When I was a child, a piano teacher let me play to my heart’s content without worrying about such details as tempo and timing. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the best approach, which may be why those lessons were short-lived. It wasn’t until adulthood, when I studied vocal music, that I learned to pace myself.
Pacing, whether in music or writing, is one of the methods by which we organize the creative flow. Order prevents these creative expressions from falling flat and helps improve their impact.
What is Story Pacing?
It took me a while to understand the concept of pacing in fiction, but relating it to what I already knew about music made it easier. Basically, two elements of pacing work together within a story.
Every piece of music has a tempo, or base speed dictated by the type of music and its mood. This is also true in fiction. A sweet romance will have a slower overall speed than a thriller, for example. Knowing the right tempo for your story is an important but often overlooked consideration in pacing it correctly.
Your story plays out relative to its tempo, which means that the slowest scene in a lavish historical epic, for example, will be much slower than the slowest scene in a mystery novel, even though both may follow the same story pacing dynamics.
Vocalists are taught to hold back a little in the beginning of a song so that there will be room to crescendo later. In a story, the first scenes introduce the main characters, set up the conflict, and hook the reader.
As your story progresses, scenes ebb and flow at a slower, then faster, pace. This rhythm repeats, and as it does, the time between conflicts decreases. This builds tension leading up to the climactic scene.
The story then slows and, like music, resolves by returning to its tonal center. In the case of music, that is the first note of the scale. In fiction, there is usually a reference or some sort of return to the beginning of the story..
How to Speed Story Pacing
I’ll focus here on ways to speed story pacing, since that’s where most writers need help. However, many of these tips can be turned around to create the inverse effect.
Tension: Nothing propels a story along like wondering if the heroine is going to make it to the station before the love of her life leaves town forever. Or maybe your hero is being pursued by a gang with a vendetta. These are dramatic examples, but tension can be created more simply, as when Rhett Butler reveals he has overheard Scarlett’s declaration of love for Ashley Wilkes.
Unanswered questions create tension in these situations. What will happen when the heroine gets to the station? Will the hero escape with his life? Will Rhett keep the secret of Scarlett’s love for Ashley?
Action: Show, rather than tell, the story’s action in scenes written with minimal description, using a few details to evoke the setting. This is also not the place for introspection or thinking by your characters. Eliminate anything that would distract from the main action.
Dialogue: Because dialogue can be read quickly, it moves a scene along. To speed pacing, eliminate all extraneous tags and beats. Use conflict rather than agreement to give dialogue vitality.
Word Choice: Using short, snappy words will usually help you pick up the pace in a scene. Reserve longer words for those places where you want to slow pacing to allow the reader a moment to breathe.
Sentence Length: Remember that the more complex a sentence structure you use, the more time it takes for the reader to decipher your meaning. That’s fine in slower scenes, but use shorter sentences, which are more easily digested, in places where you want to pick up the pace.
Scene Length: A series of quick scenes can often move the pacing along better than one longer scene. You don’t want to chop things up too much, but this is a technique to keep in mind for the right application.
Chapter Length: Shorter chapters tend to be cleaner and more concise, which makes them more easily digested. They also act to quicken the pace by giving the reader a feeling of progress through the story.
Mastering Story Pacing
Learning to pace the stories you write isn’t easy. In fact, its one of the most difficult skills in writing fiction. Even if pacing doesn’t come naturally for you, keep working at it and you’ll improve. For a model that will help you plot and pace a novel, read Plotting a Novel in Three Acts and the related posts at my Live Write Breathe website for writers.