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Pacing, and why it is important

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Sun Jun 13, 2010 12:34 am
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Rosendorn says...

All stories have a pace to them. Pace, often, is the heartbeat of the story. It’s how quickly the actions happen or how long tension lasts (fast and slow paces, respectively).

Before I get onto the topic of pacing in a story, I’d like to point out another place pacing shows up, in a more visual form: dance.

Chances are you’ve watched some form of dancing, even if it’s just in a music video. The thing about dancing is the audience quickly loses interest if the dance is too slow or too fast. Some of this is the music chosen, but good dancing to a slow song is just as entertaining and impressive as good dancing to a fast song.

And why would a too fast dance be boring? It’s pure action and non-stop excitement, after all! But that is exactly what makes it boring. Because the viewer has no time to actually figure out what’s really going on in a dance, their eyes glaze over and they can’t keep track of anything. (With slow dance, it’s pretty easy to tell why it’s not interesting— the audience falls asleep because there’s nothing to hold their attention)

The exact same thing can happen in stories. If the plot moves along at breakneck pace, there’s no time to get to know the characters or keep up with the plot. And if you go too slow, there doesn’t feel like there’s any conflict or reason to keep reading.

But as with most things in writing, there is no “right” way to pace. Some stories stay slow and have that little bit of curiosity that keeps us reading, while others move along at a good pace.

So instead of explaining how to pace, I’m going to be spending more time to explain why pacing is important.

Goin’ fast:

A fast pace doesn’t necessarily mean a huge action scene or a thousand-mile an hour chase. A fast pace can simply be going from one event to the next quickly. This is useful for moving the plot forward and giving a rushed feel to the situation.

But, even if you’re setting up something that lends itself to a fast pace, say a crime story or a big scramble to get the bad guy, it’s still a good idea to put a handful of pauses to regroup. I remember reading a Nancy Drew story awhile back, and there was a big rush to find Nancy, who had gone missing. One scene that sticks out to me even years later is a scene right in the middle of the action, where one of the characters is taking a cup of coffee. I even remember the description: “I was on my fourth cup. Black. Four sugars.” Later on, another character comes in and has coffee with lots of milk and two sugars.

Even though that scene should be a pointless throwaway, it does a few things right:

~ It provides some characterization to the two who were taking coffee. One is exhausted and needs the caffeine, the other seems to be happy during anything and doesn’t need it. Despite the story being plot-driven, the characters get some attention and characterization.
~ It provides a chance for the character to regroup and say all the dead ends. By doing this, we get a greater sense of urgency. Time’s running out, and so are leads.
~ The readers have a chance to breathe and take in the scope of everything that’s happened (whether or not the characters say it), so when the next rush of plot hits, the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

Not to say you can’t go fast— quick transitions can be very useful for moving plot forward or when the type of story doesn’t lend itself to lots of time with the characters. Detective novels and pulp fiction comes to mind. But even in those stories it’s best to pause just a little. Give the reader a little break. Let them take in the story, so their eyes don’t glaze over from being overwhelmed.

It might sound like I’m bashing fast pace. For the most part, I’m not. Fast pace can make a good story. However, if you go too fast, then your reader has no time to connect with anything going on. Which means even if you want to have one event after another, you still need to slow it down.

The slow spots:

I’m pretty sure that a few of you reading are feeling a yawn-fest coming on. “Slow means no action,” you say. “Slow is what you have to write instead of what you want to write.”

But wait a minute before you go jumping to conclusions.

The slow parts of a story, if done right, are where you show off the characters, the full scope of the setting, the subplots, all that lovely stuff that makes a book come to life.

And forgive me while I geek out on dance again.

I love watching the really powerful dancers. Their stunts, tricks, stamina, everything just blows my mind. But I appreciate slow dancing, freezes, subtlety, moves that require careful attention to even see just as much. Why? Because dancing slowly is hard. Making all the moves flow together, having the muscle control to stay in one spot, or just do one small shift at a time, takes training. Lots of it. And being able to control the slow moves to music perfectly takes more training. Slow spots in a dance are where dancers’ skills shine through the most.

The same is true for writing. I’m not sure anything beats reading a scene where you can just feel the characters moving meticulously, each gesture done for a reason and matching the situation perfectly. The dialogue, actions, even blocks of new information, all flow together to create an impressive scene.

The character’s actions don’t even have to look subtle. To bring up the coffee scene again, it wasn’t slow in comparison to some slow scenes out there. There wasn’t really a subtext, either. But the simple action of characters having coffee was enough to make the scene stand out as well crafted.

Here are some ways slow parts of the plot can be used:


Slow spots can maximize the tension between your antagonist and protagonist. The protagonist has no reason to chase the antagonist. No leads, the clues are hidden. But there’s this sense that something’s wrong, somewhere, somehow, and the antagonist is behind it.

Or, there’s no known antagonist and the protagonist has to find them because of X. Or it’s the simple, painstaking act of having to wait for something to happen. That moment before a key battle where everything seems to go quiet and we’re all holding our breath.

Tension like that can be more effective than fast-paced action for getting readers on the edge of their seat. By slowing that worry of “what’s going to happen next?” down, and having the time to show some character interactions in the process (when they’re worried from all the tension, to boot!), you’re going to have some hooked readers on your hands.

But, it’s very possible to have too much of a good thing. Dangling the carrot of “something bad is going to happen, keep reading to find out what!” for a prolonged period of time will get readers irritated. As for how much tension you can put in before readers get irritated, that’s something we have to figure out for ourselves. As with just about everything in writing, there is no magic formula.

Character interactions:

In the slow spots, chances are you’ll have characters be together. Let them start interacting, letting them mingle around and form relationships (or, continue relationships). These glimpses of character interactions show us the characters’ personalities, and let the readers form a connection with the people we’re going to be spending the next one hundred and fifty pages (or more) with.

Even if your character is alone, give them some time with their thoughts. Don’t go on long, internal monologues, but do use the time alone to show how they behave. People usually aren’t 100% themselves unless they’re alone.

Character interactions are vital to a story and can be the main thing people complain about when a story’s pace gets too fast. If anything, place slow spots into your story simply for characterization purposes. At least long enough so we know why the character is doing what he’s doing.

Pause and regroup:

Sometimes, after a large amount of action, everything needs to pause so readers can get a sense of what’s going on (or, in the case of a large plot point/plot twist that just happened, readers might have a sense of what in the world/heck/*insert expletive* is going on?!).

These pauses are what lets readers sit back and figure out everything, and it also lets the characters figure out what to do next. Like when a dance group stays in one position for just a moment (they can still be moving a bit, doing footwork or some other subtle shift) and lets the viewers’ eyes scan over what they’re doing.

This pause helps readers in the same way; we get an idea of where all the characters stand at that moment in the story.


Plain and simple, sometimes readers just need a break in the action. As mentioned above, a fast pace gets overwhelming at times.

Also, don’t forget that real life doesn’t have constant action. Sure, in fiction the concept of “real life” is stretched (sometimes to the limit), but no mater where you go there is never going to be action going on all the time. Even in a war-zone, there are breaks in the fighting. But during those breaks, that’s when you slip in the character interactions (if they didn’t exist before, create them), tension, and places for the story to regroup.

In conclusion:

Remember, there is no magic formula for the “perfect pace.” It all depends in your story, your style, and the genre. But these principles tend to span all of those variables. It just takes a little to get pacing figured out. And, really, the only way to practice pacing is to write. A lot. Short stories, novellas, novels, whatever you can. Also notice pace as you write.
A writer is a world trapped in a person— Victor Hugo

Ink is blood. Paper is bandages. The wounded press books to their heart to know they're not alone.

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Mon Jun 14, 2010 8:27 pm
Sophia_x says...

Couldn't have said it better myself :) (no seriously, i couldn't have, i wouldn't know where to start lol)
This has really helped me with my story, i have a fight scene and i've already done one later on in my novel that was fast and exciting but there was this one scene - it just wasn't working. All slow and no excitment but's much better!

Thank you :)

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Mon Jun 28, 2010 9:38 am
Twit says...

That was really helpful, thanks Rosie! Pace is something I'm always worrying about, but the idea of thinking about it like a dance -- that's really neat.
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Mon Sep 20, 2010 6:29 pm
Day says...

Quite the amazing guide. What I liked about the guide was that it was straightforward. A lot of guides sometimes end up beating around the bush to say, but when I read this one I felt like it definitely explained what, when, and why in an efficient manner.
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Sat Aug 13, 2011 2:56 pm
Cspr says...

So, this was very helpful! :D I've been having trouble with one novel of mine because it's only about 22,000 words but I can already see the end looming ahead (even if it might be another 20,000 words or more ahead) and it was concerning me. I think this helped me get some new ideas on how on the second draft--and for the rest of the book--to slow things down a little. And now I have some more ideas on how to speed certain parts up (write longer, but with more action). Basically--very helpful.

Otherwise, I think it's so neat you compared it to a dance. Because, ah, I'm a dancer. -looks highly embarrassed- So, yes. The comparisons worked well for me and kind of gave me an "Ohhh, so that's what I'm doing wrong!" moment. Anyway. -shuffles feet-
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