Novel Building Blocks: What is Pacing? - article

Novels follow rhythms. Some are slow and sensual. Others are rip-roaring reads. This underlying rhythm within the novel is called pacing. Chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and word choices all affect pacing. These choices determine how fast a book will be read and the rate the novel’s events occur.

Short punchy words speed up the pacing. Long sonorous words slow it down. Sentences are the same way. Short sentences speed things up. Long sentences that wander through complex descriptions and express varying emotions slow things down. This is also true for scenes and chapters.

It’s important that pacing is not monotonous. If you stay at a place of high tension and do not break this tension with some breathing room, you will lose your readers. Think about pacing like a rubber band. You stretch it out and then release it. Breathing room is created by sequels. The character needs to reflect and feel what is happening and then make new decisions.

These decisions launch the next action scene. Scenes are longer and sequels are shorter. The stretching of the rubber band takes time; the release is quick. At the climax of the story you stretch that rubber band to the point of breaking and then you release it one last time.

Chapters are units of pacing and need to be considered units of the whole. Each chapter must move the story forward. Pacing lags if there is no chapter goal. Be sure to understand the goal of each chapter to help develop appropriate pacing for your novel

One special scene employed by writers is the flashback. In terms of pacing, flashback really slows the pace of a novel. It’s ancillary to the direction of a novel. Use it sparingly. If you must include a flashback, make sure that it does not last too long. There is no set rule, but flashbacks are often more effective after the central conflict of a story is set in motion.

Long blocks of narrative stop the pace of a novel. You should visually inspect your writing for these long blocks. Inside the blocks, vary the sentence lengths. If you want your readers to reflect or to notice details, stretch out the sentences and the paragraphs. Also insert dialogue to break up the monotony of long narrative stretches. If you want readers not to notice something, try sentence fragments to speed things up. Also, let go of the adjectives and adverbs, and drive the story forward with nouns and verbs.

Pacing is only learned through practice. There are no rules. Pacing differs for every novel and every genre. Keep writing and revising, and your pacing will improve.

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  • Wow! Good points as I do my chapter outlines for my next novel.  I wonder if there is a way to mark the pace in my outline - maybe slow - reflective and slow-descriptive combined with fast-dialogue and fast- action.  This way I could mark how my book is being paced.  Might be worth a try. 

  • Very helpful.