A Writer’s Guide to Pacing Fiction

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It’s something many writers, especially those at the beginning of their career, don’t think a lot about—but make no mistake, good pacing is absolutely one of the most crucial elements in crafting a good story. It’s also, in my experience, one of the things that causes the most issues with publishers and literary agents. Bad pacing is less tangible than dislikable characters or a boring plot. So how to make sure your story unfolds at the right rate, with good meter? Read on for my top tips on pacing fiction.

Have a strategy for imparting information to the reader. There are some analytics involved in creative writing, and this is where a lot of the “math” in writing comes in.

You may want to use a plot “formula” or template, such as this one, which I’ve used before. At the very least, be aware of how quickly the plot is moving to ensure the action doesn’t start too soon or feel rushed. Watch for long stretches of low action, low tension and always actively give the reader a reason to keep reading, which hinges on attachment to characters and there always being an uncertainty—they need to want to know what happens.

Watch out for too much fluff and stuff that’s just “fun” but not important to the plot in some way.

This is really tough for me. I love my characters so much, I often have to force myself (agents and editors I’ve worked work have requested this multiple times when editing my work) to chop out many scenes of pure fun and relationship building. Don’t get me wrong—character and relationship development are extremely important, and even in a mostly serious or heavy book I think it’s crucial to include some joyful, humorous instances as a matter of drawing readers in and making them want to stick with the story. But it is absolutely possible to have way too much of a good thing. If overdone, these scenes can slow down a story and bore the reader. As a rule…

Balance plot and character focused scenes.

This won’t entirely guard against bad pacing, but it certainly helps as far as making sure the plot isn’t moving slowly while ensuring that the characters aren’t neglected in favor of pure action built around one-dimensional protagonists. The exact ratio of the two types will vary by the story, and whether it is more plot or character-centric. Either way, if you have a few scenes mostly focused on people, relationships, and conversation, readers may be hungry for movement and excitement. After lots of action and questions answered, they may want to get the more emotional side to an event and see the characters’ reactions, or simply enjoy a slower paced scene that reminds them why they care about the characters. Pacing is all about proportion and balance.

If you’re wondering if your story drags or a certain part messes up the pacing, it probably does.

This is incredibly important. In general, stay self-aware as a writer. No matter how good you are, you are naturally inclined to care more about your writing and find your characters more compelling than your readers do. This is true, I imagine, even of famous authors with legions of fans. You know your characters best, and spend the most time with them. They’re a part of you, and it’s highly likely the plot you created is built on things that interest you. You need to understand that in order to fully engage readers, your story needs to be better than the rough ideas and charming characters that initially engage you. In a sense, your readers must be won over. They need to grow in love with your characters and get wrapped up in the story as it moves. This is reliant on good pacing, and if even you find the story slow or boring, readers absolutely will.

Not too fast!

A rushed story in which the action ends too fast is as bad as one that starts too slow. Too much exposition or too much resolution is bad. Again, all about proportion. Until very close to the end of the story, there should be at least a couple of unanswered questions in the reader’s mind. Stagnant writing gets old quick. Scenes without action, whether it’s hard action or just drama between characters, will feel stagnant unless there’s something dark or mysterious waiting in the wings. Not going too fast, especially early in the story, also necessitates avoiding infodumping or rushing through the exposition. Don’t give all the information on any given character or set forth every main plot point in one scene. On average, in my opinion stemming from lots of reading of well-crafted and well-received books, exposition should account for the first 15-25% of the story.

Be aware of the role “mood” plays in pacing.

This is something a lot of people don’t think about as far as how a story moves, but a dry, melancholy literary novel of average length is likely far more prone to moving too slowly than, say, a long but action filled, fantastical story such as the Harry Potter books. This doesn’t mean you need fantasy or adventure to make a book great, but you do have to know what to rely on to pace your writing well. A gloomy, melancholic romance is going to feel slower than a shocking horror novel. Be aware of that, and balance your book’s mood with moments of surprising changes in mood, pace, or intensity.

If you’re funny, use humor to your advantage.

Only if you’re funny, and self-aware. It won’t land if it feels forced or is just stupid in a not humorous way (really, are you actually funny?). But funny bits, especially in heavier stories, can give your writing a spark and hold the reader’s attention. It can make slower portions of the story feel quicker.

In some cases, you can make the story drag on purpose to evoke a certain feeling or increase tension. But situations in which this works are pretty rare, and the slow-moving section should be both calculated and relatively short.

The best example of this, in my opinion, is a particular stretch of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The protagonist is stuck at school alone over the winter break, out of money and suffering in dangerously poor living conditions. This section of the book is depressing, and leaves the reader desperate for it to end. However, it isn’t quite boredom I felt in reading it, but the character’s depression and ennui. It’s a slow part, but an emotionally rich one, and in this way succeeds in moving the book forward and holding the reader’s attention. It doesn’t hurt that Donna Tartt is a brilliant writer and the language itself sustains the book. It also increases the impact of the chapter’s ending. Lots of tension building.

TLDR: Not too fast, not too slow. Do the math. Leave your readers constantly wondering, and above all, keep tension high. 😬