Pacing is a fundamental aspect of your story and is directly tied into the Story Arc.
But what, you ask, is “pacing” and how does it apply to the story I am writing?
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.”
As our narrative follows the arc of the story our characters experience action and reaction. 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 had envisioned, although sometimes it becomes more of a “story-wave.” We have places where it moves along well, and then it bogs down.
The website, Literary Devices, gives us some examples of pacing:
- Action – An action scene dramatizes the significant events of the story and shows what happens in a story.
- Cliffhanger – 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.
- Dialogue – A rapid fire dialogue with lesser or irrelevant information is captivating, swift and invigorates scenes.
- Word Choice – The language itself is a means of pacing, like using concrete words, active voice, and sensory information.
Action is a key element in genre fiction.
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.”
In my opinion, this is true. In Literary Fiction, conversation and pacing can be more leisurely as the internal journey the protagonist is taking the reader on is the core of the story. For this reason, 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.
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.
How fast do you want the events to unfold? Writers Digest points out three critical places in the Story Arc where a faster pace is optimal:
- the opening,
- and climax of your story.
They also say:
“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. Obstacles to the budding romance keep the reader involved and make them determined to see the happy ending even more.
In all stories, complications create tension, which is what keeps the reader reading.
The trick is to dole the action and reactions out in a smooth manner. Many instructors I have had taken seminars from have likened this to the way a skater skates: Push—glide—push—glide—push and so on, though the course of the novel.
Pacing is another area where screenwriters have something to offer us. Story, by Robert McKee, 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 nuts and bolts of the craft. How you habitually pace your work is part of your style and voice.
For further reading on this subject, these are my sources for this post:
Gerry Visco, Pacing in Writing Techniques You Need to Know, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated.
LiteraryDevices Editors. “Pacing” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. http://literarydevices.net/pacing/ (accessed February 7, 2017)
Writers Digest 7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace By: Courtney Carpenter | April 24, 2012 (Accessed February 7, 2017)