Mastering the Elements of Pacing


In fiction, pacing refers to how quickly or how slowly the action of the story unfolds. Pacing is important because it helps to keep the reader interested and maintains a desired atmosphere and tone of your story. A suspense thriller shouldn’t move at a crawl, just as a romance move too quickly. In an earlier post, I discussed some of the aspects of pacing as it relates to dialogue, this time we are discussing other techniques used to speed up or slow down pace.

As you write your novel, you will need to plan the rise and fall of your novel’s plot and action. Taking time to outline your novel can help with pacing because you can see at a glance where there is concentrated actions or events and where movement should be slower. Sometimes your action might be too slow, and you need to speed it up at other times, you might need to spread out the face-paced moments of peril and adventure and include a few pages where the reader and characters can catch their breath (and possibly add a little humor).

The Act You’re in Determines Your Scene’s Pace

Your novel pacing should be determined by the type of Scene you’ve constructed. In addition, certain things will be happening in your novel at specific times or acts. For instance, if you are using the three-act structure, there is an opening, middle and end to the story. In first act, you’ll introduce readers to the main conflict and main characters. The second act is where you develop that conflict and help the reader understand why it came about and how it is affecting your characters. The Third act brings the conflict to a head and brings resolution.

Each of these sections of your novel will have different pacing. The first act usually doesn’t dawdle and take its time hooking the reader into the story. In the second act you can push and pull pacing more. If in the first act your protagonist (main character) is struggling with a desire to fall in love, the middle act can show him slowly giving in to (or overcoming) this urge. There can be moments of calm and moments of high tension.

In the third act, though, the pace usually increases as tension builds. The cracks have started to show in your main character’s personal life – he can no longer keep her love for the other person a secret. The stakes increase and the reader wants to know how it will all end.

To make the pace move at the correct speed in each of these larger structural units, think about the purpose of each act. If you want to grip the reader, use conflicts and move your characters from scene to scene creating a sense of momentum. However, if you want to give the reader some respite before the major climax, you can slow your story pacing and lessen the conflict and tension for a while.

Hone Your Pacing Skills

Hone your book’s pacing by reading the thrillers and spy novels. Even if they aren’t your preferred genre, read bestsellers who have mastered pacing. This will help you to understand how to make your plot ebb and flow engrossingly.

Make notes as you read on pace. Note elements such as:

  • Any time reference in the book
  • The number of pages in each chapter
  • Why you think short chapters are short and what effect they have on momentum.

Sentence Structure—A Simple Strategy to Speed up and Slow Down Pace

Use sentence structure to manipulate your novel’s pacing. Pacing in writing is affected by sentence length. Think about it. You’re reading this faster. There are fewer words. The sentences are simpler. When you want the reader to feel events are coming to an important climax, shorter sentences can be effective.

Shorter sentences keep the pace moving by not losing action in lengthy sentences and detailed descriptions. Of course, you could also keep your writing descriptive until the conversation starts and then alter the pace, to create sudden tension. These are the choices you will need to make regarding sentence structure: Where will the story start to move? Where will characters sit back and admire the scenery? How will you bring it all together into one cohesive story?

Slow your story’s pace with focus shifts and put detail into longer chapters.

Vary Pace

Seldom does a novel hurtle along without the occasional strategic pause that allows your characters and your readers to gather their wits. There are several ways to slow down your story in strategic places. You can reduce the pace of a story by shifting focus to a secondary subplot for a while to take the heat off your main story line. One way to do this is by writing longer chapters and by being more generous with extra descriptive details. Also, you might want to have fewer things happen per location or scene.

A great novel has some scenes that hurtle along while others dawdle and meander. It has balance. Some genres have more of the hurtling (such as thrillers) while others more of the dawdling (many character-driven dramas and romances). Whatever type of novel you’re working on, getting pacing in writing right will keep readers entertained and committed to finishing your book.

Pacing Techniques

Pacing manipulates time. The elements of time delineated in your story or screenplay include the time of day or period; scene versus summary; flashback; and foreshadowing. The novel’s elements of time tell us when the story is being told as compared to when the events of the story took place. What is that distance? When does the story begin? When does it end? What narrative strategies do you convey to convey that sense of time?

As we’ve said in previous posts, scenes are the building blocks of all fiction. In order to have a crisis moment, scenes indicate a moment in time and are not summarized. A summary covers a longer period of time in a shorter passage. A scene covers a short period of time in a longer passage. What could take only a few seconds in real time might be covered in paragraphs, even pages, depending upon the writer and the event.

Instead of summarizing a scene, try to picture them in your head as though they were happening on a movie screen. Sometimes, when you are writing a first draft, you might summarize an event, but the scene is how you dramatize the action. You must learn to balance the scenes and use the exposition gracefully.

As I have said in other posts, every scene should have some form of conflict, even if it is just in the mind of the POV character. Just as in a story you have conflict, crisis and resolution, each scene should have a similar shape. Move your story forward using scenes that specific important behavior of your characters. Transitions of time or location that is secondary to the plot can be expressed in a narrative bridge that summarizes otherwise boring events. (If your character is taking a train trip across the country, but no significant events occur in that train trip, simply go to the next event by saying something like, ‘Nancy took a train to her destination and met her friends at a local café.”

Summarize secondary Dialogue

Dialogue that is secondary can similarly be summarized. So, if you find dialogue that expresses information that is fairly routine or not too interesting, you should summarize it. For instance if your character is sharing information that was shared before, but want the receiving character’s reaction (and it is significant to the story) you can write something like, ‘Joe told Julie about his pay raise. Julie could now start planning their wedding.’

 For example, to avoid boring dialogue when exchanging greetings. Simply say they exchanged greetings.

Challenging Pacing Techniques

If there is a scene that you are having trouble with, especially one that provides a turning point in the story, focus in on that scene. Could it use action, not necessarily physical action, but movement, change? Expand that scene and explore the interpersonal dynamics of the characters. Dramatize and see how the balance of power in the scene changes.

Setting incorporates place, but you also have to consider the time of the year, the time of day and how you reveal this information without being too obvious. This information is not always essential but depends upon your story. Basically, you’re ‘establishing shot’.  Just remember to be consistent and to make the timing logical. It might be boring to mention ‘in the morning,’ but you could use other words to show time of day. However, don’t skip this time element altogether since it adds facts about the characters and their surroundings. If a family is having supper, then we know the time of day. If a character is wearing shorts, this establishes the time of year.

Handling Flashbacks

Flashbacks provide emphasis and balance within a novel. It’s possible they may be used to enrich the narrative, and you might want to rearrange the chronology of your story during your editing process using this technique.

A flashback is a narrative passage that takes us back into the past of when the story is set.  I personally usually write the first draft in chronological order, including everything in order that they occurred for the character, but often, I cut out earlier scenes put them in flashback to create a better flow of events in the story.

A flashback slows down the pace of the story. The flashback reveals something about the character that we didn’t know before that explains things by showing not telling. You should use it when the character is going into a situation that varies from the behavior that we have come to expect from him or her. However, you need to be sure that the flashback you have selected tells us something relevant to the story. There’s nothing worse than slowing down the action with a flashback that doesn’t contribute to the story.

You might use a flashback if, in the present of the story, the character has an unexpected reaction to an event (like Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes) , and you want to provide an explanation for their behavior.

Beware of using flashbacks as a way to avoid conflict you want to emphasize tension and anxiety in your novel, not limit it.   

A question that is always asked is about how to construct a flashback. The mechanics of the flashback technique can be difficult to manipulate and may create cumbersome verb constructions. To prevent this, keep the transition into the flashback as simple as possible. If you are writing the story in the past tense, you can begin the flashback in past perfect. You can use ‘had’ plus the verb a couple of times. Then you can switch to the simple past.

You don’t always have to use a flashback to include past events in your story. Instead of flashback, you might use dialogue, narration or some detail to give the required information. Also, remember the power of inference. There may be more going on in the background of a character than you reveal in the actual prose. Be economical with your words. Imply what you can about the character or situation without being obvious. Flashback reveals information at the right time, but it may not be part of the central action. Flashback is an effective technique to show the reader more about character and theme.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is another technique that plays with narrative time and slow down the forward movement of the action. It is not actual conflict, but the promise of conflict. The technique of foreshadowing promises that things go from bad to worse. One way to foreshadow is to place something early in the book that makes a conflict or resolution seem realistic at the end. A question comes up later in the story that can be answered later. Foreshadowing can be used to get the reader through a section of a narrative. For example, you could create suspense by something that will happen:

For instance, what happened in the massacre at the beginning of Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, not only impacts the end of Soldiers, but it also creates a foreshadowing the entire premise of A Coward’s Solace. Because of this event, those other two events make sense to the reader.  If the story questions are strong, then your reader will stay interested in the narrative.

Of course, you need to use this technique judiciously. You can employ the minor characters to foreshadow the actions of the major characters, for example. If you make a promise by foreshadowing, then make sure to fulfill the promise; otherwise, the reader will tell you about it in their reviews!

With foreshadowing, it might be better to err on the obvious side because if your attempts are too subtle, there will be no shadows to see.

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2 comments
  1. Just a quick stop to say Happy Memorial Day. I hope you are enjoying the holiday in one way or another.

  2. 1authorcygnetbrown said:

    Thanks! Happy Memorial Day to you too! We are enjoying the weekend chilling out before another busy work week!

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