If you follow any agents, editors, or authors on blogs or social media, you’ll have heard about the importance of pacing—the speed and timing of your story. We’ve all had both positive and negative experiences with pacing while reading. Either the pacing has us flying through pages so fast our fingers are practically on fire, desperate to see how the conflict is resolved, or slogging through page after page of headdesk bashing boredom, waiting—begging— for something juicy to happen.
I won’t lie. My life is busy. Too busy to waste time on a book that’s slow (page after page with little to no character development, story, plot, or importance happening on the page). I’m the kind of reader that will put a book down if it isn’t engaging me somehow. And I know a lot of agents, editors, writers, and readers feel the same way. So, how to make your writing stand out? One way is to make sure your pacing is on point.
Good pacing doesn’t, by any means, translate to a non-stop action thrill-ride from beginning to end. No. We don’t want the entire book to keep the reader’s head spinning so fast they won’t remember what they read. Good pacing is speeding up, slowing down, and adjusting as needed. Now to the hard part, how to do this right.
Knowing when to speed up and slo-o-oow it down is something you can learn from re-reading some of your favorite books.
Pick up one of your favorites and read the first chapter. Be warned, I’m going to be using a lot of fish analogies. Because they work. And because sushi is amazing (and now I’m kind of desperate for a spicy tuna roll, but I’ll wait because I’m doing this post for you guys). The beginning of a book. This is the hook, ideally it should contain something intriguing, making you froth at the mouth for more. Hooks can be any pace you like, just remember, the beginning of the book is a first impression. Would you tell a complete stranger your life story the very first time you meet them? Probably not. So please don’t info-dump in your hook. Small bits of info are great, in fact, they can help increase pace by slipping them in here and there.
Now, read the next few chapters. I like to call this the momentum. Ideally, within the first few chapters, the writer has baited the hook with something delicious, something you—the awesome fish in this analogy—can’t wait to bite onto and ride to the surface. You should, hopefully, be learning the big problem that will want to propel you through the middle, toward the climax, and ultimately, the conclusion. What keeps you engaged while reading? Characters, story, plot—the ultimate trio. And pacing. If this part of the story all strolled along at the same pace, you risk boredom. To keep the reader engaged, something needs to kick up the pace.
Action, drama, mystery, intrigue, emotion—all of these things have the capability to increase the pace. Shorter sentences. Intense dialogue. Amped up heart rates. The threat of pain. Injury. Even death.
See what I mean?
Let’s move on. Keep reading. You should be near the middle of the book now. You’re introducing new characters or getting to know the ones you’ve met better, you’re learning what more about this big bad issue that the main character(s) needs to overcome, or you’re following them on their chosen path, knowing something bad is coming. All of these things are good, as long as you’re still on the hook, riding through these bumps in the water and not struggling desperately, wishing you never bit the hook to start with. This is because the pacing of the book is varied, increasing then slowing.
Here is where pacing gets really important. It’s time to start building momentum for the big climax. Usually the pacing leading up to the climax gets quicker, like a racecar. This is the moment to let your pacing skills to shine. Action, adventure, romance, whatever, as long as the tension is there and the conflict is resolved.
The resolution. The final place in the book to tie up all the loose ends. This becomes the perfect place to slow down. It’s your last opportunity to savor living in this world.
A few other examples of great moments to slow the pace down.
- Romance. Yes, it’s no secret I lurve me some romance, but it’s best when there’s a build-up. A great way to do that is focus on feelings and details. Slow those seconds down. This is the perfect example of how slowing down can actually add tension.
- An ah-ha moment. When your character uncovers something s/he didn’t know before. Your characters needs a few moments to process what they have learned, what this new information could lead to, and how it makes things worse—because these moments should almost always make things worse. ;)
- Too-much, too quick. To take a breather during a quick-paced moment. Occasionally, the reader can get overwhelmed. This is when it becomes necessary to press pause and look around. Clarify the stakes, use this moment to find a way to raise them even further.
- An injury. This could be physical or psychological. Nothing ever goes perfect. Someone’s bound to get hurt. Whether it’s your main character(s) or a secondary character, injuries are serious, even if it’s an injury of the heart. Show this emotion.
Whew. That was a boat-load of information. And, with any luck, the author has left you, the reader, flopping on the deck—and hopefully threw you back in so you get do this over and over again with their next book.
Now that you have the building blocks to great pacing, I hope you guys are off to go pick up your pace. (Ah! See what I did there? Heh. Okay…yeah, I’m off to spicy tuna roll heaven).
Lisa M. Basso was born and raised in San Francisco, California. She is a lover of books, video games, animals, and baking (not baking with animals though). As a child she would crawl into worlds of her own creation and get lost for hours. Her love for YA fiction started with a simple school reading assignment: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. When not reading or writing she can usually be found at home with The Best Husband that Ever Lived ™ and her two darling (and sometimes evil) cats, Kitties A and B.
You can also find her prowling the internet (when not writing)