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, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.