Pacing for Impact
by Sylvie Kurtz
Pace refers to speed and rhythm. Every novel will have different requirements. A romance will unfold more slowly than an action-adventure story. But even in a romance, you don’t want things to slow down so much they sputter. And an action-adventure that rushes along at breakneck speed can overstimulate a reader, leaving him numb.
When I first started writing, I kept hearing that tension should escalate with every scene. The more I wrote, the more I came to understand that a story isn’t so much one long breath held until the passing-out point, but a series of breaths, getting shorter and shorter as the climax approaches. Story, like breathing, has a rhythm. The writer builds worry, danger, and fear, filling the reader with anticipation, then lets the tension out just long enough for the reader to empty his lungs of stale air and accept the next influx of fresh air. This rhythm accelerates with each cycle, until the reader, like a runner, reaches the climax, drained, but fulfilled. So the line of story isn’t one long climb, but a series of peaks, getting higher as the story progresses.
A writer marks these peaks with turning points. The story starts fast to grab the reader, revs up in the middle to avoid a slump, and gains full speed at the climax. An incident happens at each of these points that spins the story in a new direction. After this big scene of high tension, the writer allows the character to recover from the shock, absorb the change, and make a new decision that leads to further action that once again cranks up the tension.
Today’s story pace reflects the world’s faster pace. Fiction no longer meanders with pages of description. In a world of instant everything, that would cause a reader to skim until he got to “good stuff.” Intent on keeping the reader reading, writers have borrowed cinematography techniques, moving back and forth between time frames, settings, or viewpoints, shortening or skipping transitions, ending scenes with cliffhangers. All these devices cause forward movement that forces the reader to read on.
Within a scene things like exposition (slow), action (fast), description (slow), dialogue (fast) allow the writer to control the speed at which the story unfolds.
A writer can also control pace with word choice and sentence structure. To quicken pace, use concrete language with harsh consonants (claw, kill, quiver), unpleasant associations (slither, swarm, wince) and crisp verbs (crush, clobber, ram). Shorten paragraphs. Shorten sentences. Use fragments.
To slow down pace, go for soft-sounding words (soothe, stroke, sifted). Lengthen paragraphs and sentences, allowing them to unfold leisurely with texture that calls on sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and emotions.
The best way to learn how pacing works is to study novels and apply those lessons to your own work. Notice how other authors have achieved rhythm with the placement of their turning points and scenes. How they’ve created movement with action and interaction. How they’ve interlaced movement with bits of description that anchor the reader in their fictional world. How they’ve increased the action and tension as the climax looms. How they’ve created an ebb and flow with their use of language.
Master pace, and the reader will put your book down with a final aah of satisfaction.