In writing, pacing refers to how fast or slow a story moves for the reader. When a story’s pacing works well, the reader probably won’t even notice. They’re able to navigate the story fluidly, without getting lost from one point to another or feeling rushed through a scene without being able to connect with it. Whether you’re writing fiction, news articles, essays, or poetry, pacing matters.
As a writer, sometimes you want your story to be fast-paced, and sometimes you want to slow things down. Slowing down your pacing at crucial points in your story can help build suspense, for example. You can manipulate your story’s pacing with the time you spend communicating an idea or describing a scene.
Generally speaking, longer, descriptive sentences tend to slow down your writing. Using passive voice is another way to slow things down since passive voice is indirect. Use active voice to speed things up. Dialogue and action can also speed up your writing. Beyond these factors, there are a number of other literary techniques that can help with your story’s pacing.
Vary your sentence length
Ever read a sentence so long that, by the end of it, you don’t even remember how the sentence started? Long, meandering sentences can confuse readers and make your writing unclear. Sometimes it’s a good idea to break up long sentences for clarity’s sake. On the other hand, long, meandering sentences can serve a purpose. For instance, if your writing goal is to slow down your reader to build suspense — in other words, maybe you want them to get a little lost — longer sentences can help build that suspense.
But for clarity’s sake, you should vary your longer sentences with shorter ones. This helps animate your writing and give it some dimension. It also helps to engage your reader and keep them interested.
Pacing is all about balance, and varying your sentence length is a simple way to strike that balance.
Show AND tell
“Show, don’t tell” is a classic rule of narrative writing. Telling the audience something happened isn’t nearly as effective as showing them how it happened. Describing a scene, feeling, or action allows the reader to experience it for themselves, rather than just hearing facts about it. For example:
- Tell: “I was nervous.”
- Show: “I tugged on my shirt and wondered if I had anything in my teeth.”
You can see how the second sentence is more relatable and also gives some context of what’s happening. It allows the reader to experience the nervousness you’re trying to convey. People understand feelings much better when they can experience them.
But sometimes you do simply need to tell the reader something is happening, and mixing up your “showing” and “telling” can help you manipulate the pacing of a scene. Show the reader a scene when that scene is interesting or necessary. Tell them about the scene when you want to quickly move over the less crucial or exciting parts. Sometimes you will need to simply state what’s happening directly, but for those moments when it’s important to connect with your audience or reader, “showing” is a way to build suspense, grab attention, and up the stakes of your story.
Start in the middle
The literary device in media res is Latin for “into the middle of things.” With “in media res,” you open the story in the middle of the action or plot and spend the rest of the story filling in the details. It’s a way to create immediate action in a story by allowing the reader to jump right into it. This will grab the reader’s attention from the start and is useful for fast-paced, action-filled stories.
Know the basic structure of a story
Every story is different, but by the very nature of storytelling, most of them will follow this basic 5-beat structure. Keep in mind, this is an incredibly simplified structure, but it helps to have a fundamental understanding of how stories are organized so you can move seamlessly from one beat to the next.
The introduction: A story typically starts by introducing the main character. An article starts with a nut graf (or a paragraph summarizing the who, what, when, where, and why of the story). Whatever the story you’re writing, the introduction hooks the reader and lets them know what’s going on.
The inciting incident. This is the first plot point of the story and usually happens around a quarter of the way through it. It’s an action or point that introduces the central conflict that will come.
The crisis: About halfway through your story, you should introduce the main conflict or crisis.
The climax: You begin to see the conflict or crisis played out. This is the main event, the part of the story in which a series of events will determine the final outcome.
The resolution: The conflict is resolved one way or another, and any loose threads in the story are tied up.
Again, this is a very simplified take — there are lots of ways to think about story structure — but you’ll find that most stories, articles, and essays follow these general beats. For the sake of pacing, it’s important to make sure you hit each of these beats in your own writing.
Read your writing out loud
In general, when you’re worried about the pacing of your story, it also helps to read your writing out loud. This will help you notice how long it takes you to get through your story, and pinpoint places to slow down or speed up your writing. Or, better yet, have another writer read through it and ask them for feedback.
Your style is your own. And some writers naturally gravitate towards short, quick sentences and others write longer, descriptive ones. There’s no right answer, just different styles. But these styles can be used selectively to build the mood you want to build in your writing. Don’t be afraid to follow your intuition about what’s best for you.