Keeping the Pace

Sean Williams

PACING is the heartbeat of a story. Broadly speaking, it is determined by how rapidly events occur in order to serve the story to best effect. When employed correctly, pacing will propel a reader from beginning to satisfying conclusion. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, can kill a story dead. Although generic concerns may influence the overall pace with which your story will unfold–a contemplative realist novel might progress at a more languorous pace than a spy thriller, for instance–all writers need to carefully consider this aspect of their craft.

Increasing the pacing of a work can be accomplished through structural manipulation and word choice, for instance:

Decreasing pace, conversely, can be accomplished by:

Tempting though it is to generalise and say that one should avoid interrupting action-focused sequences with long descriptions, there is at least one critical exception to this rule: when certain narrative effects rely on the withholding of an outcome in order to maximise tension.

Cut to the chase too quickly and you might do more than miss an opportunity to increase suspense; you might dispel it entirely.

If, say, you have established a need in your reader to witness some particular story development, delaying delivery of that development can serve to arouse interest rather than to reduce it. Whether that development is discovering the identity of a killer, following the manner of an unlikely escape, watching as two new lovers first kiss, or any number of scenarios, it is human nature to want to follow through to the conclusion, and that want only increases when it is denied. Cut to the chase too quickly and you might do more than miss an opportunity to increase suspense; you might dispel it entirely. Prolonging such outcomes in a pleasurable fashion is the very essence of plotted story-telling.

The same principle applies to passages dominated by more measured pacing, albeit in reverse. Unexpected developments or sudden denouements can serve to alter your narrative in ways that will be profoundly satisfying and compelling to readers.

All of these techniques will only be effective if the reader cares about the people in your stories. Failing to develop protagonists, antagonists or secondary characters with clearly defined motivations or goals will undo any good work you are doing on the pacing front. Thwarting your characters’ goals on a regular basis will serve to keep them in emotional and physical motion, while at the same time giving them a chance to demonstrate resilience (or lack thereof), intelligence (or lack thereof), and other qualities (or lack thereof). Character development across a larger work is another way writers can manipulate story pacing to best effect.

Many writers desire to make their work pacier in the belief that this will make their novels unputdownable. Although the suggestions above will contribute to a story’s momentum, alone they are not sufficient. To return to the metaphor of a heartbeat: variation is the sign of a healthy story.

Within each work, there will be moments of relative stillness and frenetic action.

Pacing flags or races depending on the effect required of every scene, because not all scenes perform the same function within the larger context of the narrative. In other words, within each work, there will be moments of relative stillness and frenetic action. Failing to give readers an opportunity to absorb the information required to fully understand what’s at stake for the characters is a momentum-killer, as is giving readers too many opportunities to guess a resolution ahead of time. Pacing that is as regular as clockwork across an entire work will sound the death knell of your story, as it might for a person in real life.

Techniques to maintain momentum alongside careful pacing include:

As with all aspects of writing, you should expect to fail on the first attempt, or at least to produce an imperfect draft that will require later editing. Even experienced writers wrestle with this aspect of their work. Pacing and momentum are the combination of several skill sets, each of which will be employed differently in each book, and an early draft is at best an approximation of the correct approach.

As always the best advice for those wishing to emulate the greats is to read the greats–not just those in the genre you want to write, but in all genres. Note when pacing is used effectively, and when it is not. Examine which techniques are being used and consider ways in which you could use them in your own work. After all, the greater number of tools we have in our toolbox, the more effectively we create–especially if by “create” you mean grabbing your reader’s attention and holding it until you say they’re done.♦

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of over forty award-winning novels for children, young adults and adults. His latest series are Twinmaker and Troubletwisters (the latter co-written with Garth Nix). He lives just up the road from the best chocolate factory in Australia.

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