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