A perfectly paced story is a delight: much like the ebb and flow of a river, a story usually starts with a swift little trickle, gathering momentum as it streams along. In some places there will be rapids, in others, the waters will slow and swirl but sooner or later, there comes the great coursing rush, drawing the reader towards the inescapable climax.
There are plenty of devices in the writer’s toolbox to control pacing. Some are at the line level and some are at the structural level.
At the line level, sentence construction and word choice are subtle ways to control pacing. Short, tight sentences and fragments give a sense of urgency. Long, descriptive sentences convey a more languid tempo and give the reader time to breathe. Punchy, active words quicken the pace, while longer words and more expressive language help to slow things down.
At the structural level, an outline is useful to delineate moments of high tension and moments of quiet. Too much intensity and the reader is left exhausted; too long a lull and the reader loses interest. To control pacing at this level, understand the purpose of each section of your story.
The first section of a story usually introduces the characters and the main conflicts. Things need to move along at a good pace to hook the reader in. The middle section of a story is where complications arise and tension builds. Pacing can ebb and flow here. There will be moments of intensity and moments of respite. In the final section, the main conflicts come to a head. Pacing is breakneck, urging the reader to keep turning the page.
To control pacing at the structural level, there are many techniques available, such as cliff hangers, short chapter lengths, cut scenes, and multiple lines of tension.
Here’s the Mentorship Moment: they essentially boil down to one basic question – how often is the reader given information?
For a slower pace, reveal only one or two vital pieces of information per scene or chapter. This gives the reader time to absorb and ponder these developments. As you move through high intensity moments in the narrative, speed things up by revealing several new pieces of information. As you build towards the climax, swiftly unveil one mystery after another. Readers love and hate unanswered questions. Each revelation draws them on, making them read faster and faster. In this way, you can plan exactly how the reader is going to react to each section of the story.
It feels a little nefarious, but knowing how and when to deliver information will ensure that the balance of pacing is correct. Whatever you’re working on, whether it’s a fast-moving thriller, or a leisurely romance, get your pacing right and you’ll engage your reader from beginning to end.
How do you orchestrate pacing? If you have any suggestions, feel free to share in the comments below – I’d love to read them.