When you are able to control the pace of your story, you’ve mastered one of the more important skills in writing. Use pacing to set up key moments, ratchet up the intensity, and improve your storytelling.
Pacing in writing refers to the rate at which your story progresses. Your job as a writer – in fiction or nonfiction – is to move the story along and maintain your audience’s attention. It’s important not to go too fast, and you certainly don’t want to go so slow that you lose a reader’s interest. When you are able to control the pace of your story, you’ve mastered one of the more important skills in writing.
Keep the following lessons in mind when you write, and you’ll be an expert at pacing in no time.
1. Length controls speed
Terse sentences, snappy dialogue, and short scenes and chapters all contribute to a feeling of intensity and speed. This is one easy way to control your pacing. As your story nears the tense scenes, make it a point to condense everything. Limit the length of your scenes (a general word count might be 500-800 words), cut your scenes short at important moments, or even try switching back and forth between different characters’ points of view.
Fragments, spare sentences, and short paragraphs also quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia – sweep, lunge, crash, ram, scavenge, scatter – also add to a quick pace. Invest in suggestive verbs to enliven descriptions, propel action scenes, and build the suspense.
Words with harsh consonant sounds – like crash, claws, quake, kill, and nag – can push the story ahead. Words with unpleasant associations – like grunt, slither, hiss, venomous, slimy, wince, and slaver – can help ratchet up the speed. Energetic, active language is especially effective when building action scenes, increasing suspense, and setting up conflict and drama.
A fast pace means you trim every unnecessary word. Eliminate prepositional phrases where you don’t need them: “the walls of the cathedral” can be written as “the cathedral walls.” Finally, search your story for passive linking verbs and trade them in for active ones.
2. Vary the pacing in your story
As important as the high-tension, race-and-chase scenes are, it’s equally important to vary your pacing with slower, introspective scenes. Without the slow scenes, your characters and your readers won’t have a chance to catch their breaths or recognize the change when you enter the fast-paced action. Even the most exciting scenes lose their effectiveness if they aren’t balanced with moments of deliberate quiet.
3. Use details to slow things down
In a film, a director might play out a scene in slow motion to underscore the drama or importance of the event. One way you can achieve the same effect as a writer is to slow your writing down by piling on the details. Let’s say one of your characters is shot. This is an important moment in the story, and you want your readers to feel its impact. Take your time and describe every detail: the look on the gunman’s face as he fires, the recoil of the pistol, the flash of the barrel, the horror that chokes the victim, the collision of the bullet.
4. Use show and tell to your advantage
Although “showing” your audience the second-by-second details is key to engaging a reader and making him feel the tension, the best way to hurtle readers through a scene is to condense the action into “telling.” Perhaps you want to use that scene where your character is shot differently. You don’t want to linger on it: you want to do a quick fly by, shock your readers, and plunge them into the action after the incident. Instead of taking the time to describe every detail, you can thrust the gunshot upon your readers by telling them it happened and moving on to the next scene.
5. Manipulate sentence structure
One mark of an exceptional writer is the ability to control the ebb and flow of sentence structure. It’s the most subtle way to influence your pacing. The length of words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs all contribute to the pacing.
When it’s time to write the intense scenes, cut back on the beautiful, long-winded passages and give it to your reader straight. Short sentences and snappy nouns and verbs convey urgency: long, measured sentences offer moments of introspection and build-up.
To write like a professional, you must master the art of pacing. This is critical to the success of your book. Once you perfect this writing technique, you will improve your storytelling and leave your readers eager for more.
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