5 Ways to Pace Your Story

5 Ways to Use Pacing to Write a Powerful Story

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story. Understanding how to operate that dam–how to pace your story–is one of the most important tasks an author can learn. Without this skill, you end up writing stories that variously lack momentum, feel uneven, become anticlimactic, and seem melodramatic. Following are five tips for learning how to pace your story in way that takes the skill beyond instinct to conscious action.

1. Length Controls Momentum

Short scenes and chapters, terse sentences, and snappy dialogue all contribute to a feeling of intensity and speed, just as long scenes and chapters, leisurely sentences, and extended dialogue ground the story with a sense of place and time. This is probably the easiest way to control your pacing, simply because it’s so obvious. As your story nears its tense scenes, make it a point to condense everything. Limit the length of your scenes to 500-800 words, cut your scenes short at important moments, and switch back and forth between POVs.

2. Vary How You Pace Your Story

As important as the high-tension race-‘em-chase-‘em scenes are, it’s even more important to vary how you pace your story with slow, introspective scenes. Without the slow scenes (“sequels”), you’ll give neither your characters nor your readers a chance to catch their breaths. Even the most exciting of scenes loses its intensity if it’s never balanced with moments of deliberate quiet.

3. Build Momentum by Paying Attention to Details

In film, directors often put scenes into slow motion to indicate something tremendously dramatic is happening or about to happen. One of the best ways writers can mimic this technique is to slow their own writing way down by piling on the details. Let’s say one of your characters is shot. This is an important moment in the story, and you want the readers to feel its impact. You can do this by taking your time and describing every detail: the look on the gunman’s face as he fires, the recoil of the pistol, the flash of the barrel, the horror that chokes the victim, and finally the collision of the bullet.

4. Control Your Tell vs. Show Ratio

Although “showing” your audience the details (the blow-by-blow account of your characters’ actions) is key to engaging them and making them feel the tension, sometimes the best way to hurtle them through a scene is to condense certain actions into “telling.” Perhaps you want to use that same scene in which your character is shot, but you don’t want to linger on it. You want to do a quick flyby, shock your readers, and plunge them into the action after the gunshot. Instead of taking the time to show the details, you can thrust the gunshot upon the readers simply by telling them it happened.

5. Manipulate Sentence Structure

The mark of a professional writer is his ability to control the ebb and flow of his sentence structure. The most subtle way to influence your pacing is through your structuring of sentences. The length of words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs all contribute to how the pacing is conveyed to the reader. Again, long=slow, short=fast. When it’s time to write the intense scenes, cut back on the beautiful, long-winded passages and give it to your reader straight. Short sentences and snappy nouns and verbs convey urgency, whereas long, measured sentences offer moments of introspection and build-up.

How you pace your story will vary from book to book. Some stories demand an almost continual breakneck speed; others rarely emerge past a leisurely walk. But all stories depend upon pacing to accurately convey the writer’s message.

Tell me your opinion: What methods are you currently using to pace your story appropriately?

5 Ways to Pace Your Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the reminders, Katie! For some reason, this is almost always the area I get complements on, not sure why.

    Probably my favorite of your five tips is #1 and #2 (which I really would think of as inter-dependent points). Especially towards the end of a book, I love to switch POV frequently (if possible) and give snapshot scenes. And, through the rest of the book, I love to have an action scene followed by what I’d call a ‘recuperation’ scene or two–usually dealing with the aftermath of said action. Someone attacks my spaceship? I show the protags dealing with stuff blowing up on them and trying to fix it, getting angry with equipment, each other, etc.

    Great post–probably one of my favorite of yours so far!!!

  2. Excellent post! I will keep this in mind while I edit!

  3. @Liberty: Sounds like you already know what you’re doing!

    @Sherrinda: Have fun with your edit!

  4. Katie,

    I sure don’t know how! 😀 I can’t remember reading anything that was an ‘a-ha!’ moment or consciously doing anything…

    Now, description… ugh… have to think a LOT about that.

  5. Great advice! It’s a great idea to study how movies use scene pacing. Then if we can keep that in mind as we write our scenes, almost as if we’re creating a scene in a movie, I think it helps us know how to pace.

  6. @Liberty: Instinct is such an important thing in novel writing. It’s unexplainable, but it’s right on the money more often than not.

    @Jody: We writers can learn a lot from the movies. In fact, as I wrote in another post, I’ve found it helpful in almost every area of storytelling to visualize it as if it were a movie – complete with soundtrack, sometimes!

  7. Good post. I’ll be keeping this in mind as I write an action scene today.

  8. Glad you got something you could use. You’ll have to let me know how the scene turns out!

  9. Excellent advice and a very timely reminder for me. Thanks for the great post.

  10. Good lesson, Katie!

  11. Thanks for reading, both of you!

  12. Great post! Thanks.

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

  13. Thanks for stopping by!

  14. One thing I learned recently about pacing is not to have too many crises happening at once. With multiple characters, that’s another area of pacing to watch.

    Your post is a great reminder of the elements of pacing that can make or break a story.

  15. It’s true. You can have the most fabulous plot ever, but if you don’t properly control the pacing, readers will still lose interest.

  16. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Great post!

  17. Thanks for reading!

  18. You must be so excited to be starting a brand “NEW” book. And like you, I am enjoying “Winning Wednesday” as well – even though as of yet I have not won. ;)I’m loving the podcasts and hope you’ll continue to do do them.

  19. Thanks for listening! Keep trying on Winning Wednesdays. Lots of prizes yet to go!

  20. Thank you for the great post! Your insight into the heart of writing is very insightful. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of BEHOLD THE DAWN.

  21. You and me both! 😉 Thanks for reading.

  22. I have to agree with some. I like this post. very helpful in many ways.

  23. Glad you found it useful!

  24. Great tips on how to control a story’s pacing and a super example how sometimes it actually is OK and, indeed, preferable, to tell rather than show.

  25. If telling is going to keep your readers from yawning, it’s always a good thing!

  26. Liked how you broke up, pacing, into categories. The only main thought that comes to my mind though- is, whenever you adhere to a set of formula, the piece then becomes formulaic.
    Great article, take care,

  27. To some extent, all of fiction is formulaic. Learning how to make a piece work, and still break out into something fresh and original, is where the dichotomy of learning the rules and breaking the rules comes into play.

  28. I agree with all these tips. I think a proviso attaches to the changing of PoV under item 1. Changing PoV too soon and too often is one of the commonest errors that emerging writers make. I think the analogy with water going through a dam is useful. It conveys the idea that pace needs to be varied to suit a range of narrative purposes, and also that the variation is something that the author must exercise deliberate control over.

  29. I agree. POV needs to confined to one per scene, and most of those scenes need to be decent length.

  30. K.M.,

    Great pacing in writing this post. Any chance you would like to be a Guest Blogger on my blog over at Writing and Illustrating? Love to have you share something.

    Kathy

  31. Thanks, Kathy! I very much appreciate the offer. However, my schedule is so nuts right now (four different book projects underway at the moment – eek!), that I’m not taking on any guest posts at the moment.

  32. Thank you so much for this! I am a young author and have released one novel and one novella, but pacing is an area I have struggled with. I will be applying these rules to my upcoming novel. You have made this blog both entertaining and educating and I am looking forward to administering the knowledge I have gained from this short, snappy and useful piece.

  33. thomas h cullen says:

    Because of our own great speed, establishing pace will always be a deep challenge.. The two reviews, got thus far for The Representative, have both spoken of it being poetic-like: hopefully the next review will get into the fiction’s actual content, but this does at least nod to The Representative’s being a very paced story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Poetry is all about pacing, so it’s actually a really great thing for novelists to study.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        I just took it as a compliment, the first time. Seeing it however a second time, and not seeing anything for a second time to do with the political allegory, or the content’s “hot” nature.. just got me frustrated.

        I just hope the next reviewer has the will to speak up for this content.

  34. Is it ever okay to have more than one scene in a chapter? This happens in my WIP simply because the action flows from one scene to the next. I know I am being inconsistent about when I create a new chapter. Sometimes I switch POVs within a scene. Not sure if this works.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Chapter breaks are arbitrary. It’s generally a good idea to try to make all your chapters roughly the same size, but other than that, there are no rules other than pacing and the other needs of the story.

Trackbacks

  1. […] that mention length as well; 7 Tools for Pacing A Novel, Pacing Dialogue and Action Scenes, 5 Ways to Pace Your Story, Fiction Writers Mentor Pacing, Fiction Factor Pacing, Bad Pacing as a Content Issue and How to Fix […]

  2. […] 5 Ways to Use Pacing to Write a Powerful Story […]

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