Whatever genre you’re writing in, the pace at which your story moves is incredibly important. In fact, pacing isn’t just for novels; if you’re working on a short story, a screenplay, a musical, or any other kind of story (or indeed creative nonfiction!), you’ll want to know how to control the pace, mete out the tension, and sprinkle the reveals and twists.
Pacing isn’t only for the action-packed story
Pause for a moment to think of novels you consider well-paced. Is it the fast-paced ones that come to mind? You might notice a rapid pace more, but most stories (or probably all stories!) have been carefully constructed with pacing in mind. Often, it’s the variety and contrast that’s really effective.
And to switch up the pace, a story doesn’t need a traditional action scene. Even the most contemplative literary novel will likely have some passages that move at a faster pace. Simple things like switching from passive to active voice, deviating from your main storyline to a subplot, or zeroing in on characters’ actions allow writers to vary their pacing.
Learn about pacing
Whether you’re focused on a single story you’re whipping into shape, or keen to learn about pacing more generally, this blog post is filled with wisdom that can help you.
Author Anna Mazzola shares her tips and insights for effective pacing in a novel. Anna is an award-winning and bestselling author of three historical thrillers, a ghost novel, and a legal/political thriller, so she knows all about masterful pacing and how much it matters across genres.
Remember, if you want to write a killer story with the perfect pace, our creative writing courses teach you all the writing craft you need. Plus, our team of book writing coaches and professional fiction editors can make sure your idea, story structure and pacing are publishing-ready! Sign up today to write your best book ever.
Now over to Anna for her guidance on all things pacing.
What do we mean by a story’s pacing?
We often hear that books are fast-paced, ‘slow burn’, or worst of all, they’re ‘saggy in the middle’. What is pacing in writing, why does it matter, and how do you get it right?
Pacing refers to the speed at which a story unfolds: its rhythm and flow, the rise and fall of its action, plot points and story arcs. Regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, it’s important to consider the pace at which you’re taking your reader through your novel so that you engage them, entertain them, and retain their attention throughout. At times, you’ll want to speed up to inject urgency to drive the story forward; at others, you’ll want to slow things down to provide some respite, and to focus on character, descriptive passages and other elements of the story.
Pacing refers to the speed at which a story unfolds: its rhythm and flow, the rise and fall of its action, plot points and story arcs.
Balancing pace in your story
The best novels balance faster and slower-paced sections to create a story that appears to flow seamlessly, though in fact it is carefully crafted. Hiding yourself, as the author, is much of the magic of fiction writing.
Hiding yourself, as the author, is much of the magic of fiction writing.
There are various different tools which you can use to slow or speed up your pacing and to obtain the right overall rhythm as you work towards mastering pacing. As with all elements of writing, the more you practice them, the easier the process will become.
How to master pacing in a novel:
- Assess the structure
- Balance fast and slow
- Don’t neglect character development
- Make use of language
- Focus on detail
- Withhold and reveal information
- Use a ticking clock
- Read your work aloud
1. Assess the structure
Whether you’re a planner with a detailed spreadsheet, or a pantser with a rough first draft, it’s worth breaking down the entire story and examining your structure.
This should help you identify where you need to speed up the pace and ramp up tension, and where you can afford to slow things down with some slower paced scenes. You can look at how the narrative rises and falls over the course of the story, identify any uneven sections, and assess whether the structure is hitting all the plot points that it needs to, with sufficient space between them. The key to good pacing is very often balance.
For example, if you are following the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, are you racing your reader through the ‘bad guys close in’ section? Do you slow down for your resolution to let us reflect?
The key to good pacing is very often balance.
Considering this and how your pacing differs in different sections will help you shape your story into a more satisfying novel.
2. A well-paced story balances fast and slow to give the reader reflection time
But too much of the same pace, however brilliantly done, will begin to feel monotonous. That’s what makes varied pacing important. It can’t all be a white-knuckle ride which drives your plot forward at break-neck speed, or our readers will run out of energy midway and, worse, won’t have time to care about the characters.
When it comes to narrative pacing, most successful writers balance dramatic or action scenes with ‘breather scenes’: more reflective scenes which provide a counterpoint to the action and allow the reader time to recover and reflect on what they’ve just read. These might be scenes in which you focus on relationships, or in which you show us a character’s internal thoughts, memories and backstory. You might also include descriptive passages to create a more leisurely pace.
It can’t all be a white-knuckle ride which drives your plot forward at break-neck speed, or our readers will run out of energy midway and, worse, won’t have time to care about the characters.
Clare Mackintosh’s pacing technique
In her brilliant Q&A with members of The Novelry, Clare Mackintosh explains that she draws a graph of the three-act structure on a large sheet of paper and adds in her scenes on post-its. High-octane action scenes go high up on the sheet. If it’s what she calls a ‘recovery beat’, she’ll put it lower down.
She can then stand back and consider the pacing of her novel. If all her story pacing notes are high up, it means everything is heart in mouth. As Clare points out:
Rollercoasters are only exciting because of the transition from high to low. What scares you is the swoop down to the bottom.
—Clare Mackintosh in her Q&A with The Novelry
In fiction writing, good pacing must be balanced so the story unfolds at a speed that carries us along with it, and lets us mull over what’s going on. It can’t all be action scenes!
3. Allow time to develop character and to show character interaction
Character development is vital in any genre, and not just for the benefit of your story pacing. Even in action thrillers, we won’t be invested in the outcome if we don’t care about the characters and don’t understand what motivates them.
Give us a chance to get to know your main character intimately, to understand your secondary characters, to see how they all feel about and behave towards each other. Show us their interactions – and not just with rapid-fire dialogue meant to keep the story moving, but with some meaningful conversations that tell us something about character motivation and growth.
As Stephen King says, ‘You’ve got to care about the people.’ That means sometimes slowing your pacing in writing to show characters interacting with one another and reacting to events, and to focus on internal monologue and memory. Again, a relentlessly fast pace isn’t the key to keeping readers engaged.
Examples of well-balanced stories
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is so powerful because it shows us the machinations of Cromwell’s mind rather than just driving the main storyline forward without any interiority. In the magnificent final paragraph of The Mirror and the Light, we even see his thoughts as he leaves this world:
He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall.
—Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light
We tend to think of Robert Harris’s books as being of a very fast pace, but in fact he spends considerable time showing us his characters’ internal thoughts and revealing their character, which is why his books are so effective: they are both plot and character-driven. For example, in The Ghost, Rick – mid-dialogue in a key scene – notes ‘At that instant I knew there was no horror the world could offer – no war, no genocide, no famine, no childhood cancer – to which Sidney Kroll would not see the funny side.’
4. Use language to control pacing
You can control the pacing of your story through your sentence structure, paragraph length and chapter length. Even by using shorter words!
If you’re writing fast paced scenes – think fight, flight, or action scenes – which you want the reader to fly through, you can create a choppy style with shorter sentences and paragraphs. In the most effective writing where you can see the writer really mastering pacing, the writing seems to move as fast as the heartbeat of the protagonist.
For example, in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, she uses very pared-back, short sentences and repetition to show us the speed and urgency of the narrator’s thoughts:
I did go home. My brain was stumbling from image to image of my mother, all ominous. Omen. The word beat again on my skin. Flash of thin, wild-haired Joya with the long nails, peeling back the skin from my mother. Flash of my mother and her pills and potions, sawing through my hair. Flash of Marian, now bones in a coffin, a white satin ribbon wrapped around dried blonde curls, like some bouquet gone stale.
—Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
You can also use sentence structure and length to reduce your story pacing. Try using lengthy sentences and longer paragraphs to create slow pacing. You can manipulate pacing by adding clauses, and running longer sentences into larger, more complex paragraphs.
In the opening lines of Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier uses language that produces a slow, dream-like effect, which feels very much like the right pace for scene setting and engaging readers. The heightened detail makes Manderley and its all-consuming atmosphere feel immediately real.
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.
—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
How’s that for textbook pacing? It’s a fantastic reader experience – we barely notice the thought that’s gone into the sentence lengths and word choice.
5. Focus on detail to slow time
To slow your narrative pacing and ground readers in the setting, you have more tools than just using longer sentences! You can also add more detailed descriptions to focus the eye on particular sensory aspects, encouraging readers to slow down and look. Slowing down in the middle of a scene can really be the correct speed to create a profound effect, almost like stopping time.
For example, in Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, we are witnessing a crowd at a public execution when Waters slows the pace right down:
And then, and then, there came a moment – just a single moment, less time that it takes to say it – of perfect, awful stillness: of the stopping of babies’ cries, the holding of breaths, the clapping of hands to hearts and open mouths, the slowing of blood, the shrinking back of thought: This cannot be, this will not be, they won’t, they can’t – And next, too soon, too quick, the rattle of the drop, the shrieks, as it fell – the groaning gasp, when the rope found its length, as if the crowd had a single stomach and a giant hand had punched it.
—Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
Doesn’t that feel like just the right pace to keep the reader engaged? You see how you can structure sentences and move away from the active voice to keep the story moving, but at a slower pace.
6. Withhold and reveal information to create tension and suspense
You can also create different paces by controlling how much information you trickle to the reader and when you reveal key details. This is particularly important in novels with an element of suspense, as you want the reader to keep turning pages faster and faster, staying up into the early hours to finish your book.
Writers such as Erin Kelly and Lisa Jewell are adept at this, spinning the reader just enough thread to pull them along, but holding back the juiciest reveals and twists until late on in the novel when we are enmeshed within their story web.
Twists vs reveals
And if you’re wondering what the difference is between a twist and a reveal, Erin Kelly helpfully explains it in her Q&A with The Novelry, as follows:
A reveal is the known unknown (so you know that the question is being asked), whereas the twist is an unknown unknown (an answer to a question you didn’t know you needed to ask).
—Erin Kelly in her live Q&A with The Novelry
Many writers also end chapters on cliffhangers, bringing them to somewhat of an abrupt end and intentionally holding information back, to ensure your reader races on to read the next chapter.
7. Use a ticking clock
One of the most effective ways to ramp up to fast pacing is to shorten the time period over which your story – or part of it – takes place.
In my current novel, I have decided to move away from the timeline of the real legal case (which in real life took over a year) so the action of my book takes place over two months. My aim is to up the ante and increase the pressure on my characters.
In her brilliant novel Three Hours, Rosamund Lupton condenses the action into such a tight timeframe that you do in fact read the book at about the same pace that the events take place (namely three hours!).
One of the most effective ways to ramp up to fast pacing is to shorten the time period over which your story – or part of it – takes place.
You can add a ‘ticking clock’ – a deadline by which your protagonist must meet their story goal, be that to find the kidnapper, defeat the monster, or solve the case. For example, in Robert Harris’s The Fear Index, the protagonist must destroy the algorithm he has created before it destroys society. In Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, you know at the outset that Rachel has to kidnap another child in order to get her daughter back. In many serial killer thrillers, the detective must catch the killer before he strikes again. It adds a serious level of urgency to an already great story.
8. Read aloud
My last but maybe best tip is to read your work out loud to yourself. It’s a vital part of the editing process, and lets you hear the pace of the sentence length and see where longer or shorter paragraphs might work. By hearing and feeling the rhythm of the words, you can see whether the momentum is right.
You might feel an idiot reading your story to yourself, but I promise you it will be worth it.