Writing is really all about mind control. Seriously, think about it. You put words on paper, and if you do it right, you suddenly have the ability to control how people respond to what you’ve written. Of course, “doing it right” is the whole challenge of writing, and when it comes to this mind-control gig, the one thing you must do is learn how to pace your story.
At first glance, the whole subject of figuring out how to learn how to pace your story seems to be about just two things:
1. Make the story go faster. (At which point, all literary writers stop reading).
2. Make the story go slower. (At which point, all genre writers stop reading.)
True enough, that’s the basics of pacing. But the benefits go far beyond just speeding up and slowing down your story. Writers who are in control of their pacing are writers who are in control of their stories. And writers who are in control of their stories are writers who are in control of their readers (*cue eerie Twilight Zone music here*).
4 Ways to Speed Up Your Story’s Pacing
As most modern genre writers know, fast pacing is an important factor in grabbing readers’ wandering attention, sucking them into the story, and keeping them racing through the pages to find out what’s gonna happen.
Swift pacing allows you to inject a sense of urgency into your character’s actions. It ensures something interesting is happening on every page and that the dead weight must be cut.
Even more useful, however, is the psychological effect fast pacing has on your readers. Even just the simple pacing trick of shortening your chapters or scenes can be enough to suck readers into reading “just one more”—and before they know it, they’re blearily finishing the final chapter only a couple hours before they have to get up for work (*cue evil chuckle here*).
In the hands of a skilled author, fast pacing can even have a physiological effect on readers, speeding up their hearts and tapping their adrenaline. There are certain scenes in certain books I can read over and over again—and my heart rate kicks up every single time.
Here’s another mind-control secret: adrenaline is addictive! Readers love it. Get them hooked on it and they’ll come back for more, even when it means another sleepless night.
So how can you learn to pace your story in a slightly speedier way? Here are four technically sound approaches.
1. Reduce the Number of Characters
A big cast has the ability to add complexity and depth to every facet of your story, but it will also inevitably bulk it up and slow it down. The more characters you must keep track of in any given scene, the bigger, longer, and slower your book is going to be.
Nothing wrong with that. But if you’re looking for a way to speed things up, consider your cast, both as a whole and in any particularly problematic scenes. Can you cut or combine characters to streamline things? In her article “Power Tools,” in the January 2016 Writer’s Digest, Elizabeth Sims suggested:
If your pace, overall, feels too slow, try eliminating your least important character (or maybe even a few of them). This will force you to cobble together and condense action and other characters, and will provide an added benefit: The remaining characters will stand out all the more.
2. Minimize Sequel Scenes
When structuring scenes, you will want to divide each one into two parts: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). It doesn’t take a quantum physicist to figure out that the sequel is the slower half. It’s where the characters slow down and think about things.
Consider the classic scene in Little Women, in which Jo refuses Laurie’s proposal. That’s the action—new stuff happening, characters opposing each other, and the relationship dynamic changing.
Then, in the sequel, Jo sits around crying and trying to figure out where she can go to escape for a while.
Let’s suppose (quite erroneously, of course) that this sequel scene just wasn’t working. It was slowing everything down and gumming up the works. Readers were getting bored and trying to skip ahead to get to Professor Bhaer. What should you do?
Chop it. (*cue gasps of horror*)
Surely not, though? Surely, you can’t just go around eliminating a vital part of scene structure like the sequel?!
Actually, you can. But you’re right to be cautious. Scene structure works for a reason: because the reaction segment acts as a counterpoint to the action, creating realism in the chain of cause and effect. Just as importantly, the sequel is a tremendously important integer in pacing your novel. Skip too many of them and you’ll end up with a headlong novel that doesn’t develop characters and very possibly doesn’t make any sense.
However, that doesn’t mean you’re chained to every single sequel. You can occasionally remove one or use only a very short transition sentence or paragraph to bridge the gap between action scenes, allowing you to keep the story’s pace racing along.
3. Add a “Ticking Clock”
One of the easiest ways to amp your story’s pacing is simply to shorten the timeline. Instead of allowing your story to take place over a leisurely six months, why not cut it to a fast six weeks—or even six days?
Even better, add a “ticking clock”—a deadline your character must reach in order to avoid dreadful consequences. Consider even a story so simple as Beauty and the Beast. This isn’t a particularly fast-paced story, but it keeps the tension high and the viewers focused via the Beast’s wilting rose. If he can’t earn Belle’s love before the last petal falls, all is doomed.
By creating a clear goal line for the story’s finale, you allow readers to subconsciously estimate how close they’re getting to the finish—and the closer they get, the faster the pacing will seem.
4. Raise the Stakes
What do the stakes have to do with pacing? Isn’t that another technique entirely?
Yes and no.
Yes, it’s a technique in its own right. But it is also a tremendous aid when you’re trying to learn how to pace your story. The higher the stakes, the more readers will care about what happens to your characters if they fail to reach their goals. Once you get readers to invest their emotions that deeply, you will be able to pull them toward your story’s finish. Even when the story’s interior pacing isn’t extremely fast, the readers’ pacing will be, as they race toward the end to find out what happens.
4 Ways to Slow Your Story’s Pacing
That all sounds pretty good. After all that, why in heaven’s name would you want to slow your story’s pacing?
Good question, particularly since modern writing advice focuses almost exclusively on how to speed pacing. It’s hammered into writers’ heads that they better never let the story slow down or they’ll lose readers. So, with the best of intentions, they use the above techniques and do indeed end up with a fast-paced whirlwind of a novel.
By itself, however, fast pacing isn’t enough to create a good story or even to properly grip readers. To truly control your readers’ experience of your story in a way that pulls them in and invests them mentally and emotionally, you must be able to deftly balance both swift and slow pacing—sometimes all in the same chapter—in order to create exactly the right rhythm of tension and exploration within your story.
Here are four approaches you absolutely must know how to use to slow your pacing.
1. Complicate Your Sentence Structure
One of the easiest way to control your pacing—either fast or slow—is to purposefully manipulate your sentence length and structure. Short, rapid-fire sentences lend themselves to a speedy pace—like the rat-a-tat of a machine gun or the increasing heart rate of characters and readers alike. Conversely, if you wish to slow your pacing, you can lengthen sentences, adding clauses to create a leisurely or dreamy literary landscape.
Consider the famous opening of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
The steady rhythm of sentences—short, long, short, long—keeps the prose interesting and varied, while still creating a slowly haunting build-up of tension.
You can then add to this the technique of deliberately complicating even simple sentences, which forces readers to slow down ever so slightly and think about them. For example, this lyric from Bright Eyes’s “Lua”:
What is simple in the moonlight by morning never is.
2. Skew the Scene:Sequel Ratio Toward Sequel
Just as chopping sequels from your scene structure allows you to speed up your pacing, you can achieve the opposite affect by chopping scenes.
Whaaaat?! (*cue more hysterical horror*)
If chopping sequels seemed blasphemous, certainly this sacrilege is all the more so.
And, yes, it’s certainly not something you want to try at home without your helmet and safety goggles. After all, your scenes are your story. If you cut too many, leaving only reactionary sequels, you’ll end up with the literary equivalent of a spineless sloth (with apologies to Sid).
That said, you may occasionally find a scene you can abbreviate or delete, allowing you to simply summarize its events in the subsequent sequel. What you’ll get are long, introspective scenes in which the characters do little other than wander around and think.
Assuming your prose is so brilliant readers don’t care what your characters do, you may be able to get away with this for short periods, in which you can hunker down in the shelter of your words, slow the pace to create gravitas, and really focus on exploring your characters.
Kathryn Magendie’s short story “Girls on Fire” uses this technique almost exclusively, creating a dreamy effect that purposefully distances readers from the narrative. It works here both because the story is short and because the author knew exactly what she was trying to achieve.
3. Add More Internal Narrative
The vast majority of a story’s interiority and narrative will be found in the sequel scenes. So it only makes sense that beefing up your narrative is a great technique, in itself, for slowing your pacing.
If you’re one of those authors who starts getting a scared, sick feeling whenever people talk about how novels these days need to be fast, fast, fast—then this especially good for you. All of those great character-driven scenes we love so much in books such as Ender’s Game and A Handmaid’s Tale and The Book Thief are the result of their author’s mastery of character-driven narrative. We get to sit in our favorite characters’ heads and just marinate.
This doesn’t mean these scenes don’t advance the story. To keep from boring readers with a lack of dimension or consequence, every word must still be chosen with purpose and care. But that means this is also where you get the chance to really practice your wordcraft. Throw those beautiful phrases onto the page, play with them, dance with your characters, dig deep into their souls.
Remember, however, that these scenes do slow the pace and must be used in harmony with other techniques.
4. Focus on Descriptive Details
Truly fast-paced novels don’t often stop to smell the roses, much less describe them. But if you feel like your story is needing a breather, an easy pacing trick is to slow down enough to thoroughly ground readers in the details of the setting.
Authors are often warned not to describe every little detail. But used with care (and beautiful prose, of course), the occasional lush description can be just the trick for easing the story into a steadier rhythm, while also pulling the double duty of providing sensual details to the readers’ imaginations.
In truth, just about every narrative trick you’ve ever heard of will play a role in helping you learn to pace your story. Mastering narrative, dialogue, and description are all stepping stones on the way to mastering pacing. In understanding how to use these eight important pacing tricks to get you started, you can begin your new career as a mind-control master. (*cue fingers to your temples*)
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind as you learn how to pace your story? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).