The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page….Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction. ~ Lorin Oberweger
Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A study of your favorite book, the one that keeps you turning pages late into the night, will reveal a perfection of pacing. The opposite is true of a book that takes you out of the story with bogged-down narrative. In this case you might find yourself cursing the author with, “Oh, please get on with it. I can’t suffer through more description of ball gowns and medieval livery.”
Pacing as it applies to story
A well-told story carries a reader into a character’s life but moves quickly through those parts which don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict. This would be information the reader needs to know, but a brief mention or presentation through summary is sufficient, such as relaying bits of back story, observations about the weather, or a transition or passage of time during which nothing truly important happens.
Example: A man is dressing for his wedding, but the day has been filled with omens that make him wonder about the future. It might not be necessary to go into the details of looking for lost car keys, changing a flat tire, stepping in dog poo, and ordering broccoli and beans for lunch. A summary will do, unless the specifics are important for the story later on.
It’s just as necessary to slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. Take the time to set the mood through description. Unfurl the emotional state of your characters, plant seeds of mystery.
Examples: Recounting a tragic event such as a murder (which might happen quickly in real life) would be made more powerful by presenting it slowly. And there are moments that stretch out and become important for the epiphany that follows. I once had the pleasure of falling backward off a telephone pole from 20 feet off the ground. The world passed by in slow motion as I watched clouds float across the summer sky – right before I slammed into the ground.
Pacing as it applies to structure
Think variety when forming sentences and paragraphs. Reading sentences of the same length and rhythm becomes boring after a short period of time. In general, vary their lengths by using short, long, and compound constructions. Also vary paragraph size. Keep in mind that large blocks of text slow the reader down – a good thing if that’s the effect you’re trying for, but huge paragraphs can also signal information dumps.
The way a scene or chapter begins and ends also impacts pacing. Cliffhangers (not necessarily literal or extraordinary) are a good way to entice a reader to turn the page, but can be overdone. Structuring the end with hints of what’s to come, leaving a situation unresolved from one chapter to the next, or dropping in a new conflict will keep a reader wondering what will happen next. Begin a new scene or chapter with something happening, close to the heart of the action. Again, variety and writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.
Here’s a table with suggestions on how to speed up and slow down the pace of your story. Go to Controlling the Pace of a Story for the pdf version.
Perfecting story pacing is a skill that comes with time, whether through years of practice or by focusing on it during the editing process. It’s one of the most important elements of any fiction or nonfiction project for keeping the reader engaged through the end.
So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read. ~ Lorin Oberweger
Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net