Pacing in writing is the key to creating stories your readers can’t put down. Think of how many times you’ve heard someone comment on a book they’ve abandoned by saying “I tried to get through it, but it was just so slow” or “It just raced along, but it didn’t have any substance.”

What is pacing in writing fiction?

My son and I were doing our before-bed reading, and I was proud that my first-grader was tackling Tolkien. But midway into the prologue, which concerned hobbits and their ways, he calmly handed me The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and said, “Would you get me to the part where something happens?”

Pacing in literature is all about getting your reader from one plot development to another, making sure you don’t either overwhelm them with action or bore them with description or exposition along the way. Pacing is an essential skill every writer must add to his toolkit to keep readers compulsively turning pages.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to pacing—the need for moving the narrative along varies depending on the demands of the story. Thrillers tend to drive along at a clip, with scene after scene taking the reader on a wild ride as she moves from “What happened” to “Who done it?” A character-driven literary novel might take its time exploring description and theme.

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How can I tell if I have pacing problems in my novel?

Pacing in writing is nuanced. The ability to recognize pacing problems is something you’ll discover the more you pay attention to it. Here are some ways to get a better understanding of the pacing of your novel.

  • Get feedback from beta readers. Everyone has different tastes. Some people like fast-paced fiction, while others like authors who take their time developing scenes and characters. Ask your readers for input, but make sure to take their individual preferences into account.
  • Read your novel as a reader. Sometimes, when we put our editing hats on, we’re so busy paying attention to language and grammar that we miss the subtleties of the narrative. Curl up in your favorite reading spot and read your manuscript as though it’s a novel you just picked up. Make note of the times you set your novel aside to go do other things or times when you felt distracted. It’s possible you have some pacing issues there.
  • Keep pacing in mind as you read other writers’ work. Try reading critically. Pick up a couple of books—one that you know is fast-paced (like a thriller or mystery) and another you expect to take its time (like an epic saga or literary work.) Read them both with pacing in mind. Ask yourself how the author drove the story along so quickly in the fast-paced book. What narrative elements did he use? Ask yourself how the author held your attention as she took her time in the slower-paced book. What kept you from getting bored?

 


PRO TIP!

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How to handle pacing in fiction

Tackling pacing issues begins with recognizing them. Once you’ve identified some problems, how do you go about fixing them? Here are seven ways to keep your story interesting and hold your reader’s attention with careful pacing.

  • Consider the narrative arc scene by scene. You know that your story should have a typical arc, with rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Similarly, your individual scenes should also go somewhere, just on a smaller scale. Scenes that lead nowhere slow your story down. Cut them, or revise so they become an integral part of the story.
  • Make a list of plot points and analyze it. Every scene should move the story forward somehow. List each event in your story, and then look for events that don’t advance the plot. Problems with pacing are easily revealed this way.
  • Slow down a breakneck pace with a description. Slow pacing is a more common problem for most writers, but occasionally we find ourselves racing at top speed. Readers need a break from constant action, so slow things down by adding some vibrant description.
  • Control your pacing on the sentence level. Too many short sentences in a row will sound stilted. Too many long sentences will confuse the reader and disrupt the flow of the story. (No one wants to go back and read that extra-long sentence to make sure they understood it.) Vary your sentence lengths for the best effect.
  • Check the density of your text. If you look at your manuscript page and see a wall of text with little white space, you can be almost certain you’re looking at a slow scene. If that’s by design, great. Otherwise, it’s time to edit. Are your descriptions too long? Could your scene use some dialog? Maybe even a few deftly placed paragraph breaks would help.
  • Beware stage direction. You don’t have to describe your character’s every move. Do we care that Claire walked over and stood in front of the television while she questioned her husband about the unexpected hotel receipt she found in his wallet? Only if he’s always glued to the TV at the expense of spending time with her and that detail is crucial to the plot. Otherwise, it’s the conversation that matters, not the stage directions.

 


Have you struggled with pacing in writing? Leave a comment to tell us more about your experiences with pacing.