How to Pace a Novel

When writers talk about the pace of a novel, they are referring not just the ‘speed’ of the story, but also the tempo, since both these factors vary greatly throughout a novel.
The pace of a novel is dictated by the story, so thriller or action stories; for instance, tend to have more pace than romance stories or literary stories. Therefore it stands to reason that action has the effect of speeding up the narrative, while a lack of it gives the effect of slowing it down.
In reality, however, the actual speed of the narrative stays the same, but rather it’s the perception you create that speeds up or slows down the pace.
Why Stories Need Pace
The simple answer to this is variation. By varying the pace of the story, you keep things interesting for the reader and therefore you keep them turning the page.
Normally we refer to how fast or slow the story is when we think about pace, but pacing has more than one function.  It also allows the writer to transition quickly between scenes, to show the elapse of time, to allow the narrative to breathe and to inject tension, emotion and drama in the appropriate places. It also moves the story forward.
Pace is also important to ease back on the intensity of the writing and allow the reader to take stock. They can’t be expected to ride a rollercoaster from chapter 1 to chapter 30 without even so much a pause. Regardless of genre, the story needs to ebb and flow at a different pace at different times. It needs to give the reader the illusion that the narrative is speeding up or slowing down, depending upon what’s happening in any given scene.
How Do You Achieve Pace?
Although the pace is dictated by the story, if you plan your novel with plot, sub plots and key scenes, you should have a fairly good idea of the likely action and dramatic scenes and the more contemplative, softer scenes.
Wherever there is tension, conflict, action, emotion and reflection, pace plays an important role, because it helps the writer express these and shows the reader what they need to see.
The use of shorter scenes and shorter chapters gives the impression that things are moving along, however, the way writers manipulate the illusion of pace is by word choice.
The use of short, sharp words tends to speed up the narrative, as does quick fire dialogue, for instance. Take a look at this example of a faster paced scene:
John kicked hard against Tom, desperate.
Tom stumbled back; stunned for a moment, but then he snapped his arm out and connected with John’s jaw.
John reeled. Senses stung. His muscles tautened against the attack, as though to stave off the pain.
Tom jabbed again, harder.
John slumped to the floor; crumpled.
This is a typical action scene. It’s short, concise and the choice of words pushes it along. Verbs such as kicked, stumbled and snapped seem to speed up the narrative. Of course, it’s not just short and staccato words that help. Short, fragmented sentences also give this illusion.
Now compare this example to a more reflective scene, where the pace is much slower. If your character or the scene itself is reflective, then the narrative will mirror this, as will the reader.
John peered at Tom and mused, as though to anticipate his next move, though he didn’t expect to break through Tom’s concrete defences.
The colour in Tom’s expression changed; the anger that had overwhelmed him minutes ago had gone and now he seemed subdued in the face of what he’d seen on the TV monitor.
Compared to the pace of action scenes, lengthier descriptions and longer words slow the pace of this scene. It’s completely different from the first example. That’s because the choice of words forces the narrative to slow down. And of course, descriptive scenes ‘show’ more rather than action scenes, which tend to ‘tell’ in places, simply because of their brief and concise structure.
There’s nothing like drama to build up the tension and action. Tension in fiction is just like stretching an elastic band tight, then letting it slacken before tightening again. This also means the pace alters accordingly. Tighten the tension and you increase the pace and quicken the action.
Dialogue is also very useful for quickening or slowing the pace of a novel. Often in novels you might see several lines of dialogue with absolutely no description at all. This quickens the pace, for example:
You expect me to believe you,’ Tom said.
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth.’
‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
‘Well, you should...'
Without superfluous narrative, this dialogue speeds along. Now if you compare the same text with slower dialogue, you’ll see that longer words, snippets of description and carefully placed pauses to capture character reactions and emotions enable to the pace to slow down.
Tom’s expression deepened. ‘You expect me to believe you.'
‘I expect you to use common sense. I’m telling the truth,’ John said, his voice pitched.
Tom’s eyes narrowed, clouded by suspicion. ‘You don’t know what truth is, John.’
‘I know enough.’
‘Doesn’t mean I have to believe you, ‘cos I don’t,’ Tom said.
John straightened. ‘Yeah, well, you should...’
By comparison, the structure isn’t so quick fire and instead allows the reader to take in what is happening. The choice of words ensures an unhurried flow. The varying pace allows both narrative and dialogue to speed up and slow down depending on the action happening within the scene.
More descriptive detail within scenes gives the impression that the narrative is measured and doesn’t need to hurry. And longer scenes and chapters will also give the impression of slower narrative.
Pacing a novel is about making the most of your key scenes. Vary the length according to how active or reflective they are, so action  or dramatic scenes will quicken the pace, while more introspective scenes that slow things down for a momentary pause before cranking up the action again. Keep varying the narrative and dialogue until the story reaches its conclusion; the denouement.
No story is static. Therefore the pace of your novel will never be static. Always vary it to keep things moving, and interesting.

Next week: Mastering First Person POV


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