Here Are Five Great Ways to Pace Your Story

Here Are Five Great Ways to Pace Your Story

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow the plot flows through the riverbed of the story. Understanding how to operate that dam is one of the most important tasks an author has to learn. Without this skill, we end up writing stories that variously lack momentum, feel uneven, become anticlimactic, and seem melodramatic. Following are five tips for taking this important plot 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 the 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 Pacing

As important as the high-tension race-‘em-chase-‘em scenes are, it’s even more important to vary your pacing with slow, introspective scenes. Without the slow scenes (what Jessica Page Morrell calls “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. Pay Attention to Details to Build Momentum

In film, directors often put scenes into slow-motion to indicate that 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 a tremendously 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 reader simply by telling him 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.

Pacing varies from story to story. 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.

Here Are Five Great Ways to Pace Your Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I used *pacing* long before I ever heard the term applied to writing. May I post a portion of a scene to show the use of slow motion? 291 words.

  2. Slow-motion excerpt:
    What the protagonist has suspected and feared is happening. His aide-de-camp has just arrested him at gunpoint, “…in the name of the Gestapo.”

    Erich’s nerves went abruptly thick and slow as if he were sinking in deep dark water. His heartbeat filled the whole room. He could feel the air moving in and out of his chest. In slow motion he saw Brandt’s mouth move, heard his voice a distant thunder, and in the thickness of dark water he knew he was facing his own imminent death, and he started too late to jerk open the drawer for the colonel’s pistol, and he thought with vague amusement that it was rather like an American cowboy movie…
    And he saw the flash from the muzzle of Brandt’s Luger and heard a boom deep inside his head and he turned he turned he turned it must have been a huge turn without achieving more than a twitch and he felt the bullet strike his leather coat below his Iron Cross and his brain said ‘Heart shot…’ and aloud he heard his own voice, “Ah no”, and he felt the heat of the bullet sear into his chest in a slow straight path and he felt it gently explode out his back in the longest space of infinity without any pain at all and he finally finally raised the colonel’s pistol and lined it on the eyes advancing from the door and he squeezed the trigger and numbly felt the pistol buck in his hand as he began to fall through the deep dark water in a slow arc that took several beats of the heart to strike the floor…
    Britt screamed.
    Time turned abruptly real. He felt no pain. He lay on the floor behind the desk, his bones turned to water, unable to move. Brandt was still somewhere across the room.

  3. Mic Meguiar says

    Hi Katie,
    When I click on the link to the AuthorCulture site it won’t allow me access because I am not deemed an “invited reader.” I know this is an old post but I would still love to read it. Can you help?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The problem is that AuthorCulture is no longer in existence. I’m slowly going through old posts and trying to update them. Sorry for the inconvenience in the meantime!

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