Storytelling Decisions: What’s the Right Pace for Your Story?

As we learn to write, we often hear about the need to create a strong pace in our story. Many seem to think that a strong pace requires a fast pace.

However, that’s not what’s meant by strong. So what is a story’s pace and why is it important?

Pacing is not the same as the speed that a story takes place, whether the plot covers days or years. (That said, a drawn-out time frame for a story can affect a reader’s sense of a story’s pace, especially if it feels like characters are waffling on taking action.)

Instead, the pace of a story is determined by how fast or slow events unfold in the storytelling. Stories are about change, and pacing is a measure of how quickly things seem to change from a reader’s perspective.

A too-slow pace can feel boring—no one wants to read 100 pages of nothing happening, nothing changing. But at the same time, a too-fast pace can feel hectic, be difficult for readers to follow, and prevent readers from connecting to characters or the story. So we need to find the right balance.

What’s the Right Pace for Our Story?

The “right” balance will be different for each story. There’s no formula we can rely on for creating the “perfect” mix for our story’s pace, such as writing 50% action, 40% dialogue, and 10% narrative.

The right pace for our story depends on several factors, including:

  • our genre (thriller readers expect a faster pace than women’s fiction readers)
  • our story’s voice (some voices are more chatty or terse than others)
  • our story’s length (shorter stories often need a faster pace than novels, just to fit in the whole plot)
  • our goals for reader connection to characters (more emotional connection requires delving more into a character’s introspection and emotional experience)
  • our goals for reader experience (a fast thrill ride or deeper thoughts/emotional responses)

What Creates a Story’s Pace?

When we talk about pacing, we could be referring to several different writing or craft elements that affect pacing, including:

  • Story Structure: Beat sheets can reveal whether plot turning points are happening at the right point to satisfy readers.
  • Tension: Emotion, contrast, strong goals, conflict, foreshadowing, and even paragraph breaks can all increase tension, which affects pacing.
  • Narrative Drive: The sense of forward movement in the story, working toward a satisfying ending.
  • Obstacles: A sense of conflict—if meaningful and not random—creates tension, which increases a story’s pace.
  • Goals and Stakes: Pacing drags if the stakes aren’t rising throughout the story, and stakes can’t exist without goals at risk.
  • Infodumps: Dumping information from backstory, worldbuilding, or descriptions pulls down the pace of a scene.
  • Narrative Elements: Too much of anything—action, dialogue, description, introspection, etc.—in a row can hurt pacing, so limit any one element to two or three paragraphs and then add something else to the mix.
  • Sentence Structure: Long, complex sentences slow down a paragraph’s pace, and short, choppy sentences speed up a paragraph’s pace. There’s a time and place for both.

How to Create a Strong Pace?

Most pacing advice out there focuses on how to speed up or slow down our story’s pace, such as varying sentence and paragraph length, changing the mix of dialogue/action and descriptive paragraphs, using an appropriate level of detail, etc. All that is good to know, but doesn’t answer the question of how to create a stronger pace.

For a strong pace, ensure every aspect of our story has a purpose. We need to…

  • focus on good story structure, so the narrative drive of our story’s beats all lead to a strong climax
  • skip pointless scenes that don’t progress the story
  • create characters with strong goals, to develop stakes and motivations for their actions
  • avoid irrelevant information dumps or backstory
  • use the plot to reveal our characters
  • create appropriate conflict to drive the plot, establish tension, and push characters to confront their weaknesses
  • develop a strong voice to earn reader’s trust that everything has a purpose
  • avoid unnecessary repetition or giving redundant information
  • use smooth transitions to carry readers along the story’s flow
  • add hooks/story questions to maintain tension before switching to lower-stake subplot scenes

And finally, we need to…

  • speed up and slow down the pace when appropriate for story events—any speed can become monotonous if it lacks variety

Storytelling is an emotional journey for readers, and good storytellers pay attention to the journey from their readers’ perspective. A strong pace carries readers along on that emotional journey, like an expert tour guide ensuring no one gets lost or bored along the way. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about strong pacing or how to find the right balance?

Jami Gold

Resident Writing Coach

After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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This entry was posted in Action Scenes, Backstory, Characters, Conflict, Description, Endings, Middles, Openings, Pacing, Plotting, Resident Writing Coach, Story Structure, Tension, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] Gold asks: what’s the right pace for your story? and how can we ensure our pacing is good? One way, she suggests, is to give every story element a […]

Amy Keeley
6 months ago

This is great stuff. Thank you!

What you said at the end about speeding up or slowing down the pace reminded me of Dwight Swain’s scene-sequel structure, where scene is action and sequel is the more “thoughtful” reaction to the action. Scene ends with a disaster, sequel with a decision, and together they provide the variety in pacing that keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully. 🙂 I’m still new to the idea and just trying it out, though I’m not sure yet how to apply it to a novel with two POVs.

Do you use this structure, or something similar, to control pacing?

Jami Gold
6 months ago
Reply to  Amy Keeley

Hi Amy,

Yes! You understand correctly. Dwight Swain’s perspective on sequels is about a character reflecting — such as thinking about why they failed and coming up with a new or tweaked goal. So while not every slower paced section would be a sequel, many of them would be.

I have a post about scenes and sequels (and when sequels might count as their own slower-paced scene in their own right) that might be helpful: https://jamigold.com/2019/08/how-can-we-make-scenes-feel-stronger-with-sequels/

And this post about scene and/or sequels endings is good for understanding how a strong ending helps our whole story (and pace) feel strong: https://jamigold.com/2017/12/how-to-create-scene-endings-that-hook-readers/

Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions. 🙂

Amy Keeley
6 months ago
Reply to  Jami Gold

Yes, those links are very helpful. Thank you! 😀

I do have one question, but it’s not on pacing so I won’t ask it here. I’ll put it in the comments section of that first link you provided. Thanks!

Lyall De'Viana
6 months ago

Firstly, I would like to thanks for posting about Storytelling and their useful insights so that many author/writer/storyteller know more about storytelling & their informative insights. Keep posting & inspiring!

Jami Gold
6 months ago
Reply to  Lyall De'Viana

Happy to contribute to everyone’s understanding, Lyall! 🙂

Kay DiBianca
6 months ago

Thank you for a very thought-provoking article!

I think of a novel as a symphony made of up words. The story may ebb and flow but it has an underlying theme. The things you describe as elements of pace (e.g., goals, structure, obstacles) could be thought of as the instruments that drive the pace and tempo. (There’s a story in here somewhere.😊)

Jami Gold
6 months ago
Reply to  Kay DiBianca

Hi Kay,

Yes! It’s often easier to think about story elements in analogy form, and that’s a great insight with a symphony analogy. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

Dawn
6 months ago

My weakness is feeling like I have to fill scene, and ending up filling them with pointless scenes that don’t progress the story. So how do I know if a scene is pointless? What questions should I be asking myself about whether certain paragraphs or sentences have purpose?

Jami Gold
6 months ago
Reply to  Dawn

Hi Dawn,

That’s a great question! I actually have an Elements of a Good Scene worksheet/checklist on my site (https://jamigold.com/for-writers/worksheets-for-writers/) that can help us make sure that an overall scene is pulling its weight. But as you said, sometimes it’s harder to know if all the sections, paragraphs, or sentences of a scene are doing their part as well.

Let me ponder, and look for a follow up post on my site (maybe even tomorrow). 🙂

Jami Gold
6 months ago
Reply to  Dawn

Hi Dawn,

I wrote about how we can make sure every element has a purpose in this follow up post. 🙂
https://jamigold.com/2020/03/story-elements-give-them-purpose/

ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
6 months ago

Great post, Jami. Like all story elements, the backbone of strong pacing is purpose. When everything is done with intention, wow, a book shines, and that starts with understanding why something is important. Thanks for breaking things down in the pacing department to get us all thinking deeper about how to determine the right pacing each time! <3

Jami Gold
6 months ago

Thanks so much for having me here, Angela and Becca! 🙂