Pacing is a fundamental aspect of your story and is directly tied into the Story Arc. Most authors have an idea of what “pacing” means, but many don’t understand how it functions.
Gerry Visco, for the Writers’ Store, describes pacing this way: “Pacing, as it applies to fiction, could be described as the manipulation of time. Though pacing is often overlooked and misunderstood by beginning writers, it is one of the key craft elements a writer must master to produce good fiction.”
The narrative body of a story (of any length) follows the invisible line we call the arc of the story. Our characters experience action and reaction to events that occur along that arc. The story has a certain life, almost as if it is breathing. It moves forward, then allows a brief moment where the reader and the protagonist process what just happened, and then it moves forward again. The speed with which these things occur is called “pacing.”
Depending on the type of story you are writing, this is more difficult to achieve than it sounds. When we’re in the throes of laying down our first draft, we usually manage to stick to the story arc we originally envisioned, although sometimes the arc becomes more of a “story-wave.” We have places where it moves along well, and then it bogs down.
Good pacing eliminates the boring places because even the slower moments will have life, movement, something to keep the reader reading.
The website, Literary Devices, gives us some examples of the components of pacing:
An action scene dramatizes the significant events of the story and shows what happens in a story. Action is a key element in genre fiction.
When the end of a chapter or scene is left hanging, naturally the pace picks up, because readers would turn the pages to see what happens next.
Conversation is also key, and in genre fiction, it should pertain to and impart information the protagonist and the reader need to know, but only at the appropriate time. Writers Digest says, “The best dialogue for velocity is pared down, an abbreviated copy of real-life conversation that snaps and crackles with tension.” A rapid-fire dialogue is captivating, swift and invigorates scenes.
If you are writing a murder mystery or a thriller, or sci fi or most kinds of fantasy, conversations have to show something important about the story or the characters at that moment and must move the story forward.
Word Choice – The language itself is a means of pacing, like using concrete words, active voice, and sensory information.
In my opinion, this is true. If you are writing in the genre of Literary Fiction, conversation and pacing can be more leisurely as the internal journey of the protagonist is the core of the story. I disagree with the Literary Devices editors on this one point: even in slower-paced stories, irrelevant information doesn’t advance the story and will lose the reader. Conversations must have a purpose, or they only serve to fluff up the word-count.
How quickly along the story arc do you want the events to unfold? Writers Digest points out three critical places in the Story Arc where a faster pace makes a more interesting story:
Writers Digest also tells us there are places where you want to deliberately slow the pace:
“Suspense and, by extension, forward movement are created when you prolong outcomes. While it may seem that prolonging an event would slow down a story, this technique actually increases the speed, because the reader wants to know if your character is rescued from the mountainside, if the vaccine will arrive before the outbreak decimates the village, or if the detective will solve the case before the killer strikes again.”
That quote seems contradictory, but it isn’t. Consider the most popular genre: romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why? Because the path to love is never straightforward. It speeds up (a small reward) and then it is slowed (dangling the carrot), then it goes a little ahead (slightly larger reward), but it is slowed (enticement) until finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness.
These obstacles to the budding romance followed by small rewards keep the reader involved and make them determined to see the happy ending even more. This holds true in every book and story no matter what the genre is: Enticement, reward, enticement, reward. In all stories, complications create tension, which is what keeps the reader reading.
After an action scene, the reader, as well as the protagonists, needs a chance to sit back and process what they just experienced. Conversations at this moment can reveal more information we didn’t need to know before that moment—a reward for the reader.
Because movies and television shows must convey a story in a limited time, screenwriters have knowledge and skills to offer us. Story, by Robert McKee, a screen writer, is an excellent reference manual.
Also, consider investing in The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda. While it primarily deals with developing a unique style and voice, it has a lot to offer in terms of incidental information on the fundamentals of writing-craft.
Consider your favorite authors and the books that moved you. When you finished that book, you actively sought other books by that author, feeling like you scored a victory when you found one. Writers have habits, and the way you habitually pace your work is part of your style and voice. This uniqueness is what your readers will love about your work and is why they will seek out all your other works.
Credits and Attributions:
Gerry Visco, Pacing in Writing Techniques You Need to Know, Copyright © 1982 - 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated. (accessed Dec. 28, 2017)
LiteraryDevices Editors. “Pacing” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/pacing/ (accessed Dec. 28, 2017)
Writers Digest 7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace By: Courtney Carpenter | April 24, 2012 (Accessed Dec. 28, 2017)
Image: The Story Arc infographic by Connie J. Jasperson for Life in the Realm of Fantasy, © 2012-2018, used by permission.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.