Pacing is one of the more difficult elements of fiction because it is so subjective. A reader who loves rich description will enjoy a scene that lingers over the setting details, while another reader will complain that it’s slow and boring. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of pacing we can apply to our novels to broaden the appeal to more readers.
Pacing is proportional. If you spend lots of time on the important parts of your story, and less time on the least important parts, you’re off to a good start. This means analyzing your first draft to see whether you have, as I once did, characters sitting down for lengthy conversations about “what happened back home after we left,” and then rushing through the fight scenes.
☐ Pace is appropriate to the action and genre.
Lengthy conversations may be fine in a book where the focus is on relationships. But in most genres, you need to keep the action moving. This is one reason it’s important to read other books in your genre. You can’t write in the mode that’s appropriate to your genre if you’re not familiar with the conventions of the genre.
One of the main ways we have of controlling the pace is sentence structure. Short words and sentences create momentum. Long words and sentences feel like slow motion. It can be entirely appropriate to drop one of those slow-mo sentences into your fight scene to evoke that feeling—which really does happen—of time slowing down. If you’ve ever been in an auto accident, you may have experienced this effect. I don’t recommend using more than once in a scene, though, and it would need to be at the most pivotal moment.
Use long sentences when you want to slow the pace down, and short ones when you want to speed up. Paragraph length can also be manipulated somewhat to affect the pacing. I say somewhat because there are some paragraphing conventions in fiction that you ought not break. For example, each character’s action and dialog should be kept together in paragraphs so the reader doesn’t lose track of who’s doing and saying what. But in narrative you can vary paragraph lengths. A long, leisurely paragraph in the first scene after an action sequence, for example, gives the reader a breather.
Remember that your pacing, even in a thriller, need not be breakneck speed from start to finish. Like a roller coaster, your pacing should include slow uphill climbs when tension builds, speedy sections where everything goes downhill, stunning twists, and a satisfying glide to the finish.