Compelling stories are often perfectly paced. There are tools, principles and techniques you can follow when deciding the “speed” of each section of your story (Maserati or Miata?). In this post, I’d like to share some of these tools, principles and techniques with you. Drivers, start your engines…
Secret #1: Pacing Principles:
- While there are exceptions, most readers expect a fast pace at certain points of the story, such as the beginning and the end. Unless you have a very good reason not to, I strongly suggest that you write your opening scene and your closing scenes with a faster pace.
- Most genres have their specific expectations about pacing. Romance novels sometimes go slower and sometimes faster depending on the author and the specific type of romance novel. Thrillers tend to have a breakneck pace. In my opinion, a good rule of thumb is to embrace a faster pace interspersed with pockets of slower scenes to bring depth and richness. It’s like an Autobahn relieved by occasional rest stops so that readers don’t get literary whiplash.
- Angel plummets from the sky at the beginning
- Main characters trapped in the demon–infested camp
- The fallen angel infiltrates heaven
Those bigger or larger scenes are connected by lots of smaller, tension-filled scenes that lead up to those “pivotal” moments. The big scenes in a story are generally written with a fairly fast pace. The connecting, transitional or set up scenes are sometimes faster and sometimes slower. This might be a good time to point out that, even in the fast scenes, there’s often a variation in how fast the scene plays out.
Secret#3: Pacing the Progression: Typically, the farther along in the story we get, the faster scenes become, with the climax or final scenes being the fastest. The notable exception is the beginning of the story, where a faster pace grabs reader attention. Careful not to start too fast, though, because then the rest of the story might feel like it’s slowing down instead of speeding up (i.e. death by pacing).
Secret #4: Pacing Scenes (Part I): Another good rule of thumb is to speed up the less interesting parts, if not take out those parts altogether. Speed up the transitions between scenes. You may have heard of the statement to “arrive late and leave early”. Put differently, it’s usually good advice to start a scene at a point where things are heating up and leave the scene before things are fully resolved.Secret #5: Pacing Scenes (Part II): Conversely, I suggest that you slow down to milk the more interesting parts of your story, which almost seems to go against logic. By “slow down”, I mean to give more literary real estate to those sections of your story. Spend more time on the interesting parts of your story where action, conflict, tension and problems collide. While I included a few slower scenes in Dark Halo, most of the story accelerates along as characters encounter ever worse problems and conflicts.
Secret #6: Pacing Tools and Tricks: Use dialogue and action to quicken the pace. Dialogue and action tend have a faster back-and-forth feel. So when you want to speed things up, inject dialogue and action. Use narrative description and internal thoughts to slow down a part of the story. After one of those big scenes with a lot of conflict and action, it’s helpful to give the readers moment to rest. This also gives the characters a moment to respond mentally, emotionally, physically – and sometimes even spiritually – to what just happened to them. These slower scenes are sometimes called reaction or response scenes.
With these principles, techniques and tools, you can radically enhance the pace of your own stories. Your readers will thank you. Remember, pacing is one of those intangibles that is part science and part art. There are no hard and fast (pun intended) rules. Let your genre, story and gut guide you. Get feedback from trusted readers and editors. Then rocket that story out in gripping fashion.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on pacing in the comments below.
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