What is Pacing?

I wrote up this pacing info sheet to use for discussion at my writing group’s storycraft meeting the other day, and I thought the rest of you might enjoy it as well. Pacing is interesting–it’s mostly organic and instinctual, and even understanding the theory behind it doesn’t really help translate into actually being able to do it. (As evidenced by the many, many examples we came up with during the meeting of traditionally published books that were too fast or too slow on their pacing.)

What is Pacing?

The pace of your story is the rhythm of your story. It is an indication of whether things are proceeding at a proper speed, or if things are moving too fast or too slow. Your pacing needs to be correct to keep your reader properly engaged. Too fast, and your reader loses key information; too slow, and they lose interest and may put your story down, never to be picked up again.

Is Pacing Always the Same?

No, pacing varies between types of stories and can also vary at different points within the same story.

What Affects My Pacing?

Your pacing can be affected by many things, including:

  • Sentence length
  • Scene length
  • Chapter length
  • Word choice (long or short words, adverbs and adjectives)
  • Scene depth
  • Telling vs. Showing
  • Amount of description

Some of these are common sense. In the middle of a fight, you don’t stop to describe the colors of the wall or the emotions of your main characters. When your main characters spies their fated love across the street, you don’t cut their emotions short. Many short chapters drive a story faster, which can be good for thriller or adventure stories. Longer chapters with multiple scenes can be better for a story where you want the readers to dwell more in the action.

Isn’t Going Faster/Slower Better?

Most stories, especially longer works, need a variety of pacing. If you’re constantly using fast pacing, you might make your reader anxious, like they feel like they can’t get a break. They might not get bored, but they might put the book down in order to catch their breath.

If you are using mostly slow pacing, your reader might feel like nothing is happening, or that you lack a plot. Even strictly character-driven or introspective pieces occasionally have bits of faster pacing.

What is Slow Pacing Good For?

Slow pacing emphasizes something. It can be a good way to sneak in foreshadowing, or to indicate that something or someone is important in some matter. It can be a good way to hit on emotional reflection that might be necessary just after something major has happened. Romantic scenes tend to be slower to allow the reader to dwell in them. Slower pacing also puts more of an emphasis on character over plot.

What is Fast Pacing Good For?

Fast pacing drags your reader along for the ride. It raises stakes and emotional intensity. And it can be a good way to help readers feel what your character is feeling, especially if things are going horribly awry. Faster pacing puts an emphasis on plot over character.

How Do I Slow Down My Pacing?

The following things slow down pacing:

  • Description
  • Longer sentences, scenes, chapters
  • Flowery or descriptive language
  • Relaxed dialogue
  • Character self-reflection
  • Flashbacks
  • “Show”

To create relaxed dialogue, your characters can wander from their point, exchange pleasantries, and tell stories. But be careful, because too much of these can get boring pretty fast. You can also have you characters doing things in between lines of dialogue. (So, instead of just ‘“I’m fine,” she said, “why do you ask?”’ you can have ‘“I’m fine,” she said, dropping heavily down into the armchair and crossing her arms across her chest. “Why do you ask?”’)

How Do I Speed Up My Pacing?

The following things speed up pacing:

  • Shorter sentences (scenes, chapters)
  • Can use short, choppy sentence fragments
  • Cliffhangers
  • Foreshadowing
  • Lean writing without many or any descriptors
  • No or limited internal thoughts
  • Quick, snappy dialogue
  • Limited focus on things outside what’s immediately happening
  • “Tell”

To create fast-paced dialogue, you want to avoid using a lot of descriptors or intermediate actions. Only include pertinent information, and start and stop the dialogue at places without any excess. (Start at “James left me!” as opposed to “Hey, Barb, how are you?” “I’m feeling terrible–James left me!”) You can also have people talking over each other to get more information out at once.

(A note on foreshadowing: Foreshadowing generally increases the pace, because it causes the reader to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen, but it’s best to introduce the foreshadowing in a slower paced section where a reader is more likely to take note of it.)

So there you go, Squiders. Do you have anything to add? Examples of good pacing? Examples of bad pacing? Cheez-Its for the Landsquid?

An interesting thing that we noted at our meeting was that, while we tended to read equal amounts of mostly-fast and mostly-slow paced stories (as well as ones in the middle), the stories that we really liked and that stuck with us were almost universally slower paced.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Another great post.

    Reply

  2. I think the really interesting about pacing is that it’s also really dependent on the individual, especially in terms of what someone’s opposed to. There’s a sweet spot for everyone.

    Reply

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