So what, exactly, is pacing?
Pacing is the rhythm of a novel and the speed at which the events unfold. It’s what propels the story forward and pulls the reader through each new scene. If the pace is too fast, characters seem shallow and the story lacks depth. The reader doesn’t connect on an emotional level, which leaves her feeling unsatisfied. If the pace is too slow, the story drags and the reader becomes bored.
The trick is knowing when to speed up and when to hold back. You need speed in the opening to engage your reader and, of course, at the climax. The rest of the story needs to move along at a fast enough pace to keep the reader turning pages, with breaks to pause and reflect and feel the emotion of the characters.
Here are some elements you can use to control the pace at which your story unfolds:
• Action – Action scenes increase the pace of your story. For maximum effect, use short- to medium-length sentences and a few sharp details rather than long, descriptive passages. You also want to limit character thoughts, which can make action scenes lose their momentum.
Blake rolled three times, grasped the shovel handle and sprang to his feet, the echo of the single shot reverberating in his ears. He had flown into action the instant Darren closed his eyes, hoping and praying that those brief moments of relaxed vigilance would give him the time he needed. It was a long shot, but he didn’t have anything to lose. He couldn’t allow Allison to be gunned down on the beach. And he wasn’t too crazy about that end for himself, either.
But Darren didn’t give him the time to implement his plan. The moment Blake was on his feet, Darren opened his eyes and jerked the gun around with a gasp. A good fifteen feet separated them, nowhere near close enough to strike. The pine that stood between them was way too small to shield him.
But before Darren could take a second shot, a low hum drifted to them across the water, the sound of an approaching power boat.
For a scene with high action, I did an awful lot of explaining. We don’t need to hear his entire thought process, how he’s hoping the relaxed vigilance will buy him time, what his chances are, what he doesn’t want to happen, etc. Under the circumstances, he’s not going to be stopping to think about all this anyway.
Here’s the revised version:
The instant Darren closed his eyes, Blake flew into action. He sprang sideways, crumpled to the ground and did three sloppy somersaults. Pain shot through his knee, the worst he had experienced in months.
But he couldn't focus on that now. He grasped the shovel handle and sprang to his feet. But his bad leg buckled, twisting as he tumbled sideways. The pain intensified, a raging fire that nothing would quench. Stars filled his vision and blackness encroached. Dear God, what have I done?
Darren opened his eyes and jerked the gun around. Only about seven feet separated them. But it may as well have been fifty. He would never be able to strike before Darren took his second shot.
Then the low hum of an approaching power boat drifted to them across the water.
In the revised version, he’s acting and feeling rather than thinking. The first passage is 165 words, and the second is 135. The second example is more streamlined, with crisper, more evocative writing and shorter sentences.
• Dialogue – Dialogue, if well written, speeds up the pace of a story. Good, strong dialogue advances the plot, reveals character, begins or heightens conflict or creates emotional impact. If it can accomplish two or three of these purposes, that’s even better. It also needs to be free of filler words, unnecessary adverbs, and long explanations.
Besides the words themselves, how much introspection and description is woven in helps to determine pace. In the following excerpt from Mistletoe Justice (December 2015), the heroine is at the park with her autistic son, and the hero has just approached her. The setting is peaceful and cozy, the scene somewhat relaxed, so I have bits of introspection and description woven throughout.
He sat next to her. “Thanks. How about you? Are you vacationing, or do you live here?”
“Neither. I grew up here, and my parents still live here. So Jayden and I come back and spend our weekends with them.” Maybe that was more than she should have told him. But he didn’t seem the stalker type. Jimmy Fuller could learn a thing or two from him.
“So which one is yours?”
She inclined her head toward the slide. Jayden was on his hands and knees in front of it, the momentum having toppled him forward.
“The one in the red shirt at the bottom of the slide.”
As she watched, another boy slid down and fell on top of him.
Conner cringed. “Is he all right?”
She stood and watched as the boy rolled to the side and Jayden pushed himself to his feet. He shook his hands, then patted them together, trying to get rid of the sand. The playground was mulched, but too many feet had scattered it.
“He’s all right. He’s a pretty tough little boy. Doesn’t cry much.” Doesn’t talk much, either.He approached her then, palms up, and after tucking her water bottle under her arm, she brushed off his hands. Sand bothered him. A lot of things bothered him.
When she was finished, he reached for her water bottle.
She shook her head. “What do you say?”
He stretched higher, and she repeated her question, still holding the bottle out of his reach.He dropped his arms. “Wawa, peas.”
She handed him the bottle and turned to Conner. “We need to go. Mom’s putting lunch on the table at one o’clock sharp.”
“Then you’d better not be late. Kyle and I will be here through tomorrow. Hopefully our paths will cross again.”
The smile he gave her made her stomach flip-flop. She was usually immune to charming men, no matter how good-looking. But seeing Conner play the father role had a completely unexpected effect on her. He had to be a pretty caring, unselfish guy to take on the responsibility of his sister’s kid. There were a lot of men out there who didn’t even take responsibility for their own. She knew that firsthand.The following scene, from Hidden Identity, is much more tense and thus moves at a faster pace. After the heroine’s prints come back as belonging to a dead person, the police officer hero is pressuring her to tell him why.She shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Did you commit a crime?” Not that she would tell him if she had. But maybe he would sense if she was lying. “Are you running from the law?”
It was just a single word. But the conviction behind it blasted holes in the suspicions he had had since the moment someone had branded her a killer.
“Then what are you running from?” Or more likely, who?
She shook her head again. “I can’t tell you. I can’t tell anyone.”
He leaned forward and lightly touched her jean-clad leg. “Tell me what you’re afraid of. I can help.”
“No.” She crossed her arms in front of her, as if chilled. “No one can help.”
“Meagan,” he began, then stopped. That wasn’t even her name. “You faked your death. You’re living under an alias. What kind of a cop would I be if I just accepted your claim that you’re not running from the law?”
“What are you saying?”
“I think you know what I’m saying. Give me one good reason to not haul you in.”
Her eyes widened, and fear flashed in their depths. “I’m not a killer. I’ve never committed any kind of crime. I’ve never even had a speeding ticket.” Her tone turned pleading. “Please believe me.”
“I don’t have that option. As an officer of the law, I can’t just let this go. Tell me what you’re running from.”
She shook her head again, so adamantly her hair bounced against her cheeks. “He’ll kill me.”
“I can’t tell you. If he ever finds out I’m alive, he’ll hunt me down. He won’t rest until I’m dead.”
This passage contains a small amount of introspection, but after the hero’s brief thought that Meagan wasn’t even her name, the dialogue is broken only by short actions.
• Narrative, introspection and description in appropriate doses – Introspection and description, especially, tend to slow the pace of a story, but these are also the elements that give it depth. If anyone says there’s not enough feeling in your story or it’s superficial, you need to slow down the pace and bring out the emotion. Keep in mind, though, that long blocks of any one thing, even if well-written, bring forward movement to a screeching halt. It’s best to break these into smaller chunks and intersperse them what with is happening at the time.
In Motive for Murder, after eight years of being gone, the heroine has come back to her childhood home, which has been ransacked, to deal with her sister’s suicide. She’s alone, so there’s no dialogue, but look at how description, narrative and introspection are woven in together, with action interspersed.
She moved further into the room. (action) A photo frame lay face down on the end table, (description) and she reached to stand it up. (action) Priscilla stared back at her, sending an unexpected jolt coursing all the way to her toes. (description)
Jessica drew in a steadying breath. (action) She had buried the past and moved forward with her life. And she had done well. (introspection) Then she got that phone call. And now she was back. (narrative) It was hard to keep the past buried when she was surrounded by it, memories dogging her at every turn, a blond-haired princess accusing her with those crystal blue eyes. (introspection)
She picked up the frame for a closer look. (action) Priscilla had grown up to be quite pretty. She had been a chubby-cheeked thirteen-year-old when Jessica left, with a lingering childishness and an angelic innocence that fooled ninety percent of the people she met. (introspection) The woman in the photo looked neither childish nor innocent. Though she wore a pleasant half smile, her features held hardness, hinting at a life that had knocked her around and the barriers that had gone up as a result. (description/introspection)
What had happened? What could be so bad that she believed she had nothing to live for? Why does anyone take her own life? (introspection)
She set the frame back on the table and kicked a pillow aside. (action) Two bedrooms waited for her down the hall, likely in the same shape as the other rooms. (narrative) She stopped at the first open doorway, and dread washed over her. No, this was much worse. (introspection)
It was her and Priscilla’s room, frozen in time—the twin beds and their whitewashed headboards, the chest with five drawers, three of which Prissy had always managed to claim, and the mismatched vanity, which Prissy took over from day one. (description) They had always had to share a room. And Jessica had hated every minute of it. (introspection)
• Scenes that move the story forward – Each scene should be well developed, serve a purpose and have a positive or negative (not neutral) outcome for one or more of the characters. Any scenes that don’t accomplish this should be cut and possibly the events summarized. Summaries work well when time passes but not much happens or when an action or event is repeated. Summarizing events tends to speed up the pace, but major turning points and events that cause characters to grow and change should always be played out on the page.
When I first submitted the proposal for Hidden Identity, which included three chapters and a detailed synopsis, the pace was too slow and there wasn’t enough of a sense of pressure building throughout the story. Here is a sketch of those first six scenes:
Scene 1 – Heroine, who has faked her death and is in hiding, witnesses a plane go down, rescues a senator and finds her face plastered on the news. (Note: The plane going down happens on page 3.)
Scene 2 – Hero goes to the gift store where heroine works. On the 6:00 news, the senator is interviewed and the heroine’s face is displayed. Heroine’s reaction tells the cop hero that she’s running from something.
Scene 3 – Heroine is at work alone when hero tries to get her to tell him what she’s running from. He also asks her for help on a mural for the youth room at church. (She’s an artist.)
Scene 4 – Hero discusses his concerns about the heroine with the heroine’s boss and gets info to run a background check.
Scene 5 – Heroine has a nightmare stemming from her experiences with the villain. She gets up and pulls out a picture of her mom and sister, the only one she has.
Scene 6 – Hero learns that information heroine gave her employer is false and goes to confront her. The senator comes to town looking for her to thank her, and she panics.
I won’t go into all the problems with this, but I can say the pace was much too slow for Love Inspired Suspense. Scene one had two pages of set-up before getting to the action of the plane crash. Scene two didn’t need to be played out on the page. The hero pressuring the heroine for the truth in scene three is important but that can be put into a scene where something else is happening to move the story forward. The same goes for the conversation with the heroine’s boss in scene four. In scene five, there’s lots of great backstory, but nothing really happens.
Here is how the first six scenes were reworked:
Scene 1 – Heroine witnesses the plane go down, but the roar of the engine is in the first sentence, and the reader knows by line four that something is wrong.
Scene 2 – Hero overhears someone tell heroine that a reporter was trying to get information about her. A storm is coming so hero gives heroine a ride home and someone is inside her house. In this scene, the reader learns that the hero has seen the story air several times, and that heroine’s face has been front and center each time. This is relayed in four sentences instead of devoting an entire scene to it.
Scene 3 – Heroine has the nightmare (a much condensed version), and when she gets up, she sees someone outside her window. When the police arrive, they find that someone painted “MURDERER” on the side of her house. She’s afraid her past has followed her.
Scene 4 – Hero goes by gift shop to talk to heroine, and someone has left a note that says, “You killed him. For this you will die.” Hero is waiting for the prints they lifted (scene 2) to come back, sure he’ll learn what the heroine is hiding.
Scene 5 – Heroine is on her bike and someone tries to hit her with their car.
Scene 6 – Hero has received a match on the prints—a woman who died three months earlier. Hero confronts her, and when he threatens to arrest her for falsifying information on her employment documents, she relents and tells him everything.
In the first version, there wasn’t enough present danger. The suspense essentially involved the heroine’s fear that her ex would find and kill her. In the revised version, someone is trying to kill her, but the heroine (and the reader) doesn’t know who. There is a sense of pressure building throughout, and each scene moves the plot forward.
• Backstory woven in in small pieces – By its very nature, backstory stops the forward movement of the current story. It’s like telling the reader, “Wait, you have to hear this other stuff before we can continue with the story.” The larger the backstory dump the more it stops the pace. On the other hand, a few sentences woven in as they pertain to the present enriches the story and deepens characterization. By the time the reader realizes you’ve digressed, you’re moving forward again.
In Out for Justice, the heroine, a homicide detective with the county sheriff is called to the scene of a murder. Here is the hero and heroine’s first encounter:
If she was lucky, Tommy Patterson was the other officer who’d responded. At least her chances were fifty-fifty.
She swung open the door and before she could step from the car, a dark-haired, muscular figure crossed the clearing with brisk, sure steps. Alan White. She frowned. Yep, fifty-fifty. She never had been good with odds.
“Hello, Alan.” She greeted him with the same stiffness that had characterized their interactions for the past six years.
“Lexi.” The stiffness was as pronounced on his end as hers.
We know the hero and heroine have a history and that something happened six years ago. Right now, that’s all we need to know. When the heroine learns that the victim is her cousin, she is afraid that she’ll be taken off the case and begs the hero to keep the relationship a secret. Another tidbit of their past is revealed in his thoughts:
She stared up at him with those pleading green eyes, tears pooled at their lower lashes, and all his arguments dissipated, drifting away on the rain-scented breeze. Somehow, being within ten feet of Lexi always turned his will to mush. He had never been able to deny her anything.
Even her freedom.
Later, a larger chunk of backstory is revealed, but I stopped at one paragraph, four sentences long:
But she had made her choice. Six years ago. Back then, he’d had hope in his heart, a ring in his pocket and a love that he’d thought would last for eternity. And she’d decided her future would be brighter with an up-and-coming medical school student than a small-town cop.
• Openings and other hooks – We know how important it is to grab a reader on page one, but we have to continue hooking them all the way to the end. Good hooks speed up the pace, because they keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next. Cliff hangers obviously do this, but hooks don’t have to be life-threatening. Oftentimes, the only threat is to the characters’ goals and ultimate happiness. In keeping the reader turning pages, it’s important to end scenes and especially chapters with some kind of a hook. At the end of a chapter is when the temptation to put down the book is strongest. Give readers a reason to say, “Just one more chapter.”
This is how I ended each of the first three chapters in Midnight Shadows. Each one leaves the reader with a question (I hope) that will make her want to turn the page.
Chapter 1 -
For three weeks he had avoided it.
Maybe it was time to face his demons. (Hopefully the reader will want to read further to find out what those demons are.)
Chapter 2 -
But first he had to know what he was up against. And that wouldn’t happen until he heard from Ron.
Which had better be soon.
Or one off-duty Memphis detective was going to lose his mind. (Hopefully the reader will be anxious to find out what the hero learns from his chief.)
Chapter 3 –
Lightning flashed in the distance, casting its eerie pulsating glow.
A fresh wave of terror crashed down on her.
Someone stood in the open doorway of her room. (This hook is life-threatening.)
• Word choice and sentence structure – The lengths of your sentences and paragraphs, as well as the words you choose, greatly affect pacing. Long, flowing sentences tend to slow the pace, and short, crisp sentences help to increase it. Anything that bores the reader kills pace, so search for any bland, vague or overly wordy sentences and rewrite or delete them. Clarity is important, too. If a reader is confused and has to reread a sentence to figure out what’s going on, it pulls her out of the story and the pace stops.
During edits, I try to weed out any instances of passive voice, make my verbs stronger and more descriptive, and eliminate any unnecessary adverbs. When I finish final edits, I go back through the manuscript one more time to see how much I can tighten and how many words I can cut. Besides the fact that I’m usually over my word limit and have no choice, the exercise never fails to make the writing stronger.
In the opening of Shattered Haven, there are a lot of short, crisp sentences, which help speed up the pace:
Allison Winchester lay stock still, every muscle tight with apprehension.
Something had awoken her. A noise. Different from the usual creaks and groans of the old Victorian.
But all was quiet. Was it her imagination? The remnants of a dream?
Oftentimes, scenes following tense, action-filled sequences will start at a slower pace to give the reader a bit of a breather. In Shattered Haven, after someone breaks into the heroine’s house and the hero is almost arrested for it, the second scene begins with the hero finishing his workout, which is a contrast to the fast pace of the prior scene.
Blake picked up a fifty pound dumbbell and took a seat. The only gym on Cedar Key, Cedar Cove Fitness was well-maintained and had everything he needed. And it was within walking distance of his boat. Of course, everything in Cedar Key was within walking distance of his boat.
A little later in the same scene, the hero comes in contact with the heroine, and the pace picks up with dialogue.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was coming over to introduce myself, but we’ve already met.” Sort of. He still didn’t know her name.
She laid the hose on the deck and wiped her hand on her shorts before extending it. “We’ve met but haven’t been formally introduced. Allison Winchester.”
“Blake Townsend.” Of course, she already knew that. “And this is Brinks.”
“Like the security company?”
“Yeah, except in his case it’s more tongue-in-cheek. He’ll lick you to death.”
She laughed and extended her arm, palm down. After a quick sniff, Brinks slid his nose under her hand and gave a couple of pushes, encouraging a pat on the head. She complied with some much-loved scratching behind the ears.
“Have they figured who broke into your house?”
You never want your story to drag. Even when taking a scene or section at a little slower pace to deepen emotion or reveal characterization, you still need to keep the reader engaged. Getting the pacing just right from scene to scene can feel like a delicate balancing act, but mastering each of these elements will help you take control of the speed of your story, grab your reader and hold her until the very end.
So what about you? Have you ever received one of those dreaded “problems with pacing” rejection letters? Do you find pacing to be a difficult concept to grasp? Are some of these elements easier for you than others?
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When Meagan Berry is caught on camera rescuing a senator, she knows her cover's been blown. After faking her death, she's spent months keeping her identity hidden from an abusive ex-fiancé. Now he's on her trail in remote Cedar Key, Florida. Officer Hunter Kingston knows Meagan's running from something, but he can't imagine anyone wishing harm on the pretty artist. Then an intruder breaks into Meagan's house, and Hunter promises not to leave her side. But when evidence from the crime scene doesn't add up, Hunter wonders whether he should trust Meagan. Yet he will have to put his faith in this mysterious beauty if they both want to live to see another day.
Carol J. Post writes fun and fast-paced inspirational romantic suspense and lives in sunshiny central Florida. She sings and plays the piano for her church and also enjoys sailing, hiking, camping—almost anything outdoors. Her daughters and grandkids live too far away for her liking, so she now pours all that nurturing into taking care of two fat and sassy cats and one highly spoiled dog.