Pacing Fiction

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If you’re a writer who’s not familiar with the idea of pacing, you should be; it is one of the most powerful influences on how engaging each scene is. It’s almost entirely about the emotions portrayed in the scene. If the pacing doesn’t match the emotions your characters are feeling, the scene will feel “off,” confusing, or boring – and those are three emotions you never want your readers to feel about your writing.

Simply put, pacing is how fast or slow the scene feels to a reader. It’s a scene-by-scene issue that changes depending on what you’re writing about. Some genres have more fast-paced scenes (like action, suspense, and some modern sci-fi). Others will lean toward scenes with slow pacing (like romance, drama, or coming of age stories).

Pacing affects two big things: your readers’ emotional response and how well they can understand the story. Let’s look at other ways it can affect your fiction:

Fast pacing

Faster-paced scenes create a feeling of urgency or stress. When a lot of things happen in a small amount of text, it creates a sense that a lot of things are happening at once in the story. Often the reader will be eager to see what happens next, and she might not be reading every word. You’ll usually give scenes a fast pace when they’re full of action and suspense with high stakes.

The scene might feel faster partly because readers are actually reading faster. Words will be simple and sentences will be short, because longer words and sentences will slow a reader down. They feel academic or profound, and your readers will have to think more about what they mean. Action-packed scenes are more about what is happening than what anyone thinks is happening, so you’ll want to leave the slow, thoughtful words for later.

Fast pacing signals your reader that there’s not enough time to think because your characters are in trouble. They’ll form conclusions about what happened later. Right now they just want to know whether the characters are going to get through this without losing their lives or anything else important to them.

Reading faster means less reading comprehension, though. It’s not a good way to introduce new characters or settings. Be careful not to make any important plot points easy to miss; in fast-paced scenes a quick mention of an important item or event can get missed. If you’ve ever been so enthralled in a book that you’re reading quickly to find out what’s happening, you’ve probably also had to go back later when it gets confusing for that one thing you glossed over. Don’t let that be your book: Put in a little dialogue or action that emphasizes what just happened, or reveal that plot point in a slower pace.

Slow pacing

Most of the scenes in your book are probably going to have a slower pace (with a few genre exceptions). They are best when you want to create a dramatic and emotional scene, to introduce new characters or important settings, to give a breather between faster scenes, or any time you don’t have a purpose in giving the scene a fast pace. You can write an entire novel without a single fast-paced scene, but you can’t write one without any slow-paced scenes.

Occasionally slow scenes can even be appropriate in a scene with a lot of action. This would be at a time such as the moment disaster strikes or an important character dies. It’s effectively slow motion: When both adrenaline and deep emotions are happening at the same time, your brain will take in and remember every detail. Used sparingly and intentionally, it can be an effective use of slow pacing.

The danger in slower scenes is that many authors will pace it too slow. If you’re concerned about whether someone will be able to understand what’s going on, it’s easy to add more description than necessary. Try jotting down all the details you want to include in the scene randomly, brain-storm style. Then highlight the details that are necessary to understand the plot. Limit the number of other details you keep in the story so that your readers can imagine it for themselves.

Sometimes authors add a lot of flowery language because they’re trying to sound poetic or they’re imitating an out-of-date writing style. That slows down the pace to a crawl, and sometimes the story even stops so the author can describe absolutely everything in the room. Modern readers struggle to keep interest in a scene that rambles more than readers did centuries ago. If you’re writing because you want other people to love your writing, be careful to keep your stories moving even when it’s moving slowly.

So how do you use pacing to make your writing stronger?

Think about it this way: The pacing of the scene should match the way your heart beats. If your heart beats faster when you feel the emotion you want in the scene, like with fear or anger or suspense, you need to pace your scene faster. If the emotions you’re going for make your heart rate slow down – calm, thoughtful, relieved, or in love – you need to slow your scene down, too.

Pacing isn’t something that can be measured, unfortunately. You can’t put a number on it like “This scene is fast because it’s going 88 miles per hour!” Fast and slow pacing definitely exists, though, and experienced authors and editors can usually identify when a scene is paced too quickly or too slowly. It’s something that you kind of need a sense of.

But good news: you can learn to identify appropriate pacing. With some practice writing and reading out loud, you’ll start catching their particular traits.

How to control pacing

  • Sentence and word length: As I said above, longer sentences and words mean slower pacing, and vice versa.
  • Amount of detail: Slower-paced writing might take the time to describe things just for the sake of creating a better picture for you. If you imagine it as a widely shot scene in a movie, you can see the scenery in the background, the other characters, the weather, the color of the room, and so on. In faster pacing, you’ll zoom in onto the action. You can only see what one character is doing or just the two characters interacting with each other. The background scenery just isn’t important at the moment.
  • Which details: Obviously, in a fast scene, you’re going to be eliminating any details that aren’t necessary, but that doesn’t mean a scene is paced quickly. Fast-paced scenes will pretty much only answer who, what, and where questions: Who is doing what and going where. Slow-paced scenes will linger a little more and answer whys. If you only include the important details in a scene but the details are about why your characters are acting the way they are or why things are happening to them, it’s still a slow-paced scene.
  • Stacatto words: This one is a little more advanced. If you know a thing or two about poetry, you probably already know what this means. A lot of short words with sharp sounds can sound hurried, increasing your pacing speed. Sharp sounds (plosives) are the ones you can’t draw out, like B, D, K, P, or T. An M isn’t a sharp sound because you can make it last longer without repeating the sound. I’ll write a post on using sound in prose writing soon, but it’s too much to explain here. If you’re not doing this naturally, don’t worry about it while you’re writing; it will give you writer’s block. You can practice in poetry, flash fiction, or short, important scenes in your novel until it becomes second nature.

How will this affect the quality of my writing?

If you use pacing effectively when you write and self-edit your work, you will see a major improvement in your writing. Many talented fiction writers sort of know how to pace scenes instinctively, but all writers will benefit from having a firm understanding of it. Taking a writing class or working with an editor can help you learn to see pacing in your own work. You might be surprised at how much it affects the clarity and emotional power of your novel.

Did you learn something new about pacing? Please share in the comments!

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