Writing a novel is like walking a tightrope: If you want to successfully make it from point A to point B, there must be both balance and momentum. If you start with a burst of speed and action, then slow before picking back up to a steady trot, you’re going to fall straight off.
Well… you might not. But your readers will.
When it comes to engaging your readers, pacing is everything. The pace of your story not only works to pull readers in, but it keeps them going until the end. Good pacing is one of the hardest aspects of writing a novel and extremely difficult to attain. But have no fear, we have compiled four elements that we believe all writers should consider when setting the pace of their novel. Let’s begin:
One of the most basic elements in setting the pace of your story is having a story structure. Do you have a plan or an outline? If you answered no, I highly recommend creating one. Diving in and starting to write works for many authors, but it generally leads to more time editing and working out inconsistencies later on. Starting with an outline provides guidance as you write and helps you identify the places in which your pacing seems off before you put in a ton of work writing scenes that will simply never work.
If you answered yes, great! This means you’ve already determined the beats and it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get from one to the next. Try writing down your plot points on note cards and placing them on the floor or tape them to a wall in sequential order so you can see how things are connecting. The ever popular word processor Scrivener also helps you do this electronically, if the added bit of tech is more your speed. From there you can figure out where to speed things up or slow things down. Consider using colored notecards or pens to represent the different speeds you want the section to be so that you can better visualize the changes in your pace.
The length of your sentences, paragraphs, and chapters have a great impact on your pacing. If you are looking to set a fast pace to emphasize action, keeping sentences short and choppy gives readers a sense of urgency. Contrastingly, longer sentences with more detail are better for slowing the pace and fleshing out more complex plot points. Exposition frequently gets a bad rap, but it has its uses and, when well written, can help move a story forward. It is important to note that good pacing is not always fast or action-packed. Lastly, shorter chapters are also a great way to keep the story moving forward. I’m a big culprit when it comes to staying up late and reading “one more chapter because it’s short” instead of going to bed at a decent hour. Ending chapters after 1-2 scenes as opposed to including many scene breaks in one chapter creates a faster momentum for the reader, especially if you use a cliffhanger to give your book that unputdownable quality. For an example of fantastic use of short chapters, I recommend checking out Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast.
The words you use go a long way in setting the pace for your novel. Your descriptive word choices and tenses can influence the way your readers interact with the story. Active verbs can push the momentum forward and emphasize action while words like moist have their own connotations. Similarly, dialogue is a great pace-setter. Witty banter keeps the pages turning quickly, while long-winded speeches and explanations slow things down. The type of dialogue you use will depend greatly on your story and character development, but it will also impact your pacing in the process. Writing good dialogue is hard, which is why we have an entire article devoted to helping you with yours here. For an example of how dialogue can help set pacing, I recommend Sweet Ruin by Kresley Cole.
This is a big one for both pacing and character development. Introspection is an important literary device because–when done properly–it allows us to learn more about the protagonist while moving the plot forward. If you’ve ever taken a fiction writing course or been to a writer’s workshop, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “show, not tell.” This is especially true when it comes to introspection. Readers don’t want you to continually write things like, “Tom walked across the room…Tom was bored…Tom picked up the book.” That is painfully boring to read. Instead, try giving your readers a peek into your character’s thoughts and emotions. “I guess I’ll read while I wait, Tom thought to himself as he crossed the room and picked up a book.” Introspection doesn’t fit into every scene in a book and it can often become too prosaic, but when well executed it gives readers a clearer view into a character’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations. A fantastic example of using introspection is Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi.
There are so many ways to use changes in pace to take your novel from a snooze fest to a have-you-read-this-I-couldn’t-put-it-down fest. But no pressure. Start with these aforementioned elements and then experiment with your work! We promise you will see the difference immediately. Plus, if you get stuck, you can check out other resources right here on this blog to keep you on the right track.