Nearly every aspect of life has pacing. Flowers bloom, seed, and wither. The seasons pass one after the other. The pacing of poetry and music sings to us. And pacing is a fundamental element of storytelling.
It doesn’t matter if you write long or short forms or in which genre you write. Nor does it matter if you make pacing decisions while outlining, writing, or editing. Pacing allows you to manipulate tension, build suspense, and craft emotional impact in ways that engage your readers. Varying the intensity and speed of your story is a powerful skill. But it is a delicate balance between too fast and too slow. Pacing that is too slow or too fast for the story can make a reader stop reading. The right rhythm and tempo makes your story irresistible. Here are 13 ways you can control the pacing of your story.
Act I of your story introduces your reader to the setting, the characters, and the initial conflict. It also hints at the existence of a world and life that existed in time and space before the story started. The pacing is necessarily slower. Using a slower pace at the beginning allows you to build intrigue, tension, and anticipation in your readers.
In Act II and the first half of Act III, sometimes called the rising action of your story, the pace increases. This is where the stakes deepen, the conflict sharpens, and the obstacles grow more and more difficult. Depending upon your genre, your story’s pace may build to a hold-your-breath intensity (think romance) or to heart-pounding, non-stop action (think thriller).
The Climax, also called the story’s Turning Point, is where the tension and stakes and emotions are at their highest point. Here, the story should be at its most intense, rapid, and dynamic. Your story’s pacing needs to reflect the emotional journey you want your characters and readers to experience.
During the Falling Action, the major plot problem is resolved. The pace gradually slows, which allows you to reveal how the major problem has worked out. This slow down allows your characters and readers to process what has happened.
The end of the story is where you address unresolved subplots and the future of your characters. The pace here varies depending upon your genre, whether there’s a sequel, and the emotional impact you want to impart. It can be brisk and conclusive and leave the audience with a feeling of resolution. Or it can be slow and deliberate, allowing your characters and readers time for contemplation and interpretation. Finally, it can be at any level in-between.
The problem with pacing is that every phase, part, and component of a story contributes to the pace. Your choice of genre, the story premise, and the characters determine what pace your readers will expect in your story. But pacing goes deeper than that. It’s more involved than cliffhangers and reveals. Descriptions and action contribute to the pace of a story, but so do dialogue and paragraph length. Pace also is created in sentence structure, word choice, and white space.
What you are aiming for is reader engagement and satisfaction.
It’s not a matter of sameness of pace either. An engaging story has an up and down rhythm to its pace. When the changes in pace make sense within your story, your reader will keep turning pages.
How do you learn what pace your readers will expect? Some of it you learn by reading and studying stories in your preferred genre or branch of literature. Some of it you learn by reading and studying how-to articles like this one. The most important way to learn it, is by practice…practice…practice.
To figure out where your story’s pace should change, ask yourself what changes in each scene. Is it the motivation that has changed? An interim or long-term goal? The character’s attitude or understanding? Perhaps her allies, opponents, or obstacles changed? Other changes include new information, or her relationships. Changes from action to inaction or from one location to another also affect pace. Not all changes are equal though.
Pacing is more important when the scene’s changes dynamically affect the character or her goals. The level and intensity of the change also will help you determine when to speed things up or slow them down.
Here are a few examples of different levels and intensity of change.
Imagine yourself in the same situation. How would this affect you?
Your reaction when a guest points out that the room-temperature wine you served should have been chilled can be major embarrassment. But when that guest has a life-threatening allergic reaction to the wine, your reaction is intense.
Hearing the doctor say that you need a hernia repair is less intense than if the doctor says you need heart surgery.
Having your significant other ask for time apart won’t be as intense as being asked for a divorce.
Learning you have to move out of your office is usually not as intense as having to leave your hometown for parts unknown.
The choice of which college to go to next fall won’t be as intense as having five minutes to decide between saving your own life or the lives of a dozen strangers.
Being told your loved one has a chronic condition is intense. Finding out your loved one is trapped in a burning building is more intense.
Deciding whether to go to prom with the dashing football captain or the dreamy bad boy is intense. But deciding whether to leave the prom because your date made a bad choice is more intense.
A decision between two, equal but good or equal but undesirable choices, can be extremely intense. Choosing between staying a captive or escaping the bad guys with your dying loved one is an intense but straightforward choice. It’s much more difficult if you believe you must choose between working with the bad guys to develop a cure or going with your loved one who will leave without you if you stay.
Choose physical actions or actions with emotional costs particular to your characters. Target their weaknesses or fears. Make them pay a physical, mental, or emotional toll for mistakes. Make them attempt to rise to the challenge. Your reader’s anticipation of the cost of that attempt increases the tension and makes your story irresistible.
Climbing a mountain is difficult, but not challenging for a trained mountain climber. When the character is untrained in mountain climbing and terrified of heights but must climb the mountain, your reader can’t turn pages fast enough.
There are many ways to increase your story’s pacing through how and what you choose to write.
The more characters your reader must keep track of, the slower the scene, chapter, or story feels. Need a scene’s pace to pick up? Remove any inactive or non-essential characters from this scene.
Consider merging characters who fill the same role in the story.
Shorter chapters and scenes read faster.
Use minimal description and brisk action.
Eliminate or minimize reflection and internal dialogue.
The number of scenes and or sequels.
Usually, writers are told there must be a sequel for every scene. But the more scenes and sequels you have, the slower the pace.
Chop out scenes that are less important.
Combine scenes of discoveries and information learned.
Cut out sequels that drag. Skip ahead to the next scene.
Be certain that the story action and arc remain clear to the reader.
Short, choppy sentences convey speed and urgency. Cut to the chase. Use simple nouns and verbs.
There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell Tale Heart.
Use. Single. Word. Sentences. Used at the proper time, single word sentences demand attention, convey urgency and apply a powerful quickening to the story’s pace.
I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell Tale Heart.
Clarity is crucial. Make your sentences too choppy and you risk confusing your reader.
The physical movement of your characters influences the pace of your story. Keep your character on the move will give your reader a sense of a faster pace. Each time you increase your character’s speed of movement, your story’s pace will pick up.
Cut scenes of the journey to a destination when the destination is more important than the journey. A single transition sentence can do that work and speed up the pace.
Fear, horror, and aversion can be great enough to be emotional barriers. These barriers increase the stakes and tension of a story. Read more about emotional barriers in this three-part series from Tiffany Lawson Inman here on Writers in the Storm.
The potential loss of something takes an emotional toll. Use degrees of loss. The loss of a possession usually isn’t as great as the loss of a pet or a loved one’s affection.
A challenging deadline with dreadful consequences instills a sense of urgency and increases the story’s pace. This plot device or trope can be an actual clock or time limit.
Cinderella must leave the ball before midnight or risk being seen in her usual rags.
Create a deadline with dreadful consequences that isn’t based on a time limit.
In Speed, starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, the ticking clock is that the bus they are in will explode if they slow down.
The story, Beauty and the Beast, isn’t particularly fast-paced. But learning that the Beast must earn Belle’s love before his rose loses all its petals keeps the reader’s attention.
Physical barriers can be any physical state, place, or object that creates an obstacle for the characters in your story. Attempting to cross or change these barriers creates tension. Tiffany Lawson Inman discusses physical barriers on Writers in the Storm in this three-part series.
As with increasing the pace of your story, you must use techniques to slow the pace of your story with caution. Too slow and your reader will put the story down never to pick it up. Use these techniques judiciously to vary the pace of your story.
Long, complex sentences or paragraphs describing details of thought, movement or objects slow the reader and the pace of your story. This gives the reader time to process or reflect on the words.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities.
“No human metal had gone into the forging of that blade. It was alive with moonlight, translucent, a shard of crystal so thin that it seemed to almost vanish when seen edge on. There was a faint blue shimmer to the thing and a ghost light that played around its edges, and somehow Will knew that it was sharper than any razor.”George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones.
Abbreviate or skip the scene and jump right into the sequel. The sequel is a time for reaction, reflection, and planning. Slower paced, these can provide a breather from faster paced sections of your book or convey a sense of tranquility to the reader.
Internal dialogue and introspection are a large part of the sequel. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo are slow but much-read stories that provide a lot of introspection.
Like long complex sentences, long descriptive passages, slow the pace of your story.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
That Sunday, clouds spilled down from the sky and swamped the streets with a hot mist that made the thermometers on the walls perspire. Halfway through the afternoon, the temperature was already grazing the nineties as I set off towards Calle Canuda for my appointment with Barceló, carrying the book under my arm and with beads of sweat on my forehead... A grand stone staircase led up from a palatial courtyard to a ghostly network of passageways and reading rooms... I glided up to the first floor, blessing the blades of a fan that swirled above the sleepy readers melting like ice cubes over their books.Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Shadow of the Wind.
Subplots related to or with a logical connection to the main plot of your story can slow stories that race too fast.
The subplot of the feud between the Montages and the Capulets, complicates the romance and increases the intensity of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Too many subplots or unrelated subplots may confuse your reader.
Stories told by multiple characters are longer. This can slow the pace of a story that needs more time.
Examples of stories with a large cast of characters include War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Shogun by James Clavell.
Be certain these additional characters contribute value to the main story arc. Otherwise, they may slow the story so much readers put your story down.
Including more flashbacks and backstory in long chunks usually detracts from your story. Sprinkling in bits and pieces of backstory and flashbacks can slow the pace. The right bits provide information, emotion, and breathing space for your readers.
Flashbacks can provide much needed motivation for your characters. In Disney’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a flashback shows what Grinch experienced at Christmas. It explains why Grinch hates the holiday and makes him a more sympathetic antagonist.
Knowing pacing means you know when to be the Tortoise and when to be the Hare. It is a skill and an art. You need to know when and how to use it in your story. Study how authors you admire use these pacing techniques. Practice using these techniques in all phases of your story. Figure out what works for your story. When you control the rhythm and tempo of your story, you’ll provide your readers with the captivating reading experience they crave.
What pacing technique (s) have you used in your writing lately? Don’t forget to share what influenced your choices (genre, part of the story, etc.)
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Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.
Her Fellowship Dystopia series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogiros fly and the rules aren’t optional. It’s a story of a young woman who dares to break rules. But she learns that even the elite can be judged unbelievers and be hunted by the Angels of Death. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. She is madly scribbling away on book three, And When I Wake, scheduled to be published in 2024.
Lynette lives in the land of OZ and is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or Twitter @LynetteMBurrows or on her website.
First image designed by Lynette M. Burrows with elements from a purchased image.
Fourth image purchased from depositphotos.com
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