I'm leaving town later this week to go to Maine for a wedding, so I had some errands to run and shopping to do this past weekend to get ready: a wedding present, a dress, a new book for the plane, etc. In the midst of all that, I went to see The Proposal--the new romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds--and I started to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Two totally different genres and formats, but both got me to thinking about pacing.
In American Gods, the first chapter sets up the drama and tension of the book. Shadow, the protagonist, is about to get out of jail--free to go home to his wife, the one woman who feels like home to him, and the job that's waiting for him from his best friend. He's vowed to live clean and straight; he never wants to return to prison. Shadow is released from jail a few days early when he finds out his wife has been killed in a car accident. On the flight home, he meets a stranger who tells him that his job is not waiting for him--his best friend was killed, as well--and who offers him a job (with sketchy and unknown moral implications).
At this point, all the plot points of the novel are not revealed; in fact, we don't even necessarily know what the main plot will be. However, the story already includes conflict, tension and drama: three key elements to pacing, and ultimately to plot execution.
Similarly, The Proposal sets out the conflict swiftly. Sandra Bullock's character is a cutthroat editor-in-chief for a book publisher. When she finds out that she is about to be deported back to Canada, she announces that she is engaged to the overburdened executive assistant who lives in fear of her--Ryan Reynolds's character. An INS agent threatens to uncover their engagement for the sham that it is, and before we know it (within the first 15-20 minutes of the movie), Sandra & Ryan are Alaska-bound to meet his family. The resolution of the plot takes us to the very end of the movie; and, really, would we have it any other way? Even though the audience knows how the movie will end (presumably), we would all be bored if we reached the resolution of the plot and had to sit in our seats for 30 more minutes.
Pacing is just as important as any other element when we're considering submissions. I recently read a manuscript where the crucial conflict of the plot was resolved 200 pages before the end of the manuscript (leaving only a secondary plot to meander to the end). I also read a manuscript where the true conflict didn't come into play until more than halfway into the ms.; everything before that was set-up. Conversely, I read another manuscript recently that was tightly woven until the end, leaving me anxiously turning each page to find out what happened next.
As you're thinking about pacing in relation to your manuscript, it may be helpful to map out the plot points of your story. Take note of each point that moves your plot forward. Next, look at where these plot points occur geographically in your manuscript: pp. 10, 267, & 400? pp. 100, 150, 200? If these are the mountains in your manuscript, take a look at what's going on in the valleys. Is it exposition? Is it character development? Is it interesting? Is it summary? Is it necessary? Does the writing propel the reader to the next mountain? Could you cut anything to make the pacing tighter?
So many questions with no one right answer, as always. *sigh* But know that we're all rooting for you while we're reading!