Pacing in Fiction Writing

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Pacing, the multi-faceted tool for writers can create varied moods and build tension, but are you maximizing its use? Understanding the basics of this tool can help boost an oatmeal boring project to an optimal, satisfying experience for readers.

Pace yourself before you wreck yourself.

There are three essential types of pacing–slow, medium, and fast. Just like running, you need these three speeds for various reasons. When you slow your pace, you are building towards something, usually a burst of speed. When you’re coasting along at a medium pace, you are carrying the reader towards those bursts.

Think of your writing like running a race. You could run the whole thing at a slow pace, but if you push yourself, and increase your speed in certain areas, the overall end result is more satisfying. Same with writing. Jumping into the action is okay, but a slow build-up into rapid action can yield better results.

Life is better with color.

Let’s start by examining your overall writing piece. If it’s a novel, color-code the chapters into three speeds: red for slow, orange for medium, and green for fast. I would do this in Scrivener if you’re using it. If you don’t have Scrivener, write the names of the chapters on colored index cards and lay them out in order. If it’s a smaller piece, highlight the paragraphs and color code them accordingly.

Do you have too many areas of red? Too many greens? What could you do to vary the action? Laying out your writing in this way allows you to see the forest when you’ve only been working on the individual trees. Side note: you could do this same color-code exercise with each chapter by highlighting and changing the color of the paragraphs and then examine the results.

How do I ramp up my speed?

In most cases, slow pacing plagues new writers. Info-dumps, lengthy conversations, over-explaining, and over-done scenes can slow a writing piece down to a trickle. There are several avenues you can take to increase your pacing. Here are a few to consider:


Cliffhangers have a clear build-up to tension and then they end, leaving the reader in an anxious state. A big reveal followed by a mic-drop is the perfect way to increase the pacing. Follow a cliffhanger with a slower-paced chapter that builds and see how it feels, or start at a medium pace and ramp up to a faster pace.


Your dialogue should always feel natural. Consider these two examples. How would you color code them?

Sample 1

“You’re not listening to me when I speak,” she shouted at Henry who sat by the window, focusing his attention on the lawn.

“I do listen,” he responded without turning his head. “I just don’t like to yell.”

“Are you calling me a tyrant? Is that what you’re saying?” she spat at him. “I’m not the one playing the victim!”

She sighed heavily and stormed around the room staring at the back of Henry’s head.


Sample 2

Henry sat by the window, his back to Lila.

“You’re not listening to me when I speak,” she shouted.

“I do listen. I just don’t like to yell.”

“Are you calling me a tyrant? I’m not the one playing the victim!”

In Sample 2, a lot of the dialogue tags have been removed. The banter is faster, moving the pacing along at a more natural rate. When working up to a dialogue scene, consider framing the setting before you begin the dialogue, then keep it rapid-fire. Also, there’s nothing wrong with using the dialogue tag, “he/she said” or omitting a dialogue tag altogether.

Scene cuts

This is another tool, also called a jump cut, that assumes the reader will take a natural leap with you if you change locations or characters. This article can provide more information about ending scenes abruptly.

Whatever you choose to do, be sure to add variety in your pacing. Overall, slow and steady wins the race, but sometimes, you just need to sprint.

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About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website:

1 Comment

  1. I find that much of story telling is cyclical, a sine wave.
    The actual writing ergo, reading, can proceed from fast to slow and back. Tight dialog, explosive climax, breathing room scene setting. This seems to be what you focus on in this article.

    The tension also cycles — most often with the writing style. Characters must conflict, building tension to a peak and then slide down the resolution hill to start again.

    There’s the happiness/sadness (emotion) curve which some clever people have built software around to deduce the levels of trauma and elation.
    • See:

    Finally, the entire tale must cycle in Vonnegut’s story arc theory.

    Waves within waves. I suppose the this is one of the hardest aspects of learning to write: To be conscious of these oscillations and to intentionally write them into your stories.

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