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Pacing: How to Take Your Readers on a Wild Ride



Pacing; man riding a snail

Imagine your story as a roller coaster (I’m partial to the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Disney World). From the moment your readers strap in, giddy and nervous, to when they hop out on unsteady legs, you want to fully captivate their attention. 


The nuts and bolts of your coaster—I mean story—like plot, character development, and tone, as well as the surprise twists and turns, are all important components of an exhilarating ride. 


But the driving force behind every story is pacing


Pacing is how fast (or slow) you tell a story. Despite this simple definition, pacing operates on multiple levels to varying degrees. The three levels I want to look at include:


  • Overall structure

  • Scenes

  • Paragraphs and sentences


While I’ll take a top-down approach to describing pacing in this blog, remember that each level is equally important to creating a smooth and compelling reader experience. 


Pace yourself, we’re just getting started.


Level 1: Pacing and structure

Pacing and structure are inextricably linked: if structure is the metal skeleton of your roller coaster, then pace is the motor on the coaster’s car. You need both to make it work. 


The structure of your story often dictates the pacing. Big loop-de-loops require a lot of speed to keep the car on its tracks, while you need to take it agonizingly slow on steep inclines to build anticipation before the big drops. 


When you’re first learning to write, you might assume that a fast pace is good, and a slow pace is bad. And true, when a story speeds up, that typically means you’re getting to the good part, and if a section is too slow, the reader’s eyes might glaze over. 


But to ace the pace of your story, you need a healthy combination of both.


Either type of pacing becomes dull when you use it too much. Really, the dips and lifts in pace are what truly grab your reader and indicate when it’s time to hold on. 


 

Another pacing misconception is that the beginning and middle of a story are slower paced, while the climax is lightning fast. But actually, pacing, at least on a structural level, works a little counterintuitively. When pacing is controlling your story’s structure effectively, the “slower” sections are paced faster, while the climactic scene is usually the most drawn out. 


Think about it: your exposition should be succinct so you can get to the juicy conflict and tension. But you don’t want to speed through your climax—it’s supposed to be the most exciting part! Instead of putting your coaster into hyper-drive, see how tall of a drop you can construct. 


You can learn more about the five act structure in my first ever WW blog here!


Level 2: Scene by scene pacing

Sticking with the roller coaster analogy, scenes are the individual thrills that make up the entire ride: your corkscrews, your Immelmann loops, and what have you. (Seriously, look up the elements of roller coasters—there are so many). While every story has a broad structure—beginning, middle, and end—which controls the pace, scenes provide a little more fine-tuning.


The type of scene you write will affect the pace. Here are the two main ones:


  • Dramatic scenes – When I say “dramatic,” I don’t mean soap-opera-worthy melodrama, though it can be that. A dramatic scene is one which uses dialogue and action to give the reader information. A single scene is usually confined to one place and time, though that’s not always the case (looking at you, sci-fi writers). Dramatic scenes slow the pace down, allowing the reader to fully absorb and analyze what’s happening. 


  • Scene summary – Also called narrative summary, this is used any time you describe dialogue, thoughts, or actions, without actually showing them; the scenes happen “off stage.” Summary is typically used to transition between scenes, telling the reader things that are important to know, but perhaps don’t need to be shown in detail. (I’m a big believer in “show and tell,” or “sometimes show, and sometimes tell”). Summary speeds up the pace and builds momentum for longer, dramatic scenes. 


Just like you do with structural pacing, you should vary the scene-by-scene pace by using a combination of dramatic scenes and scene summary. Look at some of your favorite books; very few have only dialogue or only summary. 


Level 3: Paragraph pacing

While pacing on the paragraph and sentence level seems like a tiny detail, it has a big impact on the audience’s reading experience. If I keep the roller coaster analogy going just a bit longer, you can think of your sentences as the ticks of the car as it inches up the incline, or the scream of the wheels as the car barrels down. 


Reading is both a cognitive and a sensory experience. The way the sentences are visually constructed on the page, as well as how they sound when strung together, will affect how your reader takes in your story—and it will change the speed at which they read it. 


Let’s look at both:


  • Text visuals – Text visuals are most noticeable in poetry, but they play a significant role in prose, too. Big chunks of text will slow the reader’s eye down, while lots of shorter paragraphs and indents will have their eyes flying down the page.


  • Sentence structure – You can also take a page out of poetry’s book for this one. Generally, long, flowy sentences will slowly take the reader down a winding road, while short and staccato sentences will propel the reader from one idea to the next. 

 

You probably already know what I’m going to say: you need both slow- and fast-paced paragraphs and sentences to keep your reader engaged. Of course, when you’re writing a fast-paced scene, you’ll probably use more fast paced language, and vice versa, but too many long sentences might lull your reader to sleep, and too many one-liners makes for a choppy ride. 


 

Pacing may at first seem like an invisible, unruly force in your story. But if you can learn how to spot and control it on the structural, scene, and sentence levels, you can give your reader a ride they’ll never forget.



 

About the author:

Lindsey has a BA in English and creative writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.

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