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. 🙂
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.
Cheryl Sterling says
Pacing is an art, and the lessons are lifelong. Controlling it is easy during action scenes and the book’s climax—shorter sentences, shorter scenes, but challenging during scenes of introspection. I find that using the five senses helps bring the reader into the story. Connecting a memory to an emotion gives a scene power.
Studying scene and sequel has helped my pacing.
Thanks for the article! I’m reposting/tweeting/pinning.
April Bradley says
Thank you so much, Cheryl, for your comment, compliment and sharing! You mention one of the most important aspects of pacing to me: emotion and how it generates power, reveals character, and draws in the reader. Learning about and understand the structure of scenes and sequels helped me understand the function of pacing too. Raven Oak has a post here on scene and sequel readers will find helpful. Thanks again, Cheryl, for connecting the topics: https://writershelpingwriters.net/2015/01/writing-patterns-fiction-scene-sequel/
Ellen Mulholland says
This is one of the most valuable articles on pacing that I’ve read. It reminds me of the adage: the more we know, the less we know.
I thought I had pacing down, but…
One of my favorite ways to slow my story’s pace so the reader can take in a recent revelation and make connections to other story parts is to focus on the setting. It’s a great place to illuminate themes through metaphor. Then, just as you’ve lulled the reader safely inside this world, you pick up the pace with another revelation or shift–something lost; doesn’t need to be death.
I’m also bookmarking this article for the future because I’m sure I will stumble on pacing issues with my next WIP.
Thank you, April and all the writers who have offered thoughts here!
April Bradley says
Thank you, Ellen! I love the way you describe setting as a way to slow down pacing and as a way to lure the reader into the story world, only to “illuminate themes through metaphor” and reveal “or shift-something”. This element of surprise and revelation is wonderful and part of why we read. Thank you again for this comment.
Suzanne Purvis says
This is such a fabulous and informative post. And then more fabulous info in the comments. Thank you. I plan on passing this post on to many, many, many writer friends.
You asked about other areas of revision. I’m interested to read your wise words on transitions. From one to scene to the next. One chapter to the next. Time passing. Ways to make them interesting which might also include those hooky endings to scenes.
Thanks again for this amazing post.
April Bradley says
Thank you, Suzanne, both for your compliment and for connecting transitions to pacing.
As you mention, transitions are the places in our narratives where shifts in time, narrative perspective, setting, scenes, and ideas occur. We want to accomplish a smooth transition for the reader, essentially maintain a narrative flow. How often have we heard either praise or delivered it ourselves, “It flows so well!” or the criticism, “That seems clunky, it doesn’t flow. I’m thrown out of the story.” That last one—about being thrown out—that’s an editorial signal to me. When I edit, and something causes me to pause, the first thing I ask is, “Why am I not reading?” The next qualifying questions are, “Why have I paused, and is it intentional?” This is part of pacing: controlling how and at what pace your reader reads and engages the narrative. If your reader pauses where they shouldn’t, the writing requires some finesse.
We want the flow, that seamless and a seemingly intuitive experience for the reader who moves through the narrative with such ease and page-turing anticipation she hardly notices until the end of the sentence/paragraph/chapter/story/novel. Meanwhile, the writer? She has agonized over creating that seamless, coherent and cohesive experience. How is it done? Transitions, like every other element of writing, relies on effective structure.
Before I comment briefly, I’m posting a few places I’ve found that comment more fully and in-depth on transitions. What I admire and like most about The Millions post by Edan Lepucki is that she refers to two crafts books I like: Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction and Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises Edited by Cai Emmons and Sherri Ellis. The Now Write! Series has one devoted to mystery writing that I have found useful and interesting.
Transitions are elements I focused on in non-fiction writing, especially academic, journalistic, institutional, and persuasive writing. Encountering how to move characters and readers through a narrative with transitions is something I’ve had to pay careful attention to with signals for the movement of time, ideas, scenes, etc…An effective way to accomplish this is to anchor the element or create a bridge between the sentences/paragraphs/sections/scenes you’re connecting. This can be done with phrases, imagery, allusion, metaphor, dialogue, setting, even characters. For example, lets think about a scene that requires transitioning to another one in time and that features a different character perspective. One way to create a seamless transition would be to feature the new dominate perspective character in a minor role or feature the characters in the current scene mention her in conversation in a way that’s necessary: what does she add, illuminate or reveal to the story and why is her presence or perspective necessary? Hint at it in the transition moment.
I hope I’ve helped. You’ve brought up a great topic, Suzanne, and I want to research it further. Maybe this topic will feature in a future blog post. 🙂
Stacy Trautwein Burns says
April, thank you for this! I’m printing it out and saving a PDF copy on my desktop because it’s packed with so much, a quick read-through won’t do it justice.
I never think about pacing. I like to think that my revisions are generally about pacing whether I know it or not–moving things around, expanding this section with more space to breath, condensing things in this other section. But I don’t think “pacing.” Maybe this is what’s lacking in my stories and keeping me from becoming the next big thing in literature. 😉 Regardless, I’d like to be more aware of it in the future.
One last thing–“Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” by Bret Anthony Johnston in the Fall 2016 issue of American Short Fiction. I read it last night and it was one of those stories you can’t help but be envious of while reading. He does amazing things with structure but now, after reading your article, I realize how much of what he does is tied to pacing. Everyone should read this story. If I taught creative writing anywhere–high school or college or local arts groups–this would go on my syllabus immediately.
April Bradley says
Stacy, I would have sworn I had replied your comment, because so much has happened having to do with it. Thank you so much for taking time to comment and for bringing up Bret Anthony Johnston. Since I first read it and this morning, I subscribed to American Short Fiction in order to read his story (and because the subscription kicks off with ASF’s 25th Anniversary issue). I received the issue, read the story, started the next one, and then accidentally left the issue on an airplane during a layover! I was heartbroken to have lost that fantastic issue with all those stories and that pretty note from the Editors. I immediately ordered a duplicate copy, and the careful editors over at ASF noticed. I had to explain everything…And, the whole thing was pacing, pacing, pacing, right? If only I had slowed down, paid closer attention, not been in such a hurry to get off the plane to make my connection, I would not have left those stories behind. As for why you aren’t The Next Big Thing…well, it’s just the beginning of 2017, Stacy, and you’ve had tremendous momentum lately. 🙂 ASF’s contest deadline has been extended to February 15 I believe.
What a fun story! I laughed reading it and I’m glad you liked the issue well enough to purchase it a 2nd time.
What do you think of that particular story in terms of pacing? It’s non-traditional in its structure but I felt, particularly after reading your post, that its structure does much in terms of pacing.
(And yes, I got their email about the extended deadline and submitted two stories right away. I’ve never before made use of contests that let you submit multiple stories in one entry, but I feel like both are strong contenders.)
BECCA PUGLISI says
Pacing sucks, lol. It’s vital that we get it right, but so many things contribute to it; when the pacing’s off, it’s hard to figure out what’s causing it. Thanks for shedding a little light on the subject, April :).
April Bradley says
That could be a coffee mug, Becca—didn’t you write that it’s one of those thankless things we work so hard on and never get any credit, but *Oh* if it’s off, watch out! You are so right. It sucks lemons. Thanks so much for having me here. You all are so much fun. xoxo
Carol Baldwin says
thanks for the article and the comment above. Great stuff!
April Bradley says
You are welcome, Carol! So glad you like it. 🙂
Anne Weisgerbr says
Enjoyed this — bookmarking for future revisions. Thank you April!
April Bradley says
Thanks for stopping by, Anne! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Mona AlvaradoFrazier says
Pacing, what to cut and what to leave on the page is the bane of my revisions.
This piece of advice is the best I’ve seen: “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.”
Thanks for a valuable article.
April Bradley says
Thank you so much, Mona! I am a member of that baneful club too—tape and scissors, and more versions of a piece of writing that any sane person ought to possess. I also do more rolling revision—stop writing and go back. I know I’m supposed to free write, but it simply doesn’t happen that way. Your compliment means so much to me. I am delighted to have helped.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great post April.
I find Pacing is so much more complex and requires more skill than one might first assume, because tied into it is the mammoth task of what to show, and when, and how–and we’re talking everything here–a marriage of description, plot, characterization, backstory, inner conflict, you name it. Balancing all the elements to deliver a very specific experience is not easy, but wow is it magic when done well. 🙂
April Bradley says
You are not wrong, Angela! And I think that is why it is so easy to miss when we read our work ourselves. Readers are precious for catching how things move and how they experience the story. I know when I’ve lived with one while writing it, even if I’ve let it rest for a while, I have a sense of how it ought to be occurring. It typically doesn’t read that way.
I’m also reminded of Jamie Gold’s Writing Coach post on revision: how concentrating on one aspect invariably will strengthen others. If we focus on directing pacing more fluidly, we develop character, dialogue, setting, and structure.
Thank you again for having me here. This has been interesting for me as well.
Sharon M Hart says
Thank you. This article is very informative. Does pacing include or involve physical aspects of a situation? For example, I notice the time it takes a character to move from one location to another. Is it physically possible to move from point A to point B in the designated time interval? Do my questions pertain to a different category?
April Bradley says
Thank you so much for your excellent question. Yes, pacing does involve “the physical aspect of a situation” you describe, such as “the time it takes a character to move from one location to another.” How the reader perceives the time it takes for the action to occur and how long it takes for it to occur in story time are two different aspects as well as real time or the time it’s actually taking to happen out of the frame of the story.
A character can move around within a confined space while performing other tasks, such as walking around a kitchen, putting away groceries, and talking on the telephone. How your character moves, the pauses and strides, the rate of the movement, the gestures, the dialogue, mood, tone, the way your character behaves with the groceries influence and control pacing—does your character toss things around playfully, slam some things down, or perhaps drop things? If so why? What’s the emotional backdrop? What’s going on in the conversation? Does the reader get to hear both sides? How is conflict demonstrated? How does this scene move the story and reveal information and knowledge about character? In terms of time, what time of day, evening, or night is it? How do you want to let your reader know how much time elapses? is there any noise or smells? Visitors? Family members who cruise in and out of the character’s space? Is there a clock, and animal, weather, does one of the characters mention time? Each of these elements having to do with pacing allow your to control the velocity of the momentum. Description, backstory, internal character dialogue, memory, flashes, metaphor, allusion—all contribute to how the reader will perceive time and how the character moves through it. Something that may take a reader two minutes to read, as you must have experienced, may easily cover a thirty-minute conversation that mentally leaps around in years of memory.
I hope I’ve helped, Sharon. Please feel free to elaborate more and continue. I love this question and thank you again!
Jan Elman Stout says
Wonderfully helpful essay, April! Pacing and momentum are terribly important elements and yet I hadn’t considered all the mechanisms by which we control them. I’m curious if you can articulate when you want to speed up the story or slow it down. Thanks!
April Bradley says
Thank you so much, Jan, for the compliment! You ask such a marvelous, challenging question. My immediate thought was *red herrings*! Not all of us write mysteries and thrillers exclusively, but I love reading them and think it’s a treat when literary fiction incorporates these genres’ techniques. This is sideways topic, but if we want to learn how masterfully pacing can work, read some of your favorite mysteries and thrillers.
Why Speed it up
Alright, regardless of genre, there are moments in your story when you wish to redirect your reader’s attention and pull off a slight-of-hand or do more than imply: you want to distract the reader with a faster pace, something more compelling than information or an action that you will become more significant later. This is a great time to increase the pacing.
There are moments and scenes when you want your reader to become immersed and experience the intensity your character experiences. Close attention to sensory and emotional details help accomplish this and create urgency. It also contributes to the perception that the pacing is picking up speed: shock, pain, pleasure, joy, disorientation, confusion, fear, anxiety, are all heavy-hitting experiences.
Action-immersed scenes move quickly. Chases, physical exertion, confrontations, or fights, near-death moments and cliff hangers.
Why Slow it down
Give the reader a break
The contrast to these intense and high-velocity scenes is often called summary but so much can occur in that space: offer periods of rest for the reader. Moving along at a continuous breakneck speed batters the senses. You drag your reader though the narrative brutally. Roller coaster rides dip into a brief basin of relief before crawling up the steep incline again.
Develop the story world and character
We also need the narrative time and space to develop our story and the characters who inhabit it. The reflective work, the kind that reveals thoughts and backstory though various devices and techniques offers the reader a stroll through the setting and provides details about the story world. The interior thoughts and the minds of the characters also may be something a writer may want to reveal to the reader. These are the dark-night-of-the-soul moments, reflective, pastoral, or bucolic ones.
The cycle of developing relationships, including romance includes pacing too. If lovers immediately loved, where’s the story? And back to the red herring. If detectives detected so effectively, where’s the story in savoring the whodunnit? Just as lovers have their relationship arc in romance, so do detectives and their criminals. We need to slow things down and permit relationships develop.
I hope I helped Jan. You asked a great one!
Jan Elman Stout says
Your response was incredibly helpful, April! Thanks so much for sharing all of your thoughts here.