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What Is Narrative Pacing?
Pacing refers to how fast or slow the story is moving for the reader. This is determined by the length of a scene and the speed at which you, the writer, distribute information. Generally speaking, descriptive passages tend to slow things down, while dialogue and action scenes speed things up—but slowing the pacing of action down at choice moments can also build suspense.
Why Is Pacing Important?
Good pacing is crucial to the flow of a successful narrative and without it, the story is dead on the page. The reader wants to be immersed in the thoughts and actions of your characters. They want to feel that they’re in the world you’ve created. Clunky language, bad dialogue, and poorly-conceived scenes will all draw your reader out of the story. Pace will help keep them there.
7 Tips for Mastering Pacing in Your Writing
Whether it’s through subplots, playing with sentence structure (longer sentences can slow things down, rapid-fire dialogue and short sentences can speed them up), or experimenting with passive versus active voice—here are a few ideas to keep your story moving:
- Utilize breathers. By balancing action scenes with more reflective, internal moments, you give the reader an equal dose of excitement and recovery. The quieter moments in any novel—the “negative space”—are the places to share relationship details, a character’s thoughts and memories, and anything a character might do while taking a break. These spaces, which are just as important as the more dramatic scenes, give readers a chance to orient themselves and process their reactions. Too much of the same pace—no matter how exciting it is—will begin to feel tedious to the reader.
- Change the order of events. Try a method called in medias res—opening the story in the middle of the action and filling in details later. This works well when you want to capture your reader’s attention quickly, like in a short story. If you are writing something longer, try placing the sole dramatic question of your story upfront while using the rest of the novel to slowly parse out of information that leads to the final answer. Your readers will keep reading to discover the answer to the question you’ve given them.
- Vary your sentence length. Try breaking up long passages of exposition with short dialogue—even a sentence or two can be refreshing. If you have a very long section of dialogue, insert brief sections of exposition to keep your reader grounded in time and place.
- Keep characters physically moving during dialogue. If your characters are on the run and having a conversation in an airport, you can show the numerous distractions they might notice as they walk nervously through the airport. By interspersing brief distractions (clumsy passengers, stern security guards) between segments of dialogue, you prevent the pacing from becoming monotonous.
- Reveal information selectively. Writing suspense into any novel is a matter of controlling information—how much you reveal, and when and how you reveal it. In its most practical sense, suspense is a series of incremental steps. While every novel will have a central, overarching storyline that seeks to answer the sole dramatic question, that question is an engine built of thousands of smaller components that carry the reader through each chapter, sustaining their interest along the way.
- Vary your narration. In all writing, there are two types of narration: scene and dramatic narration. In the former, you show the characters performing an action or having a conversation. This tends to speed up the pacing. In the latter, you simply tell the reader what the characters did, but the event remains “offstage.” This type of narration can slow the story down. To keep pacing from feeling monotonous, it’s a good idea to vary the two modes of writing. Show the reader a scene when it’s interesting or necessary, and use a summary to move over the less exciting parts.
- Read the work out loud. Notice the amount of time it takes you to read through a scene and pay attention to how the sentences feel to read and mark where the rhythms naturally change. Where should you slow down? Where should you pause? Where should your pacing gain momentum?
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