As a literary writer with a love for character-driven stories, I often struggle with pacing. My writing group will tell me things like, “this is a beautiful chapter, but now you have two chapters in a row where nothing really happens.” As a writer and a reader, I show up for the people more than the plot.
That doesn’t make plot unimportant. A well-paced story, whether it’s character- or plot-driven, helps readers pay attention to what’s important — and understand why it’s important. If your pacing is off, readers might experience an entirely different story than the one you intended to tell.
To that end, keep these four tips in mind when revising for pacing.
Start in the right place
There’s a lot of pressure to get your first three chapters just right. Readers will forgive minor pacing issues farther into your book, but you need to hook them first. Your opening pages are like a chance encounter on the street. First something about the scene needs to catch our eye. Then we need a reason to stick around rather than keep walking.
Starting in the right place is critical to catching your reader’s attention. If you start too early, readers will lose interest before they reach your first inciting incident. Start too late and we lack sufficient context to understand why that inciting incident matters.
Most first drafts I write — and read — start in the wrong place. I consider it part of the process. However, that makes fresh eyes an equally important part of the process. Enlist beta readers and critique partners for pacing feedback, and pay special attention to what they say about those crucial opening chapters.
Skip the pleasantries
In real-life conversations, people expect us to give proper introductions and closure. On the page, those pleasantries grind your pace to a halt.
When characters meet and part, get through the pleasantries as quickly as possible — or skip them entirely. Rather than waste several lines with back-and-forth like “I’ll talk to you soon. Have a nice day!” followed by “You too!” opt for a quick description: Katie said goodbye to Becca and headed for the door. If the reader doesn’t need to see the play-by-play, find a way to skip it.
Likewise, it’s just as important to begin a scene in the right place as it is to begin your book in the right place. If you want to show your main character meeting a friend for coffee, do you need to show her getting ready at home, then walking to the coffee shop and placing her order? Or can you start the scene with your character sitting at a table with her coffee and scone, watching the door for her friend? Or maybe you can cut straight to their conversation and skip the lead-up altogether. This has the added bonus of eliminating the “hi, how are you?” phase and placing the reader right in the moment that matters.
Use down time effectively
Be careful cutting too much fluff, though. Much like real life, fiction needs down time. A constant stream of action eventually becomes exhausting, not least of all because we have no time to process the events that just happened.
Quiet moments, like when your character is sitting at the table waiting for her friend in the coffee shop, help slow the pace after a more intense scene. They make room for character development and for both reader and protagonist to process recent events. Show readers what your character is thinking about — maybe even how she feels about this friend who’s keeping her waiting. What does she do in idle moments? Pull out a sketchbook? Scroll through her phone? Text her mom?
Use down time, when your characters are traveling from one place to another or waiting for something to happen, wisely and well. Add emotional exposition and backstory to help us get to know that character a little better. Intimacy happens in the quiet moments.
Decrease internal monologue when action increases
If down time gives us space to develop the emotional connection between reader and protagonist, tense action scenes do the opposite. Those scenes rely on previous character development for their power. Include too much rumination from your narrator here and you’ll kill the pace.
This makes sense. When dramatic events happen in our real lives, we often say things like “it all happened so fast; I didn’t have time to think.” Under stress, our rational brains shut down and our fight-or-flight, reactive brains take over. We live very much in the moment.
Strive for this effect in fictional action scenes. Include only what your character would reasonably notice, think, or do in that situation. Now is not the time for a lengthy flashback or internal monologue. Let the reader experience the scene completely in the moment, just like your character.
Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to share your protagonist’s reactions and reflections later. We’ll all need a breather after an intense scene — maybe even a walk to meet an old friend for coffee 😉