Pacing problems fall into two categories: too slow or too fast. While this makes it easy to diagnose the trouble, it takes a bit more to solve the actual problem. Too slow can be an editing issue, a stakes issue, or even a structure issue. Too fast can be a plotting problem, a characterization problem, or yes, a structure problem.
If your pacing isn’t where you want it to be, try to identify what the problem is.
While any number of things can contribute to a slow pace, too much of something is usually the culprit. Long sentences, heavy exposition, speeches. Things a reader has to slug through to get to the actual story.
Too Wordy: The more unnecessary words you add the slower your pace will be. The usual suspects here:
- Description: Look for long descriptive passages, especially if the scene is supposed to be fast-paced or have a lot of action. Description slows the pace down, especially in large blocks. Trim it back or spread it out to help pick up the pace.
- Empty Dialog: While dialog is typically fast-paced, people talking about nothing drags the story down. Look for lines that add nothing to the story, like greetings and good-byes, single questions that are there solely to keep someone talking, (“You won’t believe what Bob said.” “What? Tell me!” “He said…” - “What? Tell me?” can easily go)
- Internalization: Long mental deliberations have their place, but when they read like an awkward pause between lines of dialog it’s time to quit thinking so much. Look for spots where you kinda forget what the last line of dialog was or what the next speaker is responding to. If the dialog and response are supposed to sound snappy and come right after each other, don’t put a lot of internalization (or anything else) between them.
- Stage Direction: Describing every movement a character does takes longer to read than them actually doing it. Skip the obvious stuff or the things that don’t add anything to the scene. Be especially wary of places where a character speaks, moves, speaks, moves, speaks all in the same paragraph.
Too Boring: I’m using boring as a general term here, but this refers to those scenes where we know it could be better, but we’re not sure how to get it there. They drag, but they’re well-written and we kinda like them. Offenders here:
- Goal Check: Most times if a well-written scene drags, there’s a goal issue. The protagonist isn’t protagging, they don’t want anything and we’re just watching them go about their day in some fashion. Try adding a strong goal to drive the scene and make them actively trying to accomplish something.
- Stakes Check: Next biggest offender here is a lack of stakes. The protagonist is acting, they have a goal, but readers just don’t care if they achieve it or not. Try making the consequences of the goal matter more on a personal level. Give readers something to worry about as the scene unfolds.
- Character Check: Sometimes a character isn’t “in” the scene even when they are. The reader feels detached, like they’re watching from a distance. This usually happens where there’s little internalization or personal input from the POV character. We see them act, but don’t really know why or why it matters so we can’t connect to them.
Too Long: Sometimes structure is the issue, and how we break up our story affects how it reads. Problem areas:
- Bad Chapter Enders: Chapters typically end with something unresolved or left hanging. If the chapter just stops with nothing to entice the reader to read on, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Try looking for spots where something is left unresolved. Places where the reader wants to know what happens next.
- Not Enough Scene Breaks: A lack of scene breaks can indicate that there might be a lot of unnecessary transition description bogging the story down (traveling to get somewhere, filler between scenes that change location). Look for summaries between things happens. Chances are you can cut those and just break the scene. If nothing interesting happens between events, there’s no need to show it.
Dialog is fast-paced, as is action, but if you skimp on the rest of what makes a story interesting, you end up with a breathless ride that goes by too quickly for your reader to enjoy.
Too Much: A too-fast pace often comes with a lot of action being throw at the reader. So much is going on it’s hard to absorb it all as it goes by. You might check on:
- Complicated Complications: Having things go wrong is a good thing, but if every little thing that can go wrong does go wrong, they all start merging together. Do you really need all those problems? Can any be combined or eliminated? Try breaking down the steps of your scenes and seeing how many things your protagonist has to do (and overcome) to reach the end. If the number looks high, try trimming a few out.
- No Breathers: If your protagonist never gets a chance to catch their breath, the reader won’t either. Look for places where you can let the protagonist pause and reflect on what’s just happened to them. Right after a problem is discovered, when one is resolved, when they learn something new, etc. Reflection gives you a chance to remind readers why all this matters.
- Large Crowds: A sudden influx of characters (and the names that comes with them) can trigger “you can skim over this part” to a reader. It’s clear that they’re not supposed to remember all those people, so the scene takes on less importance and flies by. Try naming only those who need to be remembered and limiting the number of people in the scene.
Too Shallow: An all-action plot might be missing the depth to bring its characters to life and really flesh out the world they live in. Try looking at:
- Flat Characters: You know those action movies where you can’t remember the hero’s name? Skimping on characterization is the book equivalent. Take the time to let readers get to know the characters so they’ll care about what happens to them. Glimpses into their personality are great ways to slow down when things are going full tilt.
- White Rooms: A lack of setting makes everything feel like it’s happening in a blank room. Are you describing the setting enough? Are there enough details for the reader to put everything in context? Setting can also be used to up tension and heighten conflict, so just because you’re describing, doesn’t mean you have to stop the story dead. A little goes a long way to slowing a too-fast pace.
- Weak Motivations: Is your protagonist just going through the motions and acting out plot for the sake of plot? If they’re just a body there for things to happen to, the action has no point and becomes background noise. Try showing why you chose this protagonist to handle these problems. Let readers get to know them so they understand why they’re going through all this trouble. Those moments of internalization or discussion help transition from scene to scene at a more manageable pace.
Too Short: Short sentences, shorts chapters, short scenes. They all pick up the pace, but when used too much, it can be overwhelming.
- Choppy Sentences: Short sentences are fast. We read them quickly, and the staccato nature adds to the tension of the scene. But too much starts to read like a strobe light showing freeze-frame images in a row, not a story unfolding. Trying mixing it up, adding longer sentences as well as the short quick ones. Use the length of the sentences to raise and lower the pacing where you need it.
- Scenes for Chapters: There is no average size for a chapter, but too many short ones in a row can start to feel choppy. It’s the nature of chapters, since they end on that “oh no!” moment of some type. A cliffhanger every few pages never allows for the tension to build. Try seeing how you might combine your small chapters together for a better (and slower) flow. Perhaps turn them into scenes and ease up a little on the enders for a slower transition.
- Talking Heads: Dialog is also fast paced, but a lot of it without any exposition makes it hard for the reader to keep up. Check on large sections of dialog and make sure you have some breaks in there to remind readers who’s speaking, and provide context for what’s happening.
Other Thoughts on Pacing
Pacing is all about the speed in which you convey information to the reader to achieve the best impact. Techniques aid you in controlling your pacing, but they aren’t rules set in stone. Typically fast-paced techniques (like short sentences and lots of dialog) can bore readers if what’s going on in those sentences doesn’t make them want to read on. Same as typically slow-paced techniques (description and exposition) can be riveting if the reader is dying to know what happens in those scenes.
There is also no rule for chapter length. If you write long chapters with the right amount of scene breaks and the reader is eagerly pulled through them without getting bored, you’ve done your job. Someone else might write short chapters that flow together seamlessly and never feel choppy. If the pace works, don’t feel the need to comply with arbitrary structures. Keep the reader turning the pages, however works for you.
What do you do to control your pacing? Are there any “rules” that you struggle with?
Other articles on pacing:
The perils of pacing
Rhythm in dialog
Stimulus and response
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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