Pacing can make or break the flow of a good story. Done right, it keeps the reader engaged and wanting more. It can also give the audience a mental breather, some time to digest information. But what are the subtle nuances of good pacing? In a writing project, pacing can be adjusted on many different levels. Let’s examine a few.
Story Pacing at the Microlevel
You can make an initial change to your pacing just by adjusting the length of a sentence. Examine your word counts in any given paragraph. Consider what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to dole out some critical pieces of information? Or are you leading up to an action sequence? Consider the tone, is this a high-intensity scene? If so, maybe try a short, staccato-style back and forth. Less is more in these situations.
Dialogue Pacing Tips
- Speaking of less is more, how about breaking down an info-dump into a few short back-and-forths between characters? By creating a more rapid-fire delivery of information, you’re less likely to bore your reader. For more tips on dialogue, check out this post.
- Writing a long (necessary) conversation? Break up your dialogue with some action. Have the characters do something, anything while they’re speaking. Are they making a cup of tea to avoid eye contact? Maybe they’re in a public space. What do they see while they’re speaking?
Story Pacing at the Macrolevel
Think about your chapters. Are they all long, short, staggered? Chapter length can also contribute to the flow of the story. Consider alternating between long and short chapters to give your readers time to digest information.
Breathers are a break in the action. They can be used to develop characters and settings. Don’t forget, sometimes the setting can become a valuable character! Give these important aspects of your prose time to unfold, but don’t dwell too long. Interspersing a thoughtful slower-paced chapter next to a higher-paced one creates variety and interest. In other words, balance–something we all should strive for in both life and writing.
When you choose to let your readers in on the big or little secrets is entirely up to you. Consider all possible angles when you’re outlining your project. Take, for example, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. In the first chapter, someone is dead. The rest of the book unravels who killed this person and why. Could Ms. Moriarty have led up to the killing, placing the actual murderous incident in Act 3? Sure, but it would have been a very different story. By placing the juicy bits right at the beginning, you spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what happened.
In Medias Res
Along these same lines, consider the literary technique of in medias res–also known as starting your story in the middle of the action. Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope is an excellent example of this. The story opens with rebels trying to deliver stolen Death Star plans to their leader but are intercepted by the nefarious Darth Vader. You know the rest.
In any case, the story jumps right into the action. If Lucas had chosen to open Star Wars with Luke Skywalker moping around his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, it might not have been as exciting.
Keep on writing
When you start thinking about pacing at all levels, you’ll start to realize just how important it is to your story structure. Stay safe out there and keep writing.