At its simplest, pacing is the rate of activity or movement in a specified time. In other words, how much happens in one scene.
If a scene has a lot of action, like a character does eight different things in a few paragraphs, one could say that scene has a fast pace. If the character does only a few things, it might be called a slow-paced scene. This term is applicable to the entire book.
Recall my post on Details? Details and Pacing have an intimate relationship: the quantity of one can directly affect the other. A lot of details can slow pacing to a grinding halt. Trying to pack a lot of action into a scene by omitting details can create a fast pace.
Think of it this way. The relationship between Details and Pacing is akin to a pendulum’s movement.
First, let’s get on the same page about pendulums. The vertical axis represents potential energy. The horizontal axis it swings across represents speed. When the pendulum swings, you have variable potential energy vs. speed values. As the pendulum reaches its zenith on either end, it reaches points of maximum potential energy, zero speed (it stops so it can fall down again.)
At its lowest point, the pendulum reaches maximum speed and a moment of zero potential energy.
Applied to writing, the vertical axis can be thought of as details. The horizontal axis is pace. As the pendulum (the story) swings up, you increase details, but the pendulum slows down until, at the zenith of its swing, you have infinite details and no movement.
Like a ten-page chapter of nothing but narrative description.
As the pendulum swings across the pacing axis, it sheds details in favor of speed until at its nadir, you have maximum pace (action) that almost defies description.
Action happens so quickly, it seems sloppy and incoherent.
So it seems like that’s just the way it’s gotta be. Sacrifice one aspect in favor of the other at different points in your story.
Action scenes are usually heavy on verbs and lean on descriptions. Narrative scenes are usually the opposite. And for the most part, a solid story uses a mix of the two to varying degrees based on genre.
This is where you come in. When you’re writing your first draft, write it.
Then during your first (or nth) revision, find moments in your story to challenge the “action scenes are fast” and “narrative scenes are detailed” idea. But, you should have a solid idea of where and why and how much.
Don’t do it for the sake of adding details just to flesh out a scene. Manipulating pace, as with any other choice, should serve the character first, which will serve the story as a whole.
Let’s put our serious pants on.
Today, we’re going to change this awfully generic action scene:
I strode across the pavement1, grabbed her by the neck2, and stabbed her in the back six times.3
1. Purposeful movement. Good.
2. Always weird when I come across this phrase (is it also weird I read this a LOT?). Seems like it could be tightened.
3. Dayum! Not just one stab but six? That’s pretty specific.
Overall, if framed by narrative leading up to the event, this reads fast and that’s just fine.
But, does it need to read fast?
a. this is the Protag’s first murder?
b. the Protag has super powers?
c. the Protag has heightened awareness or senses?
d. the Protag has a different set of moral values or different way of thinking about such acts?
What if you have a scene that seems like it needs to be fast and detailed?
1. Sentence length. Short sentences read faster than long ones.
2. Commas. Readers pause a beat at commas, which would slow the pace. Purposely omitted commas can be awesome but leave a reader feeling breathless though so use with care.
3. Paragraph breaks. Many breaks can read fast. Few breaks, between large paragraphs, can read slow.
5. Rhythm and word length.
I strode across the market square. Past sagging, dusty awnings melting in the heat. Past wide-hipped women in flared cotton skirts. Past hustlers and bustlers, woven yellow baskets on their heads, bread tucked into the crooks of their bare brown arms.
She was there on the corner, eating a candy bar. Its wrapping glinted silver like a tiny mirror flashing, blinding me, but her silhouette was burned on my eye like a black shadow on the sun, dancing away. Her back to me. Bare heels to me.
I grabbed her neck with my left hand and turned her, embraced her. Oh, how the sun had warmed her skin and ripened the soapy smell of her neck! I breathed. She breathed. I stabbed.
The first stab was easy. Did I even –
The second stab was quick as yanking the knife out again for the third stab. The knife caught on something inside her. It grated a tremor through my palm, shook my wrist, my forearm, my shoulder; scratching, like spreading butter on burned toast. It made me clench my jaw, grind my back teeth until a bittersweetness coated my tongue.
I stared at the grease stain on the pavement behind her, shaped like a man.
Not a stain but a shadow. Not a man but a guard. Watching me stab the woman, knife going in and coming out slick as dipping a wick. Three more times because it was easy, then I let her go. I turned away from the guard and the woman and headed back the way I came.
If this was the first time he did this, perhaps I’d slow it down even more by adding more details – five senses! Action-reaction! World-build!
Conversely, if this is the third or eighth time, perhaps shrink it down to just one sentence like the original example.
But! If this was the moment in which something pivotal happened – remorse, regret, someone decides to stop him (finally!), etc – perhaps I’d slow it down again. Or keep it fast? What if he was just one character in a book with six POVs? Or what if he’s my only main character? What if this was in omniscient POV? What if this is supposed to be historical fiction? Narrative non-fiction? Romance?
There are countless choices to make, but remember that each choice must serve the story.
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