Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.
Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace, though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.
Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.
Seven Literary Devices for Pacing Your Story
You need speed in the opening, middle, and climax of your story. Sure, you’ll take a breather from time to time, especially to pause for significance and to express characters’ emotions, but those times will usually appear just before or after a joyride at lightning speed.
There are lots of tools to hasten your story. Some are better suited for micro-pacing—that is, line by line—and some are better suited for macro-pacing—pacing the story as a whole. Let’s take a closer look at each device.
Action scenes are where you “show” what happens in a story, and, when written in short- and medium-length sentences, they move the story along. Action scenes contain few distractions, little description, and limited transitions. Omit or limit character thoughts, especially in the midst of danger or crisis, since during a crisis people focus solely on survival. To create poignancy, forgo long, descriptive passages and choose a few details that serve as emotionally charged props instead.
When a scene or chapter is left hanging, the pace picks up because the reader be anxious to discover what happens next. Readers both love and hate uncertainty, and you are responsible to deliver plenty of unfinished actions, unfilled needs, and interruptions. At the end of a scene or chapter, you want your characters in the middle of a conversation, prepared to end the scene with a revelation, facing a threat, or discovering some other challenge.
Rapid-fire dialogue with little or no extraneous information is swift and captivating and invigorates any scene. This type of dialogue is pared down and abbreviated. It volleys back and forth with tension. Reactions, descriptions, and attributions are kept to a minimum. With these conversations, your characters never discuss or ponder. Instead, they argue, confront, or engage in a struggle.
Suspense and tension are created when you prolong outcomes. It may seem counterintuitive to prolong an event. You would think that it would slow down the story, however, this technique actually increases the speed. The reader wants to know, has to discover is your character get rescued from the blizzard. Will the train will arrive before the village resorts to cannibalism? Will the FBI will solve the case before the terrorist follows through on his destruction?
Also called a jump cut, this is probably the most common ways to pass time quickly in a story. In this technique, a scene cut moves the story to a new location and assumes the reader can follow without an explanation of the location change. The purpose is to accelerate the story, and the characters in the new scene don’t necessarily need to be the characters in the previous scene.
A SERIES OF EVENTS IN RAPID SUCCESSION
Another means of speeding up your story is to create events that happen one right after another. Such events are presented with minimal or no transitions, and definitely no interspection by the characters. The narrative rapidly leaps from scene to scene and place to place.
SHORT SCENES AND CHAPTERS
Short segments are easily digested and end quickly. Since they portray a complete action, the reader passes through them quickly, as opposed to being bogged down by complex actions and descriptions.
Instead of a play-by-play approach, another technique is to tell readers what has already happened. Because scenes are immediate and sensory, they require many words to depict. Summary is a way of trimming your word count and reserving scenes for the major events. You can also summarize whole eras, descriptions, and backstories. Summaries work well when time passes but there is little to report, when an action is repeated or when a significant amount of time has passed.
WORD CHOICE AND SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Words you use are the subtlest tools of pacing. Embed concrete words (like prodigy and iceberg), active voice (with potent verbs like zigzag and plunder), and sensory information into your text. Break up any long, involved paragraphs.
Fragmented, short sentences, and paragraphs quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia (crash, lunge, sweep, scatter, slurp, rattle) also add to a quick pace. Invest in verbs that enliven descriptions, build action scenes and prolong suspense.
Harsh consonant sounds such as those in words like claws, crash, kill, quake, and nag can push the reader ahead. Words with unpleasant associations can also ratchet up the speed: hiss, grunt, slither, smarmy, venomous, slaver, and wince. Energetic, active language is especially appropriate for building action scenes and suspense, and for setting up drama and conflict.
A fast pace means trimming unnecessary words from every sentence. Eliminate prepositional phrases that you don’t need: Trade passive verbs for active one.
If you’re looking to improve how fast or slow your novel moves, learn to utilize all of these literary devices to help you manipulate time
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