Pacing in Writing

Pacing is important to writing. And no, I don’t mean walking back and forth, trying to figure out ways not to sit down at the computer and write!

Pacing is used to control the speed of the plot. Pacing is manipulating time. Most writing gurus these days advise to “arrive late and leave early.” By this, they mean, start in the middle of the action or with an element of suspense that will help prompt the reader to keep reading.

You don’t need to set up the scene with lots of description and backstory. We don’t necessarily need to know what this person’s history is and how he/she got there, just to know that he/she is in some kind of problem or crisis and needs to solve it.

A crisis moment has to be in what I call “real time”—written as if it is happening right now (even if you are using past tense). Summarizing or including it as a backflash does not create the same amount of tension. Summarizing is simply “telling” us what happened, rather than showing our character in trouble. Backstory has already happened, so that makes it less active. The reader knows it has already happened and what the outcome is, to a certain extent, because our hero is still with us. So it’s not as “immediate.”

Summary certainly can be used effectively. It covers a longer period of time in a shorter passage. You don’t need to write paragraphs or pages describing the trip from one point to the other. Using summary in this case, helps with pacing, and speeds up the story by “leaving out the boring parts,” as Elmore Leonard advises.

You can control pacing with sentence structure. Long, flowing sentences can slow down the action. Short sentences build tension by propelling the reader forward.

Dialogue and internal monologues can affect pacing, by changing the rhythm . Short interchanges of dialogue between characters increase the reading speed. Long speeches by a certain character will slow it down. If you feel like the story needs to pick up the pace, look for areas with too much dialogue, internal monologue, or exposition.  Or vice versa, not enough.

Does each paragraph serve to move the story forward? Could you cut or condense that paragraph (or line or page) and still preserve the meaning? Can you cut your first and last paragraphs in a scene and keep the meaning.

Does anyone have other pacing tips to add?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series. 


Margaret Fieland said...

Heidi, good post - lots of useful tips. Do you analyze pacing when you read through? I tend to just note FIXME when it doesn't feel appropriate and go back later to take another look. My reading partner is very helpful with this stuff - she has a good feel for pacing and can point out places that drag that I might otherwise have missed.

Karen Cioffi said...

Great pacing tips Heidi. I think pacing is one of the more difficult elements of good writing. Thanks for sharing.

elysabeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elysabeth said...

Heidi, funny thing from reading your post, I felt you had attended our local Sisters in Crime meeting Thursday when our guest speaker was author Maggie Toussiant (see my posting on my blog about the meeting and pacing from Friday, June 8) who talked about pacing. She mentioned many of these points plus had us do an interactive exercise pacing a scene with the same two characters and information about the scene for each of the small groups only to show how everyone will interpret the scene differently. Thanks for sharing with us - reposting this blog posting next week - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a middle grade/YA paranormal mystery (written like a Nancy Drew mystery)

Heidiwriter said...

Cool, Elysabeth!!
I agree, Maggie, it's important to have someone else read or listen to your work. In my critique group, we read our work aloud and sometimes you can hear things in your own story that need fixing.

Magdalena Ball said...

An excellent post on pacing Heidi. I agree with you that reading aloud is a good way to check pacing - we will automatically pace in our readings and can see where something is clunky. I'll also sometimes make a .pdf of my work in progress and have Adobe read back to me. It's not as good as a human, but can be very illuminating anyway.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Pacing is something l find truly difficult to master as I tend to charge through at a gallop. Only when l recently read a novel by an author who writes similarly breathless prose, did l realize how exhausting it is to read.
Thanks so much Heidi for bringing this up and to everyone for the extra advice on how to check and vary pacing.

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