Part of our job as writers is to keep readers hooked on the story and create a satisfying experience for them from the beginning straight through to the end. Beyond compelling characters and an interesting story arc, one way we can impact the reading experience is through pacing. What do we mean by pacing exactly? Basically, pacing is a tool used to control speed and rhythm in our stories.
We want to pull readers deeply into an emotional scene, make their heart race during an action sequence, and slow them down to enjoy a tender moment. To do this, we need to approach pacing from both a big picture standpoint and by finessing individual chapters, scenes, and sentences.
Here’s are some suggestions for how to work with pacing:
First, read through your draft to get a feel for the overall experience. While we may have a sense of where and when to use different pacing techniques throughout our story, most of the fine-tuning will come once the draft is complete. It’s important to be able to look at the story in its entirety in order to tweak and rearrange for maximum positive effect. Ask yourself questions like these:
- Are you exhausting readers with too much action?
- Are you giving them small moments of satisfaction while the larger mystery unravels?
- Where are the quiet moments? Are they providing a needed respite from the intensity of the action or are they putting readers to sleep?
Once you feel that the movement and rhythm of the whole story is working, you can focus on individual scenes, chapters, and even sentences. Let’s look at a few ways to help speed things up, slow them down, add intensity, or bring it down a notch:
- Action: Action scenes are the nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat moments that move quickly and pack a punch. When crafting action scenes, use strong verbs and potent language. Limit descriptions and keep dialogue tight. Check out this post for more on: Kick Your Scene Into Action.
- Dialogue: Dialogue can help speed things up or slow them down. Are the characters in a dogfight? Then they aren’t waxing poetic about the glorious sunset. But if it’s a reflective or romantic moment, they might be. Use dialogue that’s authentic and in keeping with the mood you’re trying to create.
- Cliff Hangers: Cliff hangers keep readers turning the pages. They add intensity and momentum to a story. They’re a powerful device but be careful not to overuse or readers may become frustrated.
- Varied Scene and Chapter Lengths: Short, quick moving chapters tend to speed up the story’s pace. Longer scenes or chapters, containing descriptive narratives and attention to setting details, can slow it down. Ask yourself which will be more effective for the type of scene you’re writing. Here’s a little more on writing scenes: Scene Building Basics.
- Sentence Structure: Short, choppy sentences, or sentence fragments can create a sense of urgency. Lyrical, descriptive sentences full of imagery can create a slower, immersive feeling. Attention to detail at this level will contribute to the overall effectiveness of the scene you’re writing.
Different types of stories lend themselves to different pacing. An epic fantasy will move at a different pace than a thriller. A romance will move at a different pace than literary fiction. Readers expect something different with each, and that’s okay. As writers, it’s our job to consider what kind of story we’re telling and deliver it as skillfully as we can. Attention to pacing, from the overall structure of the book right down to individual sentences, will help readers get lost in the experience.