One of the elements I like to focus on when I revise is pacing. Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. Pacing influences how time and events unfold in the rise and fall of action, how characters move in scene, and the effects of time on the story itself. When we control pacing, we also control tension. If you want to create tension, look at your pacing.
A lack of momentum or lack of control over the momentum is not uncommon in the constructive phase of writing. The writing may feel tight and consistent: the scenes playing out in our heads seem to match what is happening on the page. “Consistent” is the problem: the action may be playing out at the same rate of speed and emotional pitch in spite of the kind of action occurring. This creates a flat dramatic experience for the reader.
Narrative momentum is not merely speed in action: momentum is the forward progressive force of the shapely dramatic arc of your story. It is what pulls the reader through your story with increasing power and velocity. It is the physics of narrative. It is essentially what compels the reader to read the next sentence, to turn the page.
There are many ways to control pacing and create a sense of fluid, dramatic movement, create and release tension, and contribute to momentum. If we were to illustrate momentum it would look more like a sinuous line instead of straight one.
Protracted action through summary, description, backstory, flashback (analepsis), flashforward (prolepsis), and foreshadowing all serve different purposes, but in terms of pacing, they ease up on acceleration and slow things down. And yet, you also can create tension and a sense of urgency with these slower devices by permitting the reader to experience the sensory aspects of the story and the characters’ emotions through description and action–of setting, character actions, thoughts, feelings, emotions. This is when we can indulge in telling along with the showing. We can draw out the action with a line, paragraphs, or pages. However, meander too much into protracted action and risk losing the reader in a thread of backstory or extended sensory experience, when instead what we want is to compel the reader through the story.
Rapid, staccato events, dialogue, and scenes will accelerate the sense of time in your story. Minimal descriptions, transitions, and dialogue tags compress time and create a sense of urgency. They ratchet up the tension and suspense. In contrast, extended incidents and dialogue slow things down, permit character and story development through more internal means, and give the reader more time to take in the story world and the characters.
Structural changes on the sentence and word-level have great effect on pacing. The use of active voice and strong, active verbs, concrete nouns, unambiguous sentences, and shortened paragraphs all contribute to velocity. The limited and deliberate use of implication, symbolism, metaphor, alliteration, and rhyme also influence pacing and create or stall momentum.
Switching the setting, the characters within it, and even the character perspective will increase the pacing because the reader is required to pay attention to what’s going on around them in the story. But don’t make it so convoluted that they neglect to turn the page. The unexpected and unanticipated is part of what keeps readers reading.
I’d love to know what aspects of revision you like to get into. Let me know or ask me about an aspect or issue. Revision is my favorite part of writing—it’s what I do most. 🙂
For more help revising your story’s pacing, see the Storyteller’s Roadmap at One Stop for Writers.
April has a Master’s in Ethics from Yale University and studied Philosophy and Theology as a post-graduate scholar at Cambridge University. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology as well as the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press and the Founder and Editor of Women Who Flash Their Lit. Find out more about April here, visit her website, and catch up with her online.