Pace is like the heartbeat of your story - sometimes it’s steady and relaxed, sometimes it races at breakneck speed.
Pace dictates the speed at which your reader moves through your story. Skilfully done, it can speed things up and slow them down with equal measure, all without the reader really noticing, so getting the pacing right really is a fine art. Do it correctly and it could heighten your reader’s experience, but if you get it wrong, your reader won’t want to read any further.
Pace isn’t just about the rate at which your story is told, but it’s also a clever way of blending action, emotion and tension. And the way to achieve that is to choose the right words for the right scene.
Pace is all about momentum – whether fast, slow or steady. Whichever way, your reader wants to feel that rate, to feel swept along or to feel a gentle lull. The idea is to vary that momentum, to move along steadily, then ramp up the action and pace, then slow things down to allow the reader to reflect, and so on. Without this pacing, a story might fall into the trap of becoming the clapped out old banger chugging along a barren road at a steady 35mph until the very end. There is a risk that the monotony will send your reader to sleep.
The Elastic Band method
The best way to get to grips with pace is by thinking of your story as an elastic band. If you stretch an elastic band, it becomes taut and tense, but if you slacken it, it becomes relaxed and soft. This is exactly how your narrative should be.
The important elements of your story – crisis points, action scenes and conflict scenes – should be tautened, and the pace altered to reflect that. This means the writing accelerates.
Softer, reflective scenes or gentle emotional or romantic scenes etc, represent a slower pace (and a slackened elastic band). This means the writing is more descriptive and full with flourishes, which decelerates the speed of the narrative.
By alternating the faster scenes with slower ones, your reader will enjoy the excitement and thrills of the action, but they will also get much needed respite in softer moments and therefore they are able to share those moments with the characters through the use of empathy.
Milk the Potential
Never miss the opportunity to kick the pace into another gear where it presents itself, otherwise, you will have missed the opportunity to milk the reader’s attention and interest at key moments, but don’t force the pace if you think your narrative is lagging, otherwise you will end up with something contrived and stilted. Let the action develop and grow naturally.
If the narrative is lagging, go back and find out why – it might be in need of some brutal editing.
Choice of words
Choice of words also affects the pace of the narrative. Where action is concerned, be brisk and to the point. If you have a fight scene, don’t spend seven paragraphs beautifully describing the nuances of each character’s movements. Instead, get into the thick of it and use sharp, staccato or abrupt words, like punch, hit, shock, thrust, whack etc. Brevity is the key to action scenes.
Longer descriptive words slow the pace; words like stroll, amble, meander etc, or softer words. The narrative will immediately reflect that mood.
Remember the elastic band – so just when the action scenes reach a crescendo, bring the reader back down and slow the narrative. This is the most effective method of varying pace and tension. And just as the reader gets comfortable, yank that rug away and bring in the action again.
A story should be like riding a rollercoaster. It can be deceptive, it may seem gentle, then it rushes you over the edge, sweeps you down, races along, then lulls momentarily before rushing you up and over once again...
Remember that both conflict and emotion play an important part with pacing. Wherever there is conflict there will always be a slight increase in pace. Wherever there is emotion, the narrative becomes softer and slower.
The key is to vary the pace. Take your reader on that rollercoaster, and don't forget that elastic band...
Next week: Turning points – critical moments in a novel explained.