Have you ever wondered how great fiction writing always manages to keep you hooked on every page and leave you wanting more?
Or how the best films will leave you gripped, often keenly waiting for the next piece of action to develop?
How a story unfolds isn’t something that magically happens. This comes about from great pacing and it’s a skill that needs to be carefully developed in order to entice your readers and ensure they want to keep reading. Truly successful authors are experts at using different paces and have total control over their story pacing and the direction the plot will take you in.
In this guide, we will explore what pacing is and why it’s so important to good writing. We will also help you to master the pacing in your story to strengthen your work and ensure that your readers are left satisfied.
So to begin, let’s explore what pacing is.
What Is Pacing?
Pacing refers to the rhythm of the entire story and how the chain of events fall into place.
It’s not necessarily the speed at which the story is told or the chapter length, but more how fast or slow the story is moving for the reader. Rather like a wonderfully composed piece of music, pacing differs. A great story should have moments of climax and slower, steadier points.
How a story unfolds is something readers are conscious of, without always knowing why. Authors can use different tools to slow or speed up their pacing depending on what effect they are looking to achieve.
For example, in a high-impact thriller, a writer might be looking to ensure that the story is fast moving, to push the story forward. That action is paramount for the main storyline, so descriptive passages and lengthy paragraphs are limited.
However, in a slow-burning romance, for instance, the author might want to slow down the action and increase intrigue, changing the sentence structure to something more flowery and adding lengthy sentences.
Now let’s consider why pacing is so important.
Why Is Pacing Important?
A story’s pacing is a vital part of its appeal. It ensures the story moves at the correct speed and keeps your reader engaged and invested.
Without effective pacing a book can suffer from sluggish, slow-moving sections – or, alternatively, can be blistering fast and not give your reader time to connect with characters or have the opportunity to envisage the world you are building.
Rather like a great piece of music, or a satisfying film – a story must hit those highs and lows at the right time and leave you feeling completely satisfied once you have completed the journey.
Keeping your reader invested is vital; you want them to keep turning pages. Pacing helps build tension and atmosphere and should take your reader in the direction you wish them to go in, moving with the ebb and flow of your story.
Correct pacing ensures action can be driven forward at key scenes and slowed down again, for more retrospective moments or sections which focus on character development.
If the readers get bored or can’t keep up, they will be thrown out of the action and you don’t want that. Well-constructed pace will help to ensure you keep them on that journey with you.
Readers also want to feel satisfied by pacing, much like they feel when they consume other creative works. Most would struggle and feel quite exhausted by an onslaught of successive, quick action.
Readers appreciate quiet, softer moments too – a chance to catch their breath and gather their thoughts. You may want to go slow when there’s a lot of information you need your readers to absorb, plus the areas of intensity will have more impact.
Now that we have understood why pacing is so important, let’s focus on how you achieve a well-paced story.
How To Master Pacing In Your Writing
Pacing can be used in many ways to strengthen your story. For example, paragraph length, word choice, and how you structure sentences will all affect pace.
If you want to break up a long passage of exposition, a short piece of dialogue can be an effective way of changing the pace. Alternatively, you may have a very dialogue-heavy scene that is fast-moving, and the addition of exposition (even a line or two) will slow the action down and temporarily take the reader away from it.
You may want to consider adding action scenes to a point of the text that has become quite slow-moving and static. Or, on the flip side, you may wish to consider writing some introspective pieces in an area where there has been lots of pace and movement in order to change the direction.
Examples Of Pacing In Writing
Let’s take a look at how sentence structure and length can affect pace, and examine the other literary techniques you can use to create drama in your novel or short story.
Author Ruth Ware is an expert at using pace in her novels.
Here is an example of action being added to change pace. This section is from The Lying Game, very early on in chapter one. We have already been introduced briefly to the main character, who has received an intriguing text message. The initial writing is introspective and written at a calmer pace, lulling us into a false sense of security.
Then suddenly, as the character reads the message, the pace picks up:
I need you.
I don’t need to ask what that means – because I just know, just as I know who sent it, even though it’s from a number I don’t recognise.
Just the sound of her name brings her back to me in a vivid rush – the smell of her soap, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, cinnamon against olive.
And me.The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
The use of short, sharp sentences here really helps to drive the pace and tension and we can also effectively feel the characters heightened emotions through the use of the descriptive words and staccato structure. It’s clear that things are moving at speed and the reader will immediately want to know more.
In the beautifully crafted My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, we can see lots of examples of introspective writing being used effectively to slow pace.
This is done to great effect throughout the book and allows us to learn about the character and setting.
Here’s an example:
It was all he wanted now. All he ever wanted. Alone with Nadine. The very words gave him a frisson. Why should it be impossible? Surely in this big new twentieth century he could find a way to make it possible. After all, his mother would have thought it impossible for him even to have known a girl like Nadine… Things change. You can make things change. And the Waveneys weren’t like normal upper-class people. They were half-French and well travelled and open minded. They had noisy parties and played charades and hugged each other, and Mrs Waveney had told him that champagne glasses were modelled on the Empress Jospehine’s breast…My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young
Through the use of this type of descriptive writing, the author is slowing the pace down a little whilst also giving the reader a chance to find out more about the character and the world they live in before the tension and pace build up later in the narrative. Longer sentences are usually used here, and the scenes are more descriptive and detailed, delivered at a more leisurely pace.
Another very effective way to increase pace is to introduce a cliffhanger to your text, giving it an intriguing or abrupt end. This will immediately pick up the pace of the novel, as it builds mystery and tension.
An example of a great cliffhanger is in The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell. Towards the end of chapter two, we are given a wonderful piece of intrigue when Sophie, who has just moved into a school cottage beside the woods, discovers a sign nailed to a fence.
She turns to put the latch on the gate as she leaves the back garden and as she does so her eye is caught by something nailed to the wooden fence.
A piece of cardboard, a flap torn from a box by the looks of it.
Scrawled on it in marker and with an arrow pointing down to the earth, are the words, ‘Dig Here.’The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
This cliffhanger immediately increases the pace as the reader wants to know what happens next, but Jewell expertly uses a shift in pace by changing the direction of the narrative in the next chapter. This is an extremely effective way of building intrigue and moving the story along at speed.
Tips For Crafting A Well-Paced Story
As mentioned before it’s important to have both slower-paced scenes and fast-paced ones, to match your plot points and enhance the reader experience.
Here are various tips to help you on your journey towards mastering pacing.
Vary Sentence Length
This is one of the quickest and easiest things you can do to increase the pace. Sharp, shorter sentences immediately move the action on quicker. Shorter paragraphs make us read faster and add to the suspense. Using the ‘show, don’t tell‘ approach (which suggests using a limited amount of exposition) is really helpful when writing using a fast pace.
Longer paragraphs with detailed descriptions do the reverse; they keep readers relaxed and give them time to catch their breath before the next bit of action. (Be careful not to go too far in this direction, or you’ll end up writing purple prose.)
Change Direction To Shape Pace
As outlined in the Lisa Jewell example, a great way to manipulate pace is to change the direction of your narrative.
For example, if you have written a fast-moving action scene that has ended on a cliff-hanger, you might want your next scene to focus on some quieter action, or more introspective work in order to build intrigue. Your readers will keep reading, eager to know what happens next.
Add A Breather
Many writers imagine that a well-paced novel must remain fast-paced throughout, but that is not the case. Slower scenes are very important as they develop character and setting.
Breathers (long paragraphs with descriptive words) are great to slip into your writing after a period of fast action. They allow your characters and readers a chance to gather their thoughts and take in what has just occurred.
It also means the fast-paced scenes will have more impact.
Read Out Loud
This is a great tip you can try when you’re writing anyway.
By reading your work out loud, you can actually hear how it sounds. Is it moving at the right pace? Does it feel slow and sluggish? Can you feel the right momentum as you read?
If you are out of breath reading it then your readers will be too, which is perfect if it’s an adventure novel and your characters are also out of breath! But if that’s not what you’re aiming for, you may need to adjust your sentences a little.
Use Introspection To Develop Character
You should always be considering your character development alongside plot and pace, so remember to show what your characters are thinking.
Introspection is a great tool to use to slow down pace, and it also helps showcase character motivation and character drive and creates empathy for your characters. All of these things will help your readers connect to the writing.
Reveal Information Selectively
If you reveal all the exciting and enticing twists and turns too soon, the pace will soon drop and feel frustrating to the reader. Consider the use of cliff-hangers to build intrigue, or perhaps change direction or slow the pace after a moment of revelation to leave the reader keen to find out more.
Use Backstory Or Sub Plots
This can help you take your story in a different direction entirely and in doing so changes the pace. However, you should only consider using this device if it will help the development of the story overall, not just as a tool to control the pace.
Plan Your Novel – The Rise And Fall
To have great pacing you often need great planning, even if it’s a simple rough outline of where the rise and the fall of the novel will be. With such an outline, you can help shape your writing into a more workable draft.
Read Some Great Examples
Read! The best way to experience pacing is to seek other examples and see how authors do it.
Pick up one of your favourite thrillers and notice the pacing. How does the author keep you gripped? Where are the high points and how do they introduce their slower moments? How can this help you to shape your own writing?
Frequently Asked Questions
How Is Pacing Used In A Story?
Pacing is used as a mechanism to control the rhythm and speed at which a story is being told. It is also a way of ensuring you have control over how details and events are revealed.
Pacing can be used to show fast-moving action and points of tension, but can also deliver slower, more introspective moments which helps with character interaction and scene setting.
What Is Good Pacing?
Good pacing allows the writing to move in ebbs and flows. Pacing in your writing should not be too fast throughout, leaving the reader without a chance to pause for breath. Yet nor should it be too slow or sluggish, boring your readers and not moving the plot forward.
Well-considered and well-constructed pacing will leave the reader feeling satisfied and engaged. Poorly constructed pacing will leave the story disjointed and unbalanced.
What Is An Example Of Pacing In Literature?
The Therapist by B A Paris is an example of an exciting story that moves at pace to keep the reader engaged. There are lots of fast-moving action scenes, various dialogue-heavy chapters and a short snappy narrative. The end result is a fast-paced novel, encouraging readers to turn to the next page.
As you have now learned, pacing is extremely important when writing any kind of fiction.
It’s a key component that will keep your reader stay engaged and invested in your writing. Rather like tides, your words should ebb and flow – taking the reader on a journey and leaving them feeling at times breathless, and at other times calm and immersed in your story.
Pacing is a skill that comes with time, but like most things, gets better with practice. Now you know all there is to know about pacing, you have no excuse to slow down.
Open up that document and start writing!
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