Pacing Your Story

The pace of your story is the speed at which that story moves. Is it quick-paced, with lots happening all the time – a whirlwind of events? Or is it slow and ponderous with very little happening at all?

What you need is a good balance of both: i.e. lots happening and then slower-paced parts of the story. It’s one of the many aspects of writing for which you need to find the correct balance. Too slow and it’ll bore the reader into closing the book; too fast and frantic and it’ll unsettle them and won’t be a comfortable read. Just as in real life, readers need breathers now and again.

The trick is to get this balance right, and I don’t think anybody can tell you where to find that balance. It’s one of the decisions you as the writer must make. The pace you choose will depend, for example, on your style as a writer.

For example, Elmore Leonard, who writes very fast-paced books, is quoted as saying, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip”, and nobody can deny that his books are fast-paced.

As a contrast, consider any of the older novels, such as Jane Austen’s. Their pace is much slower.

I would suggest that you have your novels more quickly paced than Jane Austen’s however. People are more impatient now; there are too many other things competing for their attention  so they don’t have the time or interest for leisurely pacing.

But whether your novel is as high-paced as Elmore Leonard or as leisurely as Jane Austen’s, is the decision you must make. It depends on your own writing style, your genre, and your readership.

But no matter what the overall pace of your stories are, it must vary within the story.

Try to alternate fast-paced scenes with slower ones. That way your reader will enjoy the excitement of the action, but will also get a rest, a chance to recuperate (if you’re doing your job right, your reader will have a huge amount invested in the book and will be as exhausted at the end of the high-action scene as your characters, and will need as much of a break!).

So what makes pace? What’s the accelerator, and what’s the brake?

Action is the accelerator. Whenever something’s happening, you have a brisk pace.

The brakes (or breaks!) are things like description, and rumination by characters.

Here’s a bit more detail.

To speed up pace:

  • Have a lot of action, a lot of stuff happening (to whatever extent is appropriate for your novel).
  • Avoid having much (if any at all) description, and make it terse and hard-working.
  • Avoid rumination by the characters.
  • Have the narration be close-up. By which I mean: If it was a film, the camera would be focussed closely on the action, on the people – rather than having a panoramic vista. Tell the story the same way, e.g. the beads of sweat on the face rather than, say, the streetscape. If you want to describe what’s happening to the streetscape, then do so through detail – the overturned chairs, perhaps.
  • Have everything from the one character’s POV, even if the rest of the story is in Third Person Omniscient. (This will make more sense after you read the Point of Viewsection).
  • Have short snappy sentences. A good rule is to do all possible to avoid commas, as commas facilitate longer sentences.
  • Cut adverbs and adjectives to an absolute minimum. Use stronger nouns and verbs instead.
  • Dialogue should be abrupt and to the point. And that point should be high-stakes – advancing the plot. 
  • As much as is appropriate, use short words rather than long ones. 

And, not surprisingly, to slow down the pace do the very opposite: 

  • You don’t need as much, or any action. This is the time for reflection and description. If you do have action it can be gentle (e.g. making tea, travelling) rather than frantic action such as fights or running.)
  • Have a wide viewpoint – like a camera panning back. Think of the film Lord Of The Rings – in the journeys they took in between their fights, the camera often panned back to show them riding or walking in their environment.
  • You can have longer sentences, even more flowery ones. (Just avoid purple prose!)
  • You can use adverbs and adjectives, as much as a writer should ever use adverbs and adjectives (i.e. sparingly.)

Dialogue can be more relaxed. It should always have a point to it – in novels characters don’t talk for the sake of it. But the point can be wrapped in pleasantries, and the point can be about exposing character rather than advancing the plot.