Pacing: Good News and Bad

Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.

Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.

Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.

You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.

But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.

The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.

If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.

This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.

The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.

I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.

It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.

Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.