To some extent, of course, fantasy novels are the same as all other novels- they have to have a beginning, middle, and end, or rising action, climax, and denouement, to look at it that way. But there are specific problems of pacing that I think apply to fantasy novels and don’t appear anywhere else.
1) Try to make the beginning fast-moving.
The mythic prologue, the history lesson, the protagonist sitting on top of a hill and looking out over the countryside while the voice of the narrator drones on about how pretty it looks- all of these are very typical beginnings for a fantasy novel, and all of them share a common problem. They’re usually very slow, and inundate the reader with a lot of information or lumps of description before any action, dialogue, or even characterization comes along.
I think dynamic beginnings are just as good a way as describing the endless history or the endless country to get the reader interested in your fantasy novel, and probably better. The reader who’s bracing himself for slogging through what’s basically an introduction and nothing else suddenly finds himself, say, surrounded by characters who are planning a midnight raid. He gets to meet people, he gets some sense of their style of speaking and what weaponry and magic are possible in this fantasy world, and he probably gets information passed to him more subconsciously- in the style of the characters’ names and any memories that the viewpoint character might think about in passing, for example. Introducing the fantasy world is necessary, but try to have an introduction that serves the story, too.
2) Control the foreshadowing carefully.
Of course the Brooding Evil that We Dare Not Speak Of has to show its face at some point or another. The problem is that once it does, the amateur fantasy author often loses control of the pace. Either the foreshadowing stretches on, tortuously, for most of the entire story- too long- or it drapes an ominous cloak over everything in the story until the evil actually shows up- too heavy.
Once the foreshadowing starts, have at least some scenes that are ordinary, particularly if they take place from another character’s viewpoint or in another location altogether. The reader isn’t going to forget that this is a fantasy novel and the Evil will probably appear at some point or another. Every page doesn’t need to have a crow flying overhead or the protagonist having a vision of herself drowning in blood. If nothing else, the character will need time to react to the foreshadowing, and having a new event come along too soon will make it seem as if the warnings have almost no impact on her at all. It can also bore your readers, too, when the entire present plot is sacrificed to the future one.
The same problem applies to foreshadowing that lasts and lasts and lasts, with the evil only showing up at the end of a novel-length story or even later in the trilogy. Your audience goes numb with the repetition, and may not care much about the evil as the storm breaks and your heroine runs shrieking into the night, because they already knew what was going to happen; you’ve been loudly announcing it from every page. Again, mix the foreshadowed scenes with ordinary ones, and don’t have the characters constantly brooding on only what will happen instead of what’s happening, especially if the prophecies and visions are supposed to be mysterious.
3) Use cliffhangers judiciously.
It’s one thing to do a cliffhanger if you show what happens in the next chapter or just a few chapters down the line. (Martin, who switches around between as many as eleven different viewpoint characters, is skilled at this, and never strays too far from a character who is involved in the midst of some crisis). It’s another to not return until a few hundred pages have passed. Cliffhangers that are stretched too long kill tension, not build it. Your audience has probably become interested in some other character or situation by then.
The most notorious example of this is ending a book and leaving a character possibly alive or dead. It doesn’t work as well with fantasy heroes, because readers know, in essence, that the Show Must Go On, and the author probably won’t kill his or her heroes. But with secondary characters where the suspense is real, for an author to do this is simply emotional manipulation. Too many times, and readers can give up in disgust and simply quit reading.
4) Don’t recount important scenes in flashback.
Many times, it seems as if fantasy authors are reluctant to actually write out important scenes they themselves have set up: battles, confrontations between characters on opposing sides, or scenes where a character finds out a great secret. So they skip over it, and the action gets told in flashback, something like, “He remembered the flush of battle. Swords, sweat, and trying desperately to stay alive. But he couldn’t remember any more of it.”
While this can add certain flavors to the story, and may actually work for characters like inexperienced soldiers who have never been in battle before, too often it sacrifices action to exposition. As I noted in point one, I already feel that fantasy has too much of a problem with this. Infodumping to explain a fantasy world is sometimes acceptable, if the author can do it gracefully. It should not be joined by infodumping to avoid writing out a dramatic, passionate, or action-filled scene. The reader is also going to notice if the author keepsdoing it, and if the action is always explained secondhand as a story rather than shown.
Like it or not, battle action and charged dialogue are part of the fantasy novel’s heritage. Don’t substitute flashbacks for them.
5) Remember that your readers don’t know everything about the plot that you do.
Perhaps you feel justified switching from Prince Dinderoo’s dramatic attack on the Fortress of Darkness to Princess Zella’s daisy-picking expedition because you know that Princess Zella will find out about her destiny in the next chapter. Your reader, however, doesn’t know about that, and will likely be quite irritated with you for taking them away from a scene that seems much more important for one with no obvious or immediate importance.
This is related to the rule about cliffhangers, but also has a foot in the opposite kind of sense: If you’ve got a good thing going, don’t interrupt it. There’s no rule that says fantasy characters, even ones that are equally important, have to have the same amount of pages in the book. Perhaps Princess Zella will be important in Book Two, and there your reader will feel justified going and seeing what she’s doing every ten pages or so. But for now, it’s Prince Dinderoo’s battle, and if you really intend that battle to be the climax of that book, write it nearly as you can as a long, continuous scene. Break off for Princess Zella when the action isn’t at its height, say after a scene in the camps the night before. Breaking when Prince Dinderoo is first charging or when he’s just about to fight the Dark Lord is a mistake unless it’s done really well, and it sacrifices the tension the author has built up to the demands of the future plot (not something you should be doing; see point two). If Princess Zella and Prince Dinderoo are supposed to share the climax of the book, you’ll have to find a way to make the discovery of her destiny just as exciting, not a calmer scene.
6) Unless it’s the end of the story as well as the book, don’t make the denouement too relaxing.
There is often a struggle in fantasy books between the author’s desire to make the story stand as if complete on its own and to provide a link to the next book in the trilogy/series/whatever. I think the best reminder a fantasy author can receive is that the book is over, but the story is not, unless it really is the last book in the trilogy/series/whatever. Don’t make it seem as if every problem is solved. Perhaps your heroes have escaped to safety for now and have a breathing period to decide what to do about the Dark Lord. Make it clear it’s a breathing period, though. Remind the reader of loose ends that haven’t been tied up. Don’t have the hero and heroine smiling into each other’s eyes, certain they can do anything, and no mention at all of the evil forces. The reader might be justified in assuming that the story really does stop there and that the book doesn’t need a sequel (something that is, alas, all too true of many fantasy novels).
In fact (this is personal preference), I think endings should never be so neat. This is not because authors need to leave sequel-hooks all over the place, but because it makes it seem as if the fantasy world was built just to tell that story, not also for the pleasure of creation. The king is on the throne, and the story of the world as well as the characters ends. It makes the setting, the most important part of any fantasy novel, feel flat and false, like a stage backdrop.