Thursday, June 20, 2013

Setting the Pace

On my own blog on Monday, I started talking about pacing. As I mentioned then, although you can find entire books devoted to various aspects of the writing craft, an entire book on pacing is hard to find. The only one I discovered was about writing fast-paced action, and since pacing doesn't necessarily mean "high action," the topic is something one has to dig around for.

As I touched upon on Monday, the pace of your novel has to be 'right' for the genre, and the pace shouldn't be the same throughout. Each scene has its own pacing requirements. Today, I'll talk about ways to control pace. Much of this information comes from workshops I've taken from Deb Courtney and Kelley Anderson.

Courtney suggests paying attention to your own physiological reactions when you're writing a high-tension scene. What is your heart rate doing? Your breathing? Your writing should mimic these responses with short sentences, be they narrative or dialogue.

In an action scene, your characters are physically doing things. Here, you want to reduce narrative, and eliminate inner thoughts and reflection. (I covered something like this in my "phone booth and gorilla post")

Think about a movie. You'll want to pull in tight, like a camera close-up. You'll want to stick to a single point of view for these scenes. Use short sentences, short phrases. Even short words. Single syllable words ending with harsh sounds, such as K or Z have more impact. Eliminate adverbs. Minimize dialogue to what's necessary.

In slower paced scenes, you have time to let your characters reflect. This is where there's time for description. Here, action is minimized. In your movie, you'd be pulling back, using a wider-angle. Lengthen your sentences and use softer sounds. Dialogue is looser here, and can be interspersed with action. The letter S is good for soft tension.

Even dialogue can slow a story. It must move the story forward. It's OK to summarize the basics. She warned of rehashing events in dialogue. No small talk. Armstrong then progressed to elaborate on one of Elmore Leonard's rules: "Don't write the part that readers skip." What do readers skip? (Not all true for all readers, of course).

Technical details
Researched facts
Characters on Soap boxes
Lyrics and poetry
Flashbacks and back story.

For all of these, a little goes a long way. Break it up.

She also reiterated the importance of stopping chapters where something is about to happen. It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger, but it should make the reader want to know what actually happens.

What about you? Have you ever read a book where the story was 'right' but the pacing was off? Did it diminish the enjoyment you got out of the book?

Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.


  1. Pacing may not seem like a big deal, but it's vital to keeping the reader engaged. Tense, high-powered scenes grab the reader and keep the pages turning — for a while; however, those scenes need to move the story forward and then move on. Overly long and overdone, they exhaust the reader and lose some of their impact. On the other hand, a story that is laid back to the point of becoming mundane bores its audience. It's that balance that makes or breaks a book. A great story may find its way into the trash (or donated to a second-hand store) if the pacing isn't right, at least for me. I won't continue reading it.

    Great post, Terry.

  2. Linda, you're right. Pace needs to vary depending on the point you are in the story. (Although, workshop leaders at conferences who addressed this topic would jokingly say, "Unless you write literary fiction." Author(s) PJ Parrish likened pacing to what they call a 'fever chart' with things moving up and down.

    Terry's Place

  3. 'Don't write the part that readers skip' ... what if they skip your whole book?

  4. Chris - in that case, you'll have to write another one.

  5. Action scenes do require short sentences and active verbs plus limited internal reflection. But you're right, Terry, pace needs to vary according to the type of scene that's being played out and our own reactions give us the clues.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Jacqueline - sometimes listening to 'mood' music, be it fast-paced or mellow helps me.

  7. Terry:
    You asked: Have you ever read a book where the story was 'right' but the pacing was off? Did it diminish the enjoyment you got out of the book?

    August 1914 by Alexander S was hard going for me. Like most great Russian novelists, he introduces dozens of characters. His lengthy descriptions really slowed the pace to a crawl. But 600 plus pages later, the movie Dr. Zhivago, which I had seen 3 times, finally made sense. What the movie left out, A. S. described masterfully.

  8. Great two-part series, Terry. I appreciate the tips on how to balance the pacing. I have always done that by instinct, but now I can use your tips in editing to make the pacing stronger.

    I love the Elmore Leonard quote, and when my insecurity is at it's highest level I ask the same question Christopher did. (smile)

  9. Thanks, Anon, for that example. For me, I think it was the opposite when I saw Red October after reading the book. That was one movie (maybe the only one) where the movie worked better for me--perhaps because I had trouble following all the hopping around and various acronyms Clancy used.

  10. Maryann - I enjoyed being able to 'double dip' with my topic, which was too long for a single post. I also think pacing is 'organic' when I write, but then having things to go back and look at helps. I'm editing now, and cutting a lot of phrases, especially introspective ones, that aren't really needed.

  11. Great blog topic and wonderful post.

    Under the Tuscan Sun. Loved the movie hated the book. Now I know why, it was the pacing that didn't work for me. Which is funny because my niece loved the book and hated the movie. Oh well, it takes all kinds of readers.

  12. Thanks, Pat. Being able to understand why we don't like something (or why it doesn't work) is always a good thing.

  13. I agree that a lot of description is skipped. I know I do that with some books I'm reading because I want the writer to get on with the story.

    1. One of the speakers at ThrillerFest said the only time you notice pacing is when it's off. If passages of description are being skimmed, they probably didn't belong there in the first place.

  14. Great post! Pacing is very important.

  15. Loved this post, Terry!

    My personal "method" is to always know which phase of scene or sequel I'm in to know, approximately, how fast my pacing should go.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Nat. Sounds like you understand story structure.


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