Pacing is tricky: Finding the right rhythm and speed to unspool a story can sometimes be more challenging than plotting it. While we’re constantly cautioned about the dangers of sluggish pacing, stories that race along like runaway trains run the risk of running over their readers, leaving them unsettled and confused.
In a revealing interview, bestselling novelist Ken Follett talked about his tendency in his early novels to rush in and out of moments of high drama because he mistakenly believed that a breakneck pace created emotional intensity. Only when he learned to slow down the action and let emotional tension build in Eye of the Needle did he find breakthrough success and garner loyal readers (See Slow Down). So pacing is pivotal.
Once you have a finished story or novel draft in hand, fine-tuning your pacing skillfully can make it hum with an inner harmony that reveals its beating heart to the reader. Here are a few tips on editing for pace:*
Flag scenes that drag: With a little time and distance, you’ll find it fairly easy to pinpoint scenes that meander or feel sluggish. To create more focus and tension, add a dose of conflict or sharpen your description. Juicing up your dialogue can also add a shot of adrenalin to a lackluster scene.
Prime your plot points: Tightening plot points can improve pacing dramatically. As Toni Morrison said so well, “Writing a novel is all about the timed release of information.” So is a well-crafted short story. Identify points where you are withholding information your readers need to know. Then ratchet up suspense and tension by delaying outcomes and information reveals for as long as possible.
Watch your wording: One of the easiest and most effective ways to control pacing is to vary the rhythm and length of your sentences. Too many short sentences can chop up your narrative flow and make a story feel as if it’s lurching along like a car running on empty.
Pay attention to pace and pace will pay attention to you — and write on!
* Highlighted in “Pacing Your Story,” Writer’s Digest, September, 2014.