The Importance of Pace

Just as a walking pace consists of the speed, the length of stride, and even the rhythm with which one walks, so in fiction pace consists of the speed with which a story moves, the amount of action, and the rhythm with which scene and summary follow one another.

Long paragraphs filled with long sentences eliminate most of the white space on a page and make the story’s pace slow down. Short sentences and short paragraphs create a lot of white space and make the story’s pace quicken.

For the writer, knowing how to pace a story is important because pace affects reader satisfaction.

If I took a four-hour walk on a flat, even surface and never once varied my pace, and somebody looked at a printout of my footsteps, that somebody would most likely go, “Ho. Hum. How boring.” That’s because the absence of variation makes the printout look all the same. There’s no place where I stopped. Or slowed. Or hurried. Or raced for my life. 

An unvaried pace in fiction is equally boring. Something must happen to the characters, and that something creates tension, and tension by itself increases the pace of the story. And after that tension (almost always depicted in a scene) comes a calmer, less tense summary/narrative. The back-and-forth between scene and summary helps vary the pace of a book — as long as the scenes contain conflict.

In my office I have 35 books dealing with writing skills. Only four of these books contain anything at all on pace or pacing, which leads me to believe that it’s a difficult skill to teach. One can’t teach pace without looking at a novel as a whole, from beginning to end, and that’s hard to do in a class or a book.

When I served as a judge for the Shamus Award a couple of years ago (see Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book), I was disappointed in the lack of tension in most of the novels submitted. Another way of saying this is that the pacing of the novels wasn’t varied enough: the footsteps plodded along without variation. Tension is a critical part of pacing. If there’s no tension (a strained state resulting from forces acting in opposition to one another), the pace most likely stays the same. And that is boring.

One of the oldest writing books on my shelf is Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald, copyright 1972. The writers talk about how all events in a plot must be causally connected. If the events are not causally connected, the novel loses continuity because some events have no bearing on the plot or the main character. They then go on to talk about pacing, as follows:

A novel can have continuity without pace because the author can add one continuous event after another and have a story that stands still. For example, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck could have prolonged the trek of the Joad family to California for another couple of hundred pages by continuing the chain of causally related events causing minor complications that hindered their progress. The result would have been lack of pace despite good continuity because the story would stand still and the reader would get bored. A novel will always lack pace when an author overwrites or rambles away from the plot or story line. One way to avoid this is to delete any event that doesn’t move a story forward.

Pacing is one of those things that, when working right, is hardly noticed. Readers are so focused on the characters and plot, and maybe the setting, that they aren’t conscious of the pace when that pace is good. But when the pacing is not good, readers notice right away. If the pace is too slow, they put the book down, or take forever to finish it (perhaps a kind of revenge on the slow pace of the book?).

Some editors rapidly flip through a manuscript before reading it, to judge whether the pacing is good. Pacing is different for different genres, there being no comparison between the pacing of a literary novel and that of a thriller. But the editors know that, and they’re looking for the right balance for a particular genre — in that rapid flipping through the manuscript, they’re judging paragraph length, amount of dialogue, chapter length, and any breaks in chapters. 

If as a writer you pay attention to the pace of your novels, then of necessity you will also be paying attention to other critical story elements such as scene and summary, dialogue and narrative — and paying attention to these elements will help you improve the way you tell your story.

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Barbara Gregorich discusses pace in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

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