5 Things Writers Should Know About Pacing

1. What is pacing?

From my experience with it:

For the overall story, it’s the rate at which things move along, and how much time it takes to get from A to B – where A and B are anything under the purview of narrative focus, including scenes, beliefs, ideas, and characters.

Within a small block of text, it’s the information density. A paragraph that takes 50 words to tell you that we’re in New York is much more slowly paced than one which takes five.

2. Okay, what is good pacing? (Small block of text edition) I’m sure you saw this coming, but it varies. Let’s consider a 50-word paragraph establishing that we’re in New York:

The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. Given the crowd, it was probably dangerous not to know—although outside was little better, with people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.

And then five words:

We were in New York.

The first example is worth reading because it adds something valuable to the story. Maybe the fast-paced life of NYC is a central theme and will later be contrasted with, say, turtles at Central Park. Maybe the dude behind the counter is a serial killer, or someone is going to choke and die on their bagel while running for a subway train. Either way, this paragraph isn’t here for no reason.

Likewise with the second instance. Being in New York is important enough to mention, but not important enough to wallow in. The description might come later and not include a landmark that will make it clear this is NYC, or the story isn’t about the city but rather something that happened to the narrators as a result of being there. If spending time describing something isn’t adding value, don’t.

(For the record, I’m fully aware of the difference between New York and New York City, but I live in Chicago and don’t care.)

3. What is good pacing? (Story edition)

Because it varies, it’s one of those questions that’s easier to answer by discussing what bad pacing is.

The easiest way I’ve found to identify that a story isn’t well-paced is when all the paragraphs are the same length. Imagine looking at wallpaper or carpeting. The parts that stand out aren’t the parts that blend into the pattern, but the bits that don’t: stains, tears, the massive spray-painted dick after those tequila shots you shouldn’t have let your friends talk you into.

You can also have bad pacing where a lot of time is being spent on stuff that isn’t important. The best litmus test of this is having other people read your story: I can’t imagine you put in 500 words about the ceiling in Grand Central because you don’t think it’s important. But it’s a good idea to get feedback after you’ve already fixed the obvious problems.

Put your story away for a week. Don’t look at it. Then come back and go through each scene, and ask yourself, what value does reading this add? What do I want the reader to walk away with?

(The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. Given the crowd, it was probably dangerous not to know—although outside was little better, with) Why am I in a bagel shop? Oh, it’s because I wrote this while hungry. I like it—and New York bagels—but it is not important. (people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.) Add some details about being pressed into five different briefcases while trying to not touch a sweaty handhold.

Above, I’m reshifting the focus of the scene because, during that week off, I decided I want traveling on public transit to be a major focus. It would be more useful to add a description of what that’s like. Could I keep the bagel part? Yes, but then I’m slowing the pace down overall with this unnecessary scene. Could I add a bit about how revolting the germs are? Sure, if I want to make it clear that my narrator is a germophobe, or otherwise reinforce a negative view of public transit. The scene is no longer about fast-paced life or crowds, it’s about the subway.

4. You didn’t mention the differences between action, dialogue, and description. Yeah, that’s the lovechild of #3 and #2. Again, consistency is bad on a large scale, so don’t write 50 pages of people doing things without including some sense of where they are—and what those things are—or 50 lines of dialogue without any body language or other plot progression.

It’s standard practice to use short, choppy sentences for action in order to create a sense of speed, and then longer sentences for description to slow things down. I argue that the relationship goes both ways: longer sentences typify description, while short sentences are expected to be action. Even Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ makes use of this convention.

Note that people doing things doesn’t equal action. The 50-word sentence is all descriptive, even though there’s a dude shouting and people swarming. In bold I’ve added an action. It’s passive structure, which makes it less ‘actiony’, and it’s another longer sentence in the middle of a paragraph that moves on, which is bad writing, but it’s still a blip in the scene. Foreground instead of background.

The man behind the counter shouted for people’s orders with full expectation that they knew which bagel they wanted. An indecisive man was asked to step aside; the crowd was getting restive. Outside was little better, with people swarming down the nearby steps to the subway. Just another Friday in New York.

Here, this action is part of the establishing shot, but unlike the old version, it’s showing a thing happening instead of describing the overall scene.

Zooming in on a specific person, or even a part of a person, is one way to force yourself away from pure description; zooming out pushes away from pure action. For instance in a fight scene, the background is the fight itself, along with where it’s staged and the people involved; the foreground would be the actual movements, and the thoughts flying through their minds. Think of the last thing you watched or comic you read. How do the shots (long, mid-range, closeup) vary within scenes?

To get away from pure dialogue, think outside the quotes. People don’t stand in one position or make one face the whole time. It’s been said that 55% of our communication is body language, another 38% is vocal tone, and only 7% are the actual words. This isn’t exactly true, but it does drive home the point that body language and vocal tones add a whole other layer to communication, and not having any is perceived as unnatural or stiff.

5. Chekov’s Gun. This is effectively what I’m saying in #s 2 and 3.

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