How to Control Your Pacing

I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing lately, as I’m in the process of editing a few of my own stories, which tend to be too slow in the beginning and too fast in the end. Fortunately I have a ton of experience speeding up or slowing down pacing when I edit my clients’ manuscripts. (And I wrote up a whole section about it in my book The Complete Guide to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.)

One important thing to keep in mind about pacing is that there’s no one “right” pace—each story and genre need something different. A crime thriller will usually have faster pacing than a character-driven literary novel; language-focused writers will usually create slower-paced stories than plot-focused writers. So when you’re revising your pacing, It’s about finding the right pace for your story.

At the same time, remember that stories generally build in tension, continually ramping up the conflict until it crests at the climax and falls at the resolution. While you’ll want some ebbs and flows in tension so the reader doesn’t get completely exhausted, the story shouldn’t feel resolved for too long without introducing another problem or further complicating the conflict.

A story’s pace is controlled by a number of factors but luckily, there are pretty much only two problems you can have with your pacing. A story can be too slow (which usually feels boring), too fast (which can produce a lot of anxiety), or a combination—too slow in some parts, too fast in others.

In either case, you’ll need to learn how to put the brakes on or apply the gas as needed to moderate your pacing.

Speeding Up Slow Pacing

If we feel the pacing is too slow, it’s usually either because a scene is too long, too wordy, or not enough is happening. The result is a sense that the story is dragging, and a lot of yawning on the part of the reader. When the pace feels slow, we will naturally start to skim or read ahead to find out “what happens.”

Let’s look at how to address each of the three main causes of slow pacing.

Too long. Sometimes the pace feels slow because your scene is simply too long. To remedy that, you might need to start the scene later, end it earlier, or cut slow transitions where not much is happening. Shorter sentences and more frequent paragraph or scene breaks can also help to break up a lengthy scene and make it feel like it’s moving faster.

Too wordy. The more words you use, the slower the pace. Long passages of description, excessive dialogue or inner monologue, info dumps, repetition, and filler words are often to blame. If you simply can’t bring yourself to cut excess words, you can also try breaking up long sentences or paragraphs to give the illusion of a quicker pace.

Nothing is happening. A lack of goals, conflict, or stakes can lead to the feeling that “nothing is happening” in a story. Has your character slipped into the bathtub to ruminate at length on an issue that she’s already mulled over a thousand times before? Have you used five pages to detail a long, boring traveling sequence that should’ve been summarized in a few sentences of transition? If your scene has scant conflict, and no change by the end of the scene, it may need to be rewritten or cut in order to improve your pacing.

Slowing Down Fast Pacing

On the other hand, if a story’s pace is too fast, an excess of action and dialogue are usually to blame, as well as short, choppy sentences, and a ceaseless maelstrom of conflict. In that case, you have the opposite problem: Your scenes are either too short, too shallow, or too much is happening.

Too short. Short sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters pick up the pace of a story, but can leave readers exhausted when overused. Mix it up, using longer sentences or paragraphs slow the pacing where needed. You can also lengthen action- and dialogue heavy scenes by adding brief spurts of description, inner monologue, or narrative summary.

Too shallow. An action-paced scene often skims over the deeper, more nuanced aspects of the story like theme, emotional depth, and character development. If your too-fast pace is the fault of a flat character, take a moment to let readers know what’s driving her with a few sentences of interiority or narrative summary. The more readers feel like they’re inside your protagonist’s mind and heart, the deeper and slower your scene will feel. Description can also help give depth to a shallow scene—all that action and dialogue isn’t taking place in a vacuum, and writing it that way can shift your story into turbo speed in no time at all.

Too much happening. If your protagonist is fighting off a centaur in a crowded marketplace, resolving a longstanding resentment with her brother who works at the tomato stand, looking for a choice hiding place for a trunk of buried treasure, wooing the delivery boy, and realizing the true nature of love and war all in the same scene, you might need to dial it back to control your pacing. Decide which storyline is the most important to highlight, and push all the others into the background or save them for another scene.

No breathers. If the protagonist never gets a chance to catch her breath, readers won’t either. Look for places where she can pause and reflect, like right after a problem is resolved or a new one is discovered, when new information is revealed, or as your character undergoes an important internal change in her motivation or perspective.

Hope this helps!