What the heck is pacing in a story?


Pacing is a topic I wish there was more information on.  It’s not just short sentences, though that’s a part of it. It controls the flow of the story.

Since we have a lot of streams in Virginia, picture a stream, or a river. 

Harper's Ferry blue Potomac River closeup riverside with colorful orange yellow foliage fall autumn by small village town in West Virginia, WV
This is the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  Study the picture to identify what’s telling you that this is a fast-moving (and dangerous!) river.

Image from IStock Photo.  Photo by:krblokhin

Trees crowd against the stream bank, their exposed roots like skeletal fingers.  Rocks washed from upstream are jammed against the stream bank.  Up ahead a giant oak groans and sways.  A snap and a crack and it falls into the stream with a huge crash.

That water is still flowing down to the Potomac River.  Where the stream narrows, it changes its pace to slow down.  Where the landscape’s slope is steeper, the water’s pace goes faster.  Then reaches that oak and the pace adjusts yet again to find its way around the tree.

And we hear the sound of the water.  Through the narrow area, where the water is slow, it trickles.  Or like my picture of the Shenandoah River above where it most fast, it can be a roar.

What does pacing include?

  • Controlling the timeline (which can be done through time markers or  light)
  • Character movement (I used to have a boss who entered any room with a slow, deliberate, control walk)
  • Cliffhangers at the end of chapters
  • Scene length (contrary to popular belief, there actually is a length for scenes)
  • Emotional highs at the end of paragraphs
  • How words sound

There are a lot of different ways to show pacing and probably more than what I listed.  Do you have any favorites you use regularly?

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More Reading

7 Tools for Pacing a Novel: I don’t normally read Writer’s Digest since their audience is people just starting a novel, but this a pretty good article.  I might have to add that book to my buy list.

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