Some thoughts on pacing


I’ve been revisiting my last novel recently, after receiving feedback from a beta reader about pacing. Pacing is one of those things that are hard to get right, and harder to give tips on. But here’s my two cents worth.

What is pacing, exactly?

The simple answer is that pacing is how ‘fast’ a story is told.

The somewhat longer answer is that the use of sentence length, dialog, exposition, and other writing techniques lead to the reader having a sense of progression at a certain speed.

Pacing has a passing relation with the amount of time that passes in the story, but not they’re not the same. You can have fast pacing with a long story timespan and vice versa. As an example, take Dragonball Z – yes, I know, bear with me. In the Frieza saga, the heroes battle enemies even as the planet they are on — Namek — is about to explode. Several twenty-minute episodes cover this period of only a few seconds. The story pace has no relation at all to the actual passage of time.

You can even show the same story time multiple times. If you look at — for example — the Lord of the Rings, parts of that story cover the same stretch of story time, but from different viewpoints separated geographically.

Why I’m looking at it

I can write a pretty good tale, if I do say so myself — well, other people say the same, thankfully. However, the feedback I’ve been getting is that the first half of my latest story feels slow, and things only get going halfway through. I’ve had similar feedback on my previous works.

This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad story. There are world-famous works that suffer from the same malady. For example, I put down the Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton halfway through. I only picked it up when a friend insisted it was awesome. Then I finished the rest of the book and the other two parts of the trilogy in short order — it sucks you in when it gets going.

Still, I’d like to have my story faster-paced at the start, also because the start of your story is what you mail agents and publishers. But how to do that?

What helps and hinders pacing?

Pacing is a tricksy concept. There are some basic rules: things like dialog and short sentences speed up pacing, while things like exposition and introspection slow down the story. Of course, exposition and introspection also give a story depth, so leaving them out isn’t the best plan.

There is more to it, though. There is such a thing as a story moving too fast. Think of it like a roller coaster. Yes, a roller coaster has to go fast, but an important part of the experience is slowly being dragged up a steep incline, the tension building before you plummet back down. It’s also not a straight plummet back down. There’s changes in speed and direction; moments to breathe and moments to scream. A story needs all these things as well. You need to build tension, build climaxes into the story, but also ease on the throttle to give the reader time to reflect.

The Rise of Skywalker is a good example of how not to do this. There is no introspection, no moments of peace. It’s a roller coaster straight down. By the end you sit reeling and think ‘what just happened?’ That pacing helps fudge over the plot holes, but it doesn’t make for a very memorable story.

Looking deeper

Another aspect is whether or not the reader feels that what is happening is important. If the story goes into a subplot that is not relevant to the main plot, the story can feel like the story is dragging its feet. On the other hand, switching from one character to another can increase suspense as well. Fantasy stories often follow multiple characters and often leave them hanging from a figurative cliff when switching.

Finally, tension can actually benefit from slow pacing. I always think of the opening scene of Inglourious Bastards for this one. A Nazi officer visits a farmer looking for Jews in hiding. The scene drags on, with a long-winded exchange between the officer and the farmer. The only thing is: the whole time you as the viewer know the Jews are hiding under the floor boards. The scene is brilliant.

My mistake

I thought about this long and hard. I read and reread my story, cut what I could, then looked again.

My conclusion is that my problem is in the importance of the first part of my story and the tension. My stories tend to have a pretty well thought-out plot — not too complicated, but the climax really builds on all the foreshadowing and set ups from the rest of the story. So I tend to do a lot of set up at the beginning of a story. Then I need to add in enough world-building to make the world believable. Combine that with less tension — partly because the stakes are not that high yet — and you end up with slow pacing.

Changing this isn’t easy, though. I don’t want to cut the legs out from under my plot chair. My approach: I’m taking a good look at both the tension in each scene and if I can restructure some of the story start so that I need less scenes. If the scenes in my story can do more at the same time, I’ll need less scenes. And less scenes, especially with more tension, should make for a faster pacing. I’m also trying to cut an entire character who doesn’t add a lot to the plot, removing the distraction.

We’ll see how this pans out.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands