Pacing your story is like using the throttle to give an engine more gas. With more throttle, the engine revs up and speed increases. Less throttle slows you down so you can see the passing scenery.
Controlling the pacing of your story is like maneuvering through city streets, main thoroughfares, and high-speed highways. You need different speeds to maintain control of your vehicle in each situation.
Pace helps your readers propel through action scenes and slow down to learn more about character in developmental scenes. There are both tortoises and hares in fiction writing—a slow and steady pace and the quick.
Just as you can’t drive at top speeds to every destination, nor should you constantly keep the pace at a high level throughout your story, most importantly because your reader will be exhausted and because it won’t allow you to develop your characters fully.
Here are 5 how-to techniques to establish pace in your story:
Plan action sequences.
Even if you’re not a planner, hang with us for a moment.
Action scenes use very limited description, and only what’s urgent to the scene at hand. Consider how people react during a crisis. You’re not having existential thoughts; you’re focused only on survival. These scenes show your reader what’s happening in the moment.
You should shoot for action sequences or scenes that ratchet up the tension interwoven with slower, more introspective scenes in between. An easy way to do this is to use color-coded index cards, perhaps green for action and red for slower paced parts.
You can lay out your scenes on a table top and see how the pacing plays out between your scenes. This also gives you an opportunity to move your scenes around to see what has the biggest impact on moving your readers forward.
Use cliff hangers.
There are a variety of cliff hangers you can use to pick up your story’s pace. Every reader has a love/hate relationship with cliff hangers. Who hasn’t stayed up way past normal bedtime to finish just one more chapter because you must find out what happens next?
Dialogue can be an effective cliff hanger. Imagine your main character dropping a bomb in the middle of a conversation and ending the chapter there. That’s a page-turner.
You can prolong the outcome of a scene by switching to another character’s subplot, leaving your reader wondering what’s happening with the main character all this time.
Sprinkle in some scene cuts.
Scene cuts are when the action jumps to another location without an overt explanation of this change. You can scene-cut your main character from an explosive ending to the next scene where she’s recuperating from the blow (physically, emotionally, etc.). Or you can cut to a new scene with another character and their subplot.
Another way to use scene cuts is to write a series of incidents that happen one right after the other. These are especially powerful in suspense and action stories where several things are happening at once to affect the plot.
Leaping from scene to scene increases the pace of your story. And leaping from place to place creates motion for your characters.
Slow it down with summary.
Sometimes your readers don’t need to know everything your characters are doing, and this is the time to use summary. Particularly if you have a period of time where nothing much happens, you can write a short summary of the time lapsed and then move on.
Summary is great to expose what goes on over longer periods, whereas your action scenes are usually one moment in time. You can also use summary to weave in backstory to give readers tidbits of the past that are affecting the present.
Choose words and sentence structure carefully.
You already know to use the active voice to move things along. What words you choose will indicate movement in your writing (shake, kill, grunt, crash, beg) and give stronger meaning to your descriptions (jubilation, smarmy, scavenger, venom, portend).
Use short, fragmented sentences for a quick pace and opt for action verbs. Milk the suspense for all its worth by using suggestive verbs and nouns. Snappy nouns + action verbs = urgency.
Longer prose lets you slow down the action in your story, spending time getting into your characters’ heads and delving into their dreams and fears.
How you pace your story depends a lot on your genre. Romance novels and dramas are character-intensive, so you’ll spend more time on development. On the other hand, action stories need to move with lightning speed.
Great novels have a balance between scenes that hurtle along and some that meander. The key is that all stories use pacing to bring your readers along on the journey.
One more brilliant reason to use ProWritingAid when you self-edit is the Pacing Check. Without getting too technical, the Pacing Check finds the slower-paced sections in your writing and shows you a graphical representation of where your slow parts are and for how long they go on.
The Pacing Check will give you an instant visual idea of where your story needs to pick up and where it needs to slow down to create a nice rhythm. Use it to make sure your prose is varied and paced appropriately.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)