PACING in literature refers to the rate at which your story progresses. Your job as a nonfiction writer is to move the story along without losing your audience. It’s important not to go too fast, and you certainly don’t want to go so slow that you bore them to death. When you understand how to control the pace of your story, you’ve grasped one of the most important skills in writing. Keep the following in mind when you write, and you’ll be a master at story pacing in no time.
Short scenes and chapters, terse sentences, and snappy dialogue all contribute to a feeling of intensity and speed. This is probably the easiest way to control your pacing. As your story nears the tense scenes, make it a point to condense everything. Limit the length of your scenes to 500-800 words, cut your scenes short at important moments, and switch back and forth between points of view.
Fragments, sparse sentences, and short paragraphs quicken the pace. Crisp, punchy verbs, especially those with onomatopoeia (crash, lunge, sweep, scatter, ram, scavenge) also add to a quick pace. Invest in suggestive verbs to enliven descriptions, build action scenes, and milk the suspense.
Harsh consonant sounds such as those in words like claws, crash, kill, quake, and nag can push the reader ahead. Words with unpleasant associations can also ratchet up the speed: hiss, grunt, slither, smarmy, venomous, slaver, and wince. Energetic, active language is especially appropriate for building action scenes and suspense and for setting up drama and conflict.
A fast pace means you trim every sentence of unnecessary words. Eliminate prepositional phrases where you don’t need them: For example, “the walls of the cathedral” can be written as “the cathedral walls.” Finally, search your story for passive linking verbs and trade them in for active ones.
2. Vary Story Pacing
As important as the high-tension race-‘em-chase-‘em scenes are, it’s even more important to vary your pacing with slow, introspective scenes. Without the slow scenes, your characters and your readers won’t have a chance to catch their breaths. Even the most exciting scenes lose their intensity if they aren’t balanced with moments of deliberate quiet.
3. Pay Attention to Details to Build Momentum
In film, directors often show scenes in slow motion to indicate that something dramatic is happening or about to happen. One of the best ways writers can mimic this technique is to slow their own writing down by piling on the details. Let’s say one of your characters is shot. This is an important moment in the story, and you want the readers to feel its impact. You can do this when you take your time and describe every detail: the look on the gunman’s face as he fires, the recoil of the pistol, the flash of the barrel, the horror that chokes the victim, and finally the collision of the bullet.
4. Control Your Tell vs. Show Ratio
Although “showing” your audience the blow-by-blow details is key to engage the reader and make them feel the tension, sometimes the best way to hurtle them through a scene is to condense certain actions into “telling.” Perhaps you want to use that scene where your character is shot, but you don’t want to linger on it. You want to do a quick flyby, shock your readers, and plunge them into the action after the gunshot. Instead of taking the time to show the details, you can thrust the gunshot upon the reader simply by telling him/her that it happened.
5. Manipulate Sentence Structure
The mark of a professional writer is his ability to control the ebb and flow of his sentence structure. The most subtle way to influence your story pacing is through your sentence structure. The length of words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs all contribute to the pacing.
When it’s time to write the intense scenes, cut back on the beautiful, long-winded passages and give it to your reader straight. Short sentences and snappy nouns and verbs convey urgency, whereas long, measured sentences offer moments of introspection and build-up.
To write like a professional, you must master the art of story pacing. This is critical to the success of your book. Once you perfect this writing technique, you will leave your readers eager for more. It takes practice, but the payoff is worth it in the end.