use the same tactic to give readers a sense of time in your story. I wouldn’t say falling in love in two weeks is realistic, but it’s a lot more so than in two days.
Establishing the day also helps in framing and detailing scenes. Tokyo on Sunday (lots of shoppers) looks much different from Monday (lots of men in suits).
Humans have a natural desire to know the time frame of an event (how often do you check the clock?). Fulfill it in your story to add a sense of realism and immersion by extension.
There are many ‘where’s’ in your story. The most obvious is your world/setting, but within it are a thousand more places you must establish in order to immerse your readers.
You can circumvent this issue by employing common settings such as modern-day Tokyo for your world and a high-school, arcade, or downtown for your various locales.
Each of those fall under the realm of common knowledge, so you don’t necessarily have to go out of your way to extensively detail them.
If, however, you have created a unique world full of fantastical locales, you’ll have to do some extra work to immerse readers.
The same logic that applies to the ‘who’ also applies to the ‘where’.
Readers will want to know its:
Name and Appearance
For the same reasons as the ‘who’. Establishing both will cement the location in a reader’s mind which makes reading easier if the location shows up again later in your story.
Feel (instead of Personality)
How does the location feel?
An abandoned castle in the middle of a dark forest suggests eeriness and unease. If that’s what you’re aiming for, then drive that vibe home via strong description or character commentary.
A location is much easier for readers to get attached to when they associate it with a specific emotion. Home is comforting, downtown is lively, a daytime cemetery is somber, and so on.
Again, establish the importance level of your locations. If your characters will only visit it once, don’t spend a lot of time describing it. Conversely, if they spend half the volume there, make it stand out.
Your world and the places within it are as important as your story and characters. Immerse readers by telling them exactly ‘where’ they are.
It’s instrumental readers know why each event in your story happens.
Usually, the answer will reveal itself naturally as your story progresses. To get from chapter 1 to 2, you’ll likely provide reasons for your story progressing.
However, it can be easy to forget the finer details, two being:
History – Why Are Your Characters in the Current Situation?
Establishing what happened before the current story begins is necessary to understand what happens in it.
Without a clear history of the story, characters, and world, readers will be left wondering why an event is occurring, why the characters are involved, or why the event was even allowed to occur at all based on the world it happens in.
For example: your characters are fighting as mercenaries in a war between two countries.
Readers should know how the war started, why the characters decided to take part in it, and what impact the war has had on the world/country/city your characters inhabit.
Motivation – Why Do Your Characters Care?
Telling readers why your characters take part in your story will make them care about your characters.
Without motivations, they are little more than floating cameras with which we can observe your story and world. Both of those might be interesting, but rarely do readers remember them.
Instead, they remember your loveable characters. And a loveable one has clearly defined motivations.
Explain why they’re taking part in the war. Even if it’s just for money, it’s still providing the ‘why’ that is key to immersing readers.
The ‘why’ isn’t something you should have to worry about too much, but be sure to keep it in mind while writing.
Great Pacing Can Carry Your Good Content
Good content is important, but not all of us are as talented as Tanizaki.
And unlike good pacing and structure, it cannot be taught (probably, if anyone can teach me to come up with brilliant content, I’ll be happy to listen…).
So, Akutagawa is the clear winner in this argument. Good content is important, but an immersive story with good pacing will keep readers coming back for more.
And as an LN Author, that’s exactly what you want. Because you’re likely writing a series, you want readers excited to pick up volume 2, 3, 4, and so on.
Answering the H and the 5 W’s may seem pointless, but many readers won’t come back if you don’t. They may have loved your content, but weren’t immersed enough to return.
Always strive to write good content, but don’t count on it carrying your entire LN. Immersive pacing is the key to loyal readers.