Pacing is a lot like the throttle on a vehicle. There are times when driving that you need to move slowly, like through a city or in a school zone. Then there are times when you need to move a lot faster, like on the freeway. And there are times when you need to just coast along at a moderate speed.
As a writer, you use pacing as a tool to help manage the speed and rhythm of your story. Sometimes you want fast action, just as other times, you need to slow things down and let the scene unfold.
It’s up to you to know when to use pacing. A lot of your pacing decisions will be based on your genre. If you’re writing an action story, it’s pretty fast-paced with exhilarating moments of danger mixed with adventure juxtaposed with quieter moments when your characters do some heavy thinking. If you’re writing an epic that spans over generations, it might move more slowly.
A few tools to help you adjust the pacing
There are a lot of literary devices you can use when creating your story's world. Here are a few that will help you speed up or slow down your pacing.
When you’re showing what is happening to your characters, use short to medium-length sentences to move the reader along. You rarely use a lot of exposition in action scenes; rather, you’re focused on what’s happening right now. Don’t add distractions like a lot of description, especially during the height of action, when your character rarely has time to think because she’s fighting for her life.
The use of rapid-fire give and take between your characters can really speed things up. For bullet-quick action scenes, drop the dialogue tags and focus on short, punchy exchanges. You might not remember the old television series Dragnet (it’s pretty darn old), but I bet you have heard its famous line: “Just the facts, ma’am.” The only words your characters should say are what moves your plot forward—nothing extraneous.
Length controls pacing
A short, hard-hitting scene that a reader can get through quickly will keep the pace going forward. You want to use this tool when something important happens but you don’t want your readers to dwell on it; they just need the facts. Use longer scenes for the climactic moments when everything changes for your protagonist. This is where you want to slow things down so you can fill your readers in on every detail. Slow scenes firmly fix your story in a time or place in your reader’s mind. Use lingering, introspective vocabulary as your main character reflects on a significant item, photo or view.
You may have some information that’s important for the reader to know, like something that has already happened. Rather than write an entire scene that will drastically slow down your momentum, find a way to summarize it for your readers. This works well when whole years go by or you need to drop in a little backstory.
Words and sentences
This is probably your most precious tool for controlling the pacing of your novel. To quicken the pacing, use powerful nouns (like boulder or fascist), action verbs (like sprinted or cranked), and great sensory information (like ridged or vibrant). And break up your long sentences and paragraphs into shorter, more staccato sentences. Your readers will feel this hastening as an increase in tension.
Pacing should ebb and flow
Pacing doesn’t always mean speed. Your readers need to have slow moments to reflect on everything they’ve learned while characters come to terms with what they’re facing. The rhythm of your novel should be Action, reaction, Action, reaction, etc.
And slower pacing doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less tension in a scene. You may have a longer scene where the main character is coming to grips with the death of a loved one. If you’ve created real emotional investment with your readers, the scene will be poignantly tense without any action at all, other than your protagonist’s utter devastation, of course.
How to gauge your pacing
This is the fun part. You can create a chart of scenes from your novel. Have two columns, one Fast and one Slow. Then taking your scenes in order, place them in the appropriate column on your chart. You should have something that alternates between the two columns.
If you find more of your scenes are falling into the Fast column, you may need to consider adding scenes in between to slow the action down. Or you may be writing an action/adventure story, in which case, you’re probably going to have more fast than slow scenes.
Another trick is to think of your novel in 3-act movements like in the theater. Act 1, the beginning, is when your character is introduced to the central conflict. This needs to move pretty quickly. You want to hook your readers right from the start, so jump right into the action.
Act 2, the middle, is more drawn out. You have time to alternate your pacing so that your main character acts and then reacts to what’s happening or what he’s causing.
Finally, Act 3, the end, is the climax. This is your high-tension, quick paced resolution if you’re writing action/adventure. If you’re writing a literary novel, this is when your main character changes (drama) or becomes damaged (tragedy).
But by far the easiest and most comprehensive way to check your pacing is using the ProWritingAid Pacing Check. This is a visualization that shows you where the pacing in your novel slows down too much.
For example, if you have several slower paced paragraphs in a row, the bar on your pacing visualization will show large, white gaps. It's an easy way to identify where you need to pick up the pace so your readers don't fall asleep.
A great story achieves balance between slower and quicker pacing. Depending on the type of novel you’re writing, you may have more action-packed scenes or slower, character-driven scenes. As the creator of your world and your narrative arc, the blank page is your palette. Use pacing to get just the right reaction out of your readers.