Writer’s Guide: How to Pace Your Story

There was a nervous energy rippling through the rows of people. Through the window, I could see the brilliant orange and purple sunset dripping below the horizon.

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment the airplane started moving, but I could tell we were picking up speed. With a lurch, we were off the ground – rattling and bouncing in our cramped seats. My body thought it was still at ground level, while my stomach seemed to know we were several hundred feet higher than that.

There was a crunching sound as our plane rose suddenly into the air and dropped.

The woman next to me  gasped. A child started bawling. The lights flicked on, and the stewards rushed to find their seats – yet, during the action all I could think about was:

This is exactly how you pace a story. 

What is Pace, and Why Should Writers Care?

The pacing of your prose will go a long way to keeping your readers hooked.

When our airplane evened out, a light flicked on above my seat. The Pilot’s voice – a pleasantly gravelly voice – crackled over the speakers in an easy drawl, “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. We’re lowering our altitude to avoid this pocket of turbulence.”

The Pilot told us we were flying at 500 miles per hour – yet, to me, it felt like we were hardly moving at all.

This is the mistake that many new writers make: everybody wants to write a gripping, fast-paced story, and many new writers believe that means faster-paced prose.

But when you’re always going at 500 mph, it doesn’t feel like you’re going very fast at all. It feels steady, predictable, and in the world of writing that means the death of reader interest.

To improve your pace, you have to keep changing your pace.

Change is interesting. Change is what keeps us reading. If we know we’re about to read 8 chapters in a row about fast-paced action, we’re much more likely to skip to the end.

How Can You Control Your Story’s Pace?

How to speed up your writing:

  • Write short, choppy sentences
  • Focus on telling and using the right verbs
  • Cut out descriptors and adverbs

How to slow down your writing:

  • Write long, descriptive sentences
  • Pull away from the action, and focus on the setting or the microactions
  • Show emotions, show motives, show everything

If you really want to slow down your writing for a climactic moment, try focusing on the single most important decision a character is about to make. Usually, that decision happens on the cusp of an action.

Zoom in on that decision. Explore the conflict of emotions and motives. When the action happens, gorge yourself on the details.

For example:

Her finger slipped against the trigger. She looked into her father’s face – there was fear in his eyes, but she could only see the red-faced monster who had dominated her through with the terrible threat of violence. For so many years, it was she who had been afraid of him.

Not. Anymore.

She squeezed. The gun bucked, and a shot rang out in the cold air. A single, hollow-point bullet leaped out of the barrel, and buried itself between her father’s eyes.

His mouth agape, he lifted a hand to the wound, as if to plug the deep, black hole with a shaking finger.

Blood burbled out of the hole, cutting a crimson path down the wrinkles of his face. He fell forward.

It was finished.

While the syntax might be choppy and quick in places, the pacing feels slower here because this stretches a single moment of time out into several paragraphs of drama.

Want to See How a Master Writer Paces his Story?

Stephen King’s The Shining is not only an amazing read, it’s a great example of pacing. Compare these two passages – one from the beginning, the other from the climax of The Shining (Beware: Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Beginning:

He rubbed his hand harshly across his lips and followed Watson into the boiler room. It was humid in here, but it was more than the humidity that brought the sick and slimy sweat onto his brow and stomach and legs. The remembering did that, it was a total thing that made that night two years ago seem like two hours ago. There was no lag. It brought the shame and revulsion back, the sense of having no worth at all, and that feeling always made him want to have a drink, and the wanting of a drink brought still blacker despair — would he ever have an hour, not a week or even a day, mind you, but just one waking hour when the craving for a drink wouldn’t surprise him like this?

Climax:

 (There were no voices. It was your imagination. It was the wind.)

“It wasn’t the wind.”

The sound of her own voice made her jump. But the deadly certainty in it made her go forward. The knife swung by her side, catching angles of light and throwing them on the silk wallpaper. Her slippers whispered against the carpet’s nap. Her nerves were singing like wires.

Can you feel how different they are? The first one is introspective in a soul-sucking kind of way. It’s almost philosophical.

The second one is pure action and reaction. You can almost smell the fear, and it’s hard to stop reading because the sentences keep coming at you.

Write Now: Write a sentence that changes your favorite character’s life. Write a scene that ends with that sentence, building up from a quick start to a slow, powerful finish.

Post your a comment or your scene below!

Related: 6 Books that Taught Me How to Write Better

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