When it comes to pacing a novel, plenty of writers are unsure how to achieve it, especially when we think of pace to mean the speed of something. But of course, in reality the actual pace of the novel never changes, but rather the perception of pace does, and that’s what writers want to achieve.
Pace isn’t just about the rate at which the story is told, it’s also a clever way of blending action, emotion, atmosphere and tension. The way to accomplish that is to choose the right words for the right scene. Writers also use the affectionately named 'elastic band' method - if you stretch an elastic band, it becomes taut and tense, but if you slacken it, it becomes relaxed and soft. This is how narrative should be, so the important elements of the story – crisis points, action scenes and conflict scenes – are tautened, and the pace alters to reflect that. This means the writing accelerates. Softer, reflective scenes or gentle emotional or romantic scenes represent a slower pace (and a slackened elastic band) and so the writing is more descriptive and full with flourishes, which decelerates the speed of the narrative and alters the perception of pace.
So what tricks can writers use to increase or decrease pace?
Use the Right Words in the Right Places
Since it is the perception of pace you are changing, then one of the best ways to do that is to use the right words in the right places. Every scene will be different, so consider the kinds of words that would best serve the pace – short, staccato words, particularly verbs like shunt, shove, snap, rip etc., shorten the entire sentence structure, therefore shortening the time it takes the reader to read it – it gives the perception of increasing pace.
These word structures are very good for quickening the pace for action scenes or when you want to push the narrative that little bit more.
The same is true if you want to slow the pace. Longer, rounded words trick the reader into thinking the story has slowed down – and that’s because the chosen words are designed to lengthen the reading time, thus giving rise to the idea the pace has slowed.
These word structures are great for decreasing the pace and allowing the reader to take a breather and reflect; great for descriptive scenes, emotional scenes, love scenes etc.
One word of warning here - keep away from adjectives in your sentence structures; they don’t help the narrative and they certainly don’t help the pace.
Compare these two examples:
John hit the button on the elevator panel, spun round to face the assailant. He snapped a closed fist hard into the stranger’s face.The impact rocked the man’s head and he stumbled back…
This example clearly sets a pace by using words such as hit, spun, snapped, hard and rocked. It takes next to no time to read these paragraphs. The brevity of the words fools the reader into thinking the momentum has increased.
John pressed the button the elevator panel and waited. He noticed a skewed reflection in the chrome plate, knew someone was standing just a few feet away from him; just visible over his shoulder. He took in a controlling breath and turned around to face the stranger, but to his relief, it was Jeff, his work buddy, who had crept up behind him…
In this second example, the pace is neither slowed nor quickened. The pace remains even, thanks to longer words such as pressed, skewed, reflection, visible, and controlling.
The right words in the right places make all the difference.
Lengthen or Shorten sentences and paragraphs.
This is another one writers use to fool the reader. Using shorter sentences or paragraphs tends to quicken the pace, while using longer paragraphs with more description and detail obviously decreases pace.
Again, the same principal applies as using the right words.
Lengthen or Shorten Chapters
The same rule applies. Shorter chapters fool the reader into thinking things are moving along quickly, while longer chapters tend to make the reader think the pace has decreased.
Use of Dialogue
Even dialogue can help give the impression things are either moving quickly or slowing down. That’s because it words exactly the same way as using the right word structures. In other words, short, snappy dialogue helps to quicken the pace, especially when combined with short, tight action scenes.
Conversely, you can also slow things down a little with use of longer sections of dialogue between characters.
This one is less well known, but still another way to alter pace and speed things up.
The writer jumps to new scenes – in other words, going from one scene to another in a short space of time gives the impression that things are moving quickly. That doesn’t mean you can do this all through the novel, because too much use has the opposite effect - it confuses or disorientates the reader.
Jump to different scenes only when the pace dictates, especially if you are pushing the story forward with two or three key characters.
Another trick – this one slows the pace – is to concentrate for a short while on your main character, with emotions or inner dialogue and description based around them and their thoughts. This slows things down a little and allows for more reflective scenes.
- Use the right words in the right places to increase or decrease pace.
- Lengthen or shorten paragraphs to increase or decrease pace.
- Lengthen or Shorten Chapters increase or decrease pace.
- Use dialogue increase or decrease pace.
- Jump scenes to spee3d things up.
- Use more description and detail to slow things down.
- Use emotions and inner dialogue with your main characters to slow the pace.
Next week: How many storylines can a novel have?