Too Fast, Too Slow, Just Right

By Joe Moore

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 even 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 boring. 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 can slow the pace. 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.

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.

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.

What additional techniques do you use to control pacing?


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25 thoughts on “Too Fast, Too Slow, Just Right

  1. When I first started writing this was one of the toughest things for me to learn. My story went at break-neck speed with no breaks. Ever. While writing I was literally on the edge of my seat, sweat pouring down my face, muscles tense. It was exhausting! I wish someone had told me this back then. Sharing on FB and Twitter for those who struggle with pacing. This post might save them months, or even years.

    • I was the same when I first started writing, Sue. It was action and adventure, but mostly action. Like a long-distance runner, pacing has to become a “feel” thing. Knowing how to pace will give you enough forward motion to finish the race. Glad you liked the tips.

  2. Great summary on pace, Joe. A method I use to speed up pace is to split scenes to show my protag and villain racing for the same thing. The split scenes are short and alternate at a pace that’s rapid fire, the way they do it in movies.

    Sometimes I split different types of scenes to show impending danger, like writing a love scene that’s split to show the bad guys creeping up on my lovers, to add tension and therefore pace.

    • Great additional tip, Jordan. Splitting the scene lets the reader take a quick breath. I do that with chapters, but doing it in the same scene with a drop/break is just as good.

  3. Great overview of the subject, Joe. One additional tip that I use for the “polish” (the last bit of editing) is to look at all my scene endings and see if I can cut a line or paragraph or two. Quite often a scene does not have to be written out to its logical ending point. By clipping these you can create a feeling of forward motion that readers love.

    • Thanks, Jim. As I mentioned yesterday in Kris’ post, sometimes I go one or two sentences too far. Clipping them off can often provide more suspense that leaving them in. Good tip.

  4. You’ve covered anything I can think of at this hour in the morning. You said:
    “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.”

    In my critique group, we refer to that as “staying in the phone booth with the gorilla.”

    It’s also a good idea to look at transitions – characters need to get from point A to point B (not necessarily physical places), and you don’t have to be with them for every step or process along the way. Say­ing, “after lunch” tells the reader that the char­ac­ter has eaten with­out going through every bite.

  5. Wow, Joe. Great discussion of pacing.

    This is one aspect of craft that has been difficult for me to learn. Like Sue, I tended to write all scenes with the same speed. I wonder if this is common for beginners.

    I don’t have anything to add, except to say thanks for another great post. And this post is a “printer.”

  6. Thanks, Steve. Lopsided pacing might be common for new writers because it’s considered part of the “craft” of writing. All the tips and trick in the world won’t do much good until the writer starts to “feel” pacing. Once that happens, then tips become clearer and the craft matures.

  7. Great post. One counter-intuitive approach to suspensful pacing is to slow down an action scene (a desperate battle, for example) with the protag’s thoughts and emotions. I think that heightens the reader’s involvement.

    • Mike, that might work sometimes, but as I mentioned, you don’t want to stop in the middle of a hurricane to reminisce about the character’s love of rain.

      • I was thinking about something like this: “I swung at him, but Moose twisted his shoulders and dodged my haymaker. He used that momentum to pivot his opposite arm toward my jaw. That’s when a grim realization clicked in the back of my mind: I’m going to get smashed in the face. The image of that sledgehammer fist an inch from my eyes seemed to float for an eternity, and then the world spun away into a throbbing, silent darkness.”

  8. Nice follow up to yesterday’s post on length of scenes, which is a key element of pacing. Being new here, I’m pleased to see how the comment threads expand upon the core message of the day’s posting writer, truly creating a community of thinkers on the deeper nuances of storytelling. When pros like Joe lead us into those depths, it’s truly an inspiring experience.

  9. You’ve give a thorough overview of the topic. One thing I’m always caught on by my editor is “travelogues”. I get carried away describing details of a place when she wants me to go from Point A to Point B. So examine these scenes and see which sensory perceptions you need to set the scene, and then sprinkle them in with dialogue and action.

  10. Another good post, Joe. Getting past weekends are one of the difficulties I encounter. I try to use transitions like this: “Helen spent the weekend cleaning her apartment and was ready to go back to work on Monday.”

  11. Yeah, like we PLANNED for our posts to relate to each other, right Joe? 🙂

    Pacing…so important, so subtle, so hard to grasp. I was a panel once (might have been one of my first Bouchercons) on just this subject. I said something to the effect that pacing should be like a roller coaster, with slow climbs and plenty of anticipation then plunges and a bunch of smaller dips and recoveries. Some other author then said, “That’s not right. You should never take your foot off the gas.” Because I was a newbie, I didn’t fight back. I should have. Because he was wrong. Maybe I should have just reached across the table and smacked him. Sort of like Mike’s action/thought scene above:

    “That’s when a grim realization clicked in the back of my mind: I’m going to smash that guy in the face.”

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