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It can be tricky to create effective pacing in your writing. Pacing isn’t just how fast your story moves along. It isn’t how slow it moves, either. Some readers may prefer one or the other (think action-packed suspense or slow-burn romance), but every story includes elements of both. 

Pacing is how you present your story to the reader, incorporating varying speeds in the most fitting manner – this changes according to genre. 

For example, vast epics are slowed down with long descriptions and character reflections while romances typically start slow, then increase in speed until they reach the plot’s climax, and slow again through the denouement. 

Let’s look more closely at what pacing is and then explore how you can use it effectively in your writing.

Elements of pacing

The key to effective pacing is structure. From macro to micro levels, your story needs proper structuring in order to create a natural pace throughout. Humans can only understand information in chunks at a time – pace is what provides transitions between chunks, according to the structure they were designed around. 

Example: A battle

This isn’t just for the characters – it’s for the readers, too. If the aftermath stage was replaced with yet another battle, the reader would have no time to separate the information from one to the next. Their capacity to connect with the story and its characters would get worn out, and they would probably set the book down. 

Periods of lulls or quiet reflection following high-paced, action-packed scenes are necessary to refresh the reader’s mind. 

It’s a balance of rhythm and flow, the rise and fall of events that occur in the narrative arc, chapters, scenes, and even in individual paragraphs. Each of these levels should have their own form of the most basic story structure:

The higher the level, the greater the stakes will be and the greater impact the climax will have. For example, the climax of a scene will not be as life-changing as the climax of Act 3 of your novel.

What influences pacing

The tools you use to keep a plot moving will affect its pace. 

More of these mean tighter pacing and faster events – there is time only for action. Less of these mean looser pacing and slow events – there is time for reflection and introspection.

Chapter length is another way you can control how fast or slow a story moves. Long chapters make a story feel heavy and dense, while short chapters give the illusion that a reader is flying through a book in a record time. In some instances, chapters get shorter the closer a story moves toward its climax, to build up speed, then lengthen again in the falling action. 

How to pace your story effectively

Choose a narrative structure

The basic story structure can fit into any narrative-scope structure out there. Your story should be fit around something that is large-scale to help you understand when events occur, how they relate to each other, and the consequences they have for your characters and plot. Only then can you determine how fast or slow each segment should be.

There are many popular narrative structures out there. The most common are the 3 Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey. However, there is also the 4-Act Structure, the 7-Point Structure, the 27-Chapter Method, and the Snowflake Method, among others.

You could even use your creative discretion to mix and match structures to fit your story. However, be aware that the above examples exist because they are known to work. They follow specific conventions of storytelling that readers expect to find and respond well to. It’s best to understand what, how, and why something works before forging your own path.

Whichever structure you follow, try to stick to when and where plot points or beats occur. Some examples have exact locations (ex: this should occur at 25%), but these can be followed loosely (ex: it could occur at 19% or 27% instead). If you stray too far away (the point at 25% should not happen at 10% or 48%), major points in the story may occur too quickly because it lacks a proper build-up or too slowly because events dragged on. In either case, the reader may lose interest from overwhelm or boredom. 

Experiment with sentences

Pacing happens on micro-levels like in your paragraphs and sentences. The length of these affects the reader’s experience with the story. For a fast section, sentences can be short. Blunt. For slow reflection, sentences can be long, flowing from personal introspection to comma-filled details about people and settings. 

Just know that even in slow passages, you need to sprinkle in short sentences, and vice versa. Too much of either can exhaust your reader. 

Practice mixing up your sentence structure according to how you want a particular passage to feel. Read them aloud as you go to get a feel for how they sound.

Tips for pacing

Understand your story:

What are your goals with this novel? What do you want the audience to get out of it? What are the conventions of the genre it is in? 

What is important for character and plot growth? What are your characters’ motivations? What are the consequences of their actions? 

These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself before writing. Write down your answers to keep as a reference. They can help you identify important information and where to place plot points to take advantage of their natural pace. 

Remember that even as pace varies, the main elements of your story must remain consistent.

Outline chronologically:

Not all stories are written in chronological order. If yours fits under this description, create an outline of events in the correct order so you have a visual of how events and consequences relate to each other. Then, plan how you will move from one to the next (detail, dialogue, action, etc.).

You can take this to the next level and create a beat sheet. This will help you track all of the major points and help you reach them at the appropriate time.

Stick to a writing schedule:

Writing regularly can keep you in the flow, allowing your pace to unfurl naturally. 

Find beta readers:

Beta readers are valuable assets. Not only are they a practice audience, but they provide detailed feedback about what worked and what didn’t work for them. When it comes to pacing, they can tell you where something felt off and direct you to where your edits should be.

Focus on pacing in later drafts:

The first draft should only be about getting the story down. The second draft, or even drafts after that, can be dedicated to correcting the pacing. But before you do so, read through the previous draft and mark down where anything feels too fast or too slow. Ask yourself why it feels that way and suggest how it could be made better.

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By mastering the art of pacing, you can create a narrative that keeps readers engaged from the first page to the last. Balancing action with moments of introspection and ensuring a logical flow of events will make your story compelling and memorable. But like everything, it takes practice. 

Let us know: Where have you struggled with pacing in the past? How will you practice effective pacing next in your story?