Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Pacing is an essential aspect of storytelling and one many writers take for granted. Story pacing is a basic skill with hidden depths and because of that fact it tends to be under-discussed. Most writers assume pace is something they’ve already mastered when there are still many things to learn that would improve their storytelling.
In this article, I’ll list some of the biggest misconceptions, half-truths and outright lies you may have heard about pacing. I’ll be exploring why they’re wrong and sharing alternative advice that’s much more useful.
What is pacing?
Misconception #1: Pacing is the speed at which things happen in a story.
This misconception is pretty close to the truth, but skips the vital detail that matters most.
Correction: Pacing is the speed at which the reader perceives things to happen in a story.
What’s the difference? Speed is objective, but your reader’s perception of speed isn’t. As the writer, you can make a fleeting moment last a week or a year go by in the blink of an eye.
Whether the first meeting of two destined lovers feels like a quick hello or a significant basis for love at first sight has nothing to do with actual speed and everything to do with pacing.
Pacing can refer to how a story is written and how it’s plotted, but in the end it’s the same thing. Whether it’s applied to a single scene or the plot as a whole, pacing is the speed at which your reader thinks things are progressing.
Pacing in writing
Different paces suit different scenes. Fight scenes should be fast and urgent, walks in the countryside should be slow and relaxed. The appropriate pacing for an event is something we naturally understand, so it should be just as natural to write, right?
Misconception #2: Pace just happens.
No. This misconception comes from the fact that you can’t write a scene without also adopting a pace. The problem is that you don’t want just any pace, you want the one that’s right for the scene.
Correction: Pace just happens. The right pace takes work.
The truth is less convenient to believe because it can mean rewriting a scene multiple times to find the pace that suits it best.Sometimes, finding the right pace takes multiple drafts.Click To Tweet
Imagine writing a passage about competitive knitting. Do you write a slow pace, highlighting the skill of the competitors and the complexity of their work, or do you write the scene fast-paced to highlight the competition? How about starting off slow and then speeding up, to give the scene a crescendo? How about starting fast and then slowing down, to build tension? Sometimes the only way to see what works best is to have different versions in front of you.
It may be that it takes a lot of thought and work to find the right pace for a scene, but once you realize which pace works the best you need to know how to convey it.
Misconception #3: Length = Speed.
Common advice is that the length of the sentences used to describe an event will communicate the speed at which it happens. Short, snappy sentences mean things are happening quickly whereas long, descriptive sentences are reserved for slower moments.
Correction: Length = Urgency
Sentences tend to be ‘long’ more often than they’re ‘short’.
When a writer adopts short sentences, the change is very noticeable. It’s not that there are fewer details, but that details have disappeared. This absence invites the reader to ask themselves why the story suddenly doesn’t have time for details. Using cues from the plot details in front of them they subconsciously reach the conclusion that details have been abandoned due to urgency.Staccato writing implies urgency, but only when used selectively.Click To Tweet
If the extraneous has been noticeably removed then what remains is by implication essential. Short sentences are urgent because the act of skipping what the reader doesn’t need to know creates the illusion that every detail that makes the cut is something the reader must know now.
Knowing how to create a sense of urgency is a fantastic skill for a writer, but so is knowing how to slip back into the trivial.
Misconception #4: Stories are a mountain.
This misconception applies to both writing and plotting, and suggests that every scene should top the next: the reader should keep going up and up towards the story’s pinnacle. Why would your reader want to read a duller passage than the one they just finished?
Correction: Stories are a mountain range.
Because at some point they’re going to need a rest.
‘Stories are a mountain’ is a simplified idea used to teach children how stories work. Of course your story can’t get duller and duller as it continues, but it also can’t be one moment of excitement after another.
This also applies to the pace of your writing. Fight scenes are only urgent because the sentence structure they’re written in differs from the rest of the book. If you use short, staccato sentences all the way through your novel then no part of it will feel particularly urgent.
Urgency and calm are illusions created by contrast. Going from a frenetic scene to one that’s languid and meandering highlights the tone of both. Judge the correct speed for each individual scene and write that.You need to be able to vary the pace of your story, not just amp it up.Click To Tweet
In House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski switches between a fast-paced haunted house storyline and slower biographical passages. The slower moments allow readers to actually think about the faster sections instead of just being swept up in the next, and the fast moments heighten the tension and dread the reader feels when things slow down.
Varying your pace is important when writing your story, but it only works if you vary the impact of each scene when you’re plotting.
Pacing in Plotting
Just as different paces help each section stay relevant, so less exciting events in the overall narrative make the most important moments stand out.
For huge events to really have an impact there needs to be a plateau afterwards. Sweeping your reader along might seem attractive but it means the only time a moment has relevance is while it’s happening. That’s not how drama works.
While there should be a general upward trend in the relevance of your story events, don’t be afraid to lessen the pace if it serves a purpose. Important event after important leaves little time for characterization. Sometimes the impact of an important plot point depends on the scene afterwards, where the characters sit around a campfire and invite the reader to really appreciate what just happened.
It can be tempting to fall into unrelenting escalation because it’s such an easy path to follow. Imagine, then, the temptation that grips authors when they realize someone is offering a far more varied and interesting plot structure complete with step by step instructions.
Misconception #5: Readers like three act stories (and you can tell because they’re so common.)
Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! is primarily about screenwriting, but it has a lot to say about storytelling no matter what medium you’re working in.
The now infamous Blake Snyder Beat Sheet breaks the traditional three act story (beginning, middle and end) down into fifteen key moments. His book even goes so far as to describe the spacing between each moment.
Correction: Three act stories are the easiest to write (and you can tell because they’re so common.)
There’s no denying that the Blake Snyder method of storytelling works: it’s a solid blueprint. But so is the blueprint for the world’s simplest house, and the effect is much the same. The Beat Sheet shows you how to satisfy your readers but it can’t tell you how to wow them. In fact, it might even stop you from doing so.
There’s no set structure to telling a story because every story is different. The way your plot unfolds depends entirely on how you want your readers to feel. Every story needs work and experimentation to find its best form but your instincts as a writer will always yield better results than applying a formula which doesn’t take into account any of the things that make your story special.
The Beat Sheet is a distillation of what’s worked in the past with every original idea written off as an anomaly. It’s a decent place to start but without your own flare and idiosyncrasies, it’s not the best way of structuring a story, just the easiest.
The secret to pacing your story
All of the above misconceptions make pacing seem easy. Sadly, the opposite is true, and the best way to nail the pacing of your story is to experiment. See what works for each scene, see what you’re best at writing, and every so often try something different just to make sure you’re on the right track.
It might be harder work but it also means you approach your story as both reader and writer, staying true to your instincts and telling the absolute best version of the story.
For further advice on the kind of sentence structure that makes fight scenes seem immediate and visceral, check out our article Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene. Or, for a focused look at how to control your reader’s perception of time, try Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story.
Do you struggle with pacing or do you think the three act structure is the perfect way to tell a story? Either way, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.