I. What is Pacing?
Pacing is what determines how a story moves along. As with cadence in poetry, and tempo in music, pacing directly affects the impact of the story as well as the reader's response to it.
Pacing can be fast. Very fast. Staccato. Immediate. Sweat on your brow. Lump in your throat. Words turn to grips or slaps or shrieks. We're not waltzing here. Oh no. This is all about now. Here and now. Right now. You with me?
Pacing can also be a lingering, luxurious stretch of story that rolls across the page in unhurried, elegant waves. When the words go all slow, hot summer indolent and cautious feline curious, they seem to envelope the reader in silk and seduction. The story wraps gentle arms around you and carries you along through the passages of prose as though you were light as a feather.
Pacing a story is not about composing nonstop in your face speed text or rocking and drifting along the story river. A story's pacing has to shift, like moods, as the plot unravels and the conflicts rise and fall.
Another way to think of pacing is as the story's heartbeat. It may slow down or speed up, depending on what's happening, but there is always a regular rhythm to it.
II. What Factors Determine a Story's Pacing?
Story elements contribute a lot to pacing. We know as readers that action and dialogue generally tend to speed up the pace of a story, while narrative and description usually slow it down. Chapter beginnings and endings can segue fast or slow, or knock us out of the story altogether. Things like footnotes, fancy font shifts or illustrations sometimes bring the pacing to a screeching halt.
Story theme and genre also affect pacing. A typical fast-paced read would be a crime fiction thriller, as they contain a lot of action. On the flip-side, I have yet to read a fast-paced literary novel.
The word choices a writer makes also influence the pace. If you look again at my two examples up there, you'll notice that the words in the fast-paced paragraph are short, simple and provocative. By comparison, the slow-paced paragraph contains words that are longer, more complex and less aggressive.
Pacing also depends on the tone and ambiance of the writer's storytelling voice, which may be tied in with the writer's personality. I tend to be very impatient, focused and driven, and that comes out in my writing voice and pacing. One of my writer friends is a lifelong dreamer and philosopher, and his books have a far more leisurely pace compared to mine.
III. Pacing Quicksand and Avalanches
A well-paced book, like a healthy heart, has a consistent, logical rhythm to it. As conflict and tension rise and fall in the story, your pacing should shift right along with them.
Troubleshooting your pacing starts with a straight-through read of your story from beginning to end. Use a highlighter to mark passages that don't feel consistent in timing and rhythm with the rest of the story. Once you've identified these problem areas, it's time for a diagnosis.
Spots where you feel the story bogs down or drags are caught in pacing quicksand; you need to pull those passages out and get them moving. A lot of new and inexperienced writers end up in pacing quicksand because they can't resist explaining too many details for their reader. The safe bet is you need more action and dialogue to correct these areas, but you may also just need to trim down your wording, or see if you're telling more than showing.
Likewise when the story races too fast or is confusing -- these are pacing avalanches that need to be diverted and spread out. Narrative and description are not the only ways to deal with the pacing avalanche; you might need to buff up your scene choreography, your characterizations and/or your plot involvement. Don't fall into the pit trap of piling more explanations for the reader into the problem area -- then you may be right back up to your neck in quicksand.
As with any aspect of what we write, it can be hard to judge how well you handle story pacing, especially when you're close to the work. If you're not sure how consistent your pacing is, ask for some opinions. A writer or reader friend may be able to spot those pools of quicksand or crashing avalanches, and offer suggestions on how much less or more they'd like to see in the story.
IV. Why Pacing is Important
Gone are the days when a writer could spend three chapters luring a reader into a story. Most editors now want readers hooked on the first page, and kept on that hook for the rest of the story. Whether you agree with that or not, it's got to factor into how you pace what you write.
This is not to say everyone out there has to write only fast-paced stories or they'll never work in this biz. Stephen King doesn't hurry with the pacing of most of his novels, and after reading fifty pages of Suzanna Clarke using footnotes in her big fat whatever that book was, I'm firmly convinced the market for slow-paced writers out there is alive and well.
In the end, if you find the rhythm that works for you as a storyteller and you're consistent with it, you'll produce stories that keep the reader involved and you in print.
For a chance to win one of today's two Left Behind and Loving It goodie bags, which will be filled with a signed copy of my novel Blade Dancer (paperback), as well as unsigned copies of Tied to the Tracks by Rosina Lippi (trade paperback) Soul Song by Marjorie M. Liu (paperback), Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith (fun guided writing journal), The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan (hardcover), The Very Thought of You by Angela Weaver (paperback), a copy of the May/June 2007 issue of Writers' Journal magazine and some surprises, in comments to this post ask a question or share your view on pacing, or just throw your name into the hat by midnight EST on Wednesday, July 11, 2007. I will draw two names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners today's goodie bags. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Some other links on pacing:
Pacing by Dr. Vicki Hinze
Keep it Moving: Pacing a Novel by Darcy Pattison
Other virtual workshops now in progress:
LJ Cohen's Organize your Novel with a WIKI
Rosina Lippi's Workshop Day 1: The Story Machine
Shiloh Walker's Heat with Heart Day 1, finding that missing emotion