Storytelling is a complex dance of words and technique. It's many elements tying together to create an image within the mind. To get it right, a writer must learn to manage and manipulate each story element to perfection. Like a master painter time, experience, and refining said technique is the only way to achieve a magnum opus. Pacing is an element of story-telling that is both the easiest and hardest piece to control, one that affects the readability of your novel as a whole. With so much at stake, why are writers letting their pacing go unchecked?
What Is Pacing?
If you've studied the writing craft (or have been writing for a while) you'll know that pacing is an important aspect of novel writing. For those unfamiliar, pacing refers to the speed of which a scene plays out. There are ways to both quicken and slow a scene to better portray the actions and reactions of your main character. Mainly pacing refers to the overall rhythm and flow of a story, the rise and fall of its plot points and events.
Why Is It Important?
When you're behind the wheel of your car, you adjust your speed using the pedals. How fast you go depends largely on what the road and other drivers around you require. It's instinctual and often reactionary. If you don't control it, you're likely to spin out of control and wind up in a ditch. With pacing, the process is similar.
Pacing is important because it is essentially the pedals of your story. You control the speed of a scene to better help your audience soak in the information and events you're trying to get across. Control the pacing and you ensure that your story reads smoothly and effectively. Let it run amuck and you'll have an uneven and disjointed plotline. Pieces that are too fast will confuse and leave your readers feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, parts that are too slow will bore them. Striking the appropriate balance is key to a story that impresses rather than repels.
Tips To Strike The Balance:
The best way to prevent pacing issues is to plan ahead. When you begin planning your novel (or whenever you have a plotline completely mapped out), it's a good idea to pause and take a moment to think strategically. Analyze your structure and pinpoint where your scenes should have slower pacing and when it should be faster. Faster pacing might appear in high action sequences like battle scenes or big reveal moments. It might slow in the aftermath of such events, when your main character is reeling from new information, processing trauma, or planning their next move. If you've done your job well, your story should read like a wave-moments of high tension followed by slower processing scenes which ultimately build to your next crest. It helps to label each scene in your story's plan with what type of pacing you think it should have. In doing so, you should see the movement of the wave. You'll also be able to pinpoint where your pacing is inconsistent or choppy and from there be able to address it.
Adjusting the length of your sentences, paragraphs and chapters is another way to control your pacing. The rules are pretty simple. Keep your sentences shorter to build pacing/tension and keep them longer to slow it down. For example, a fight scene needs to be quick and snappy. The use of shorter sentences here (often physical actions) will do just that. It will keep things fast-paced and exciting. Also keep your paragraphs short. This will allow the reader's eyes to leap over the words and will also add to the feeling of motion. End your chapter on a cliffhanger and you'll have them hooked. Likewise if you're looking to slow down or draw out a scene, you want to go longer. Descriptive sentences work best here along with longer paragraphs filled with setting details or necessary explanations. Give your chapters more definitive ends to help satisfy the reader after a big conclusion or event.
Looking to emphasize a specific moment? A great way to do that is to narrow in on the small details. This slows your pacing down (much like pressing the slow motion button) and allows your reader to revel in the moment as much as your characters. This technique is excellent for romance scenes where you're looking to draw out the tension right before a kiss. It also works for moments that require subtlety to give meaning to a larger message. For instance, a war scene can be grisly and hard to write. Instead of focusing on the larger scope of what's going on, go smaller. Sometimes the most profound way to write a difficult scene is by having your character focus on a singular element. In this scenario, don't write about the piles of bodies stacked on the roadside. Instead, narrow in on the discarded photograph of a waiting loved one who will never see their beloved again. Adding one of these scenes into a section of your novel with other fast-paced scenes will keep things interesting and exciting for your reader.
The Structure of Story: How to Write Great Stories by Focusing on What Really Matters
Learn the four dramatic tools that keep the reader engaged, the two things every story must accomplish, how to write multi-dimensional characters that drive plot, how a story's theme can be conveyed through a character arc, how to create an organic plot driven by cause and effect, the critical things that your opening must accomplish, what goes in the middle of a story, how to write an emotional climax, how subtext works and when to use it, and more.
Feel like one of your scenes is lagging behind? The primary culprit may be that there's not enough happening. If your character isn't in an emotional conundrum or actively making moves toward their next goal, it may be an opening to add in a new conflict or even a subplot. Conflict is an excellent way to alter the pacing in your story because it's the equivalent of giving it an adrenaline boost. It can be a fight (either physical or verbal), a romantic dalliance or the falling apart of one, a chase scene, a showdown between rivals, a drive-by insult, or any other type of drama you can come up with. As long as it raises more questions than it answers (otherwise known as raising the stakes) you'll see your pacing move faster.
The opposite of needing to raise the tension, if you're looking to slow down your pacing, the way to do it is through introspection. Any time your main character or point-of-view spends a longer period of time within their own mind it's a fantastic opportunity to progress your character's arc. Like in real life, your characters need time to think about the situation they find themselves in. They need a quiet moment to unwind from a hard day or to get emotional in the wake of tragedy. On the flip side if they are contemplating a new romance or a happy change of fortune, they need time to celebrate and revel in it before it all goes wrong again. When your story calls for this, keep in mind that your pacing needs to be slower. This is not the time to introduce new characters, conflicts, information dump, etc. All these things will do is speed things up- the complete opposite of what you're trying to accomplish.
If you're reading over your work and realizing that scenes that require tension are lacking, a primary cause may be that there is too much fluff. Worldbuilding details, copious amounts of setting indicators, or a large amount of extra backstory can tank the pacing of your novel. This is because it's typically lengthy and appears in longer paragraphs. The end result is that you're killing the tension of what's otherwise a dramatic scene. You're forcing your reader to pause and take in large amounts of information that doesn't directly relate to the action sequence and by default forcing their reading rate to slow down. To fix it, cut out the excess and you'll find that your scene's tension will increase dramatically.
Many authors mistake good pacing for fast pacing. It's because they equate excitement and interest with fast-paced scenes, which isn't entirely untrue, but it is misguided. If you write a story with nothing but action your reader will leave with nothing but unanswered questions. Much of what makes a great story is how a character handles the events that they are thrust into, what they think about said events, and how they react to them. While it is true that many writers will hear from their readers and critique partners that their pacing is too slow, the same can also be said on the other side. Your pacing can also be too fast. Instead, strive for a balanced and consistent pace. Judge your pacing by what your scenes require, not by the speed. Keep in mind that both tension and introspection is necessary within a story- there is a time and place for everything.
Bonus Tip: If you're unsure of whether your pacing works for a scene, the best thing you can do is seek a second opinion. Before moving forward, ask your beta readers, critique partners, and test readers whether the pacing works and is consistent throughout. They'll give you their honest opinion and you'll be certain of it's effectiveness.
Pacing can make or break a story. Understanding how to use pacing techniques ensures that the quality of your narrative and your story overall are elevated. It could mean the difference between a mediocre novel and a best-seller.
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