Tips on Pacing your Novel

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

The story in most novels takes place over a period of time. Some are condensed to a few hours while many epic tales span generations and perhaps hundreds of years. But no matter what the timeframe is in your story, you control the pacing. You can construct a scene that contains a great amount of detail with time broken down into each minute or pacecareven second. The next scene might be used to move the story forward days, weeks or months in a single pass. If you choose to change-up your pacing for a particular scene, make sure you’re doing it for a solid reason such as to slow the story down or speed it up. Remember that as the author, you’re in charge of the pacing. And the way to do it is in a transparent fashion that maintains the reader’s interest. Here are a couple of methods and reasons for changing the pace of your story.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be either boring or frantic. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative always slows things down. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

There will always be stretches of long, desolate road in every story. By that I figuratively mean mundane stretches of time or distance where nothing really happens. Control your pacing by transitioning past these quickly. If there’s nothing there to build character or forward the plot, get past it with some sort of transition. Never bore the reader or cause them to skip over portions of the story. Remember that every word must mean something to the tale. The reader assumes that every word in your book must be important or you wouldn’t have written it.

We’ve talked about slowing the pacing. How about when to speed it up?

Unlike narration, dialog can be used to speed things up. It gives the feeling that the pace is moving quickly. And the leaner the dialog is written, the quicker the pacing appears.

Action scenes usually call for a quicker pace. Short sentences and paragraphs with crisp clean prose will make the reader’s eyes fly across the page. That equates to fast pacing in the reader’s mind. Action verbs that have a hard edge help move the pace along. Also using sentence fragments will accelerate pacing.

Short chapters give the feeling of fast pacing whereas chapters filled with lengthy blocks of prose will slow the eye and the pace. Make sure you write it that way for a reason.

Just like the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 sets the pace for the start of the race and dramatic changes during the event such as yellow and red flags, you control the pace of your story. Tools such as dialog versus narration, short staccato sentences versus thick, wordy paragraphs, and the treatment of action versus emotion puts you in control of how fast or slow the reader moves through your story. And just like the colors on a painter’s pallet, you should make use of all your pacing pallet tools to transparently control how fast or slow the reader moves through your story.

How about you Zoners? Got any hot tips on pacing?                                           

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14 thoughts on “Tips on Pacing your Novel

  1. Great post, Joe.

    I struggle with pacing, and I’m always looking for more advice on the topic. This was one of the best summaries of the subject I’ve read.

    Thanks!

  2. Excellent post, sir!
    I think you’ve laid out a full palette of pacing pigments. I have no hot tip but something you’ve mentioned in another context also affects pace imo. Starting scenes late vs more developed set-up and/or ending chapters early, particularly if able to leave on a cliffhanger, influences my sense of story velocity.

    I’m going to use this post to help me avoid long, desolate stretches of story highway (-:

    Thanks!

  3. One thing I try to follow is the idea that, in thrillers at least, there should be more action scenes in later chapters, as one approaches the end. Of course, action should be present throughout to a certain degree, but as the end approaches, the reader should have a sense that events and characters are racing to the dramatic conclusion. What do you think of that notion, in terms of setting up overall pacing, Joe?

  4. One thing that I like to do is some change-of-speed stuff into the scenes, so that the scene will have it’s own undulating pressures of up and down. Introducing a hesitation into an action scene can sow doubt at exactly the right time, or ratchet the stakes. JSB in a scene in an article a year or two ago that had a great example with a karate master nun (IIRC) who’s stream of thought was slowed just for an instant to convey the moment of consideration in the character’s mind.
    In one of my books, I have a race scene that comes to a complete halt when disaster strikes-then sprints away to the ending.
    The only caution I try to follow is to make sure that I know the reason I want to slow or speed something up. It’s usually a gut call that I check up on after the fact.

  5. Great techniques, Joe.

    I also use sequels for pacing, i.e., the time the character takes to react to an event, to make a decision and set a new goal. The sequel could be interior monologue or a conversation with another character.

  6. Outstanding post — very helpful to all novelists. You have a knack for getting at specific points the writers struggle with but don’t exactly know it. Thank you!

  7. Great tips, Joe. I don’t have anything to add except that a pet peeve of mine is backstory. It can be sprinkled in judiciously or it can be dumped in like a load of concrete. In the latter case, nothing slows the action more. Ditto to flashbacks. And I agree with your remarks about slowing down after a frenetic action scene. The reader needs time to catch his breath, same as when you’re watching a movie. Too many explosions, and you begin to tire of them. You want the story to move on.

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