Use Writing Style to Control Your Story's Pace
By C-A-Harland and illuminara
Last time, we talked about the big things that affect the pace of your story, but now we’re going to focus on some of the smaller details the control the pace of your narrative in a bigger way than you might realize. Everything from sentence structure to dialogue influence pace on a micro level, so they’re important to consider while you’re crafting prose. This is because your writing style is the lens through with your readers experience the story. It’s the user interface design of storytelling, and you don’t want to turn people off to a great story because of bad design--instead, you want it draw them in and make their experience all the more pleasant.
Here are some ways to use the narrative elements of your writing to both speed up the pace of your story as well as to slow it down. Just to be clear, fast past is not always better than slow pace or vice versa. Good stories need both at the right moments. The following is a list of tools to help you achieve a well balanced pace in your story.
Use short, simple sentence to speed up the pace of your story
Use long, complex sentences to slow the pace of your story
Sentence length is an important tool that will help you to control the pace of a scene or sequence. By manipulating the length of your sentences, you can control the speed at which your reader processes events in your scene, which in turn influences how that scene plays out in their heads.
Compare these examples:
-He lost his footing and tumbled, ungracefully, toward the hard tiles.
-He fell hard.
The same action is completed in these two sentences, but the second has a much quicker pace than the first. This is not just because fewer descriptions were used, but because the reader is able to process the second sentence almost instantaneously, as opposed to building up the description of the action as they go.
Short sentences are used to convey time and events moving quickly. They are most often seen in high action and high-tension scenes where events tend to happen in rapid succession. Because your mind reads several words at once, a short sentence can be processed almost immediately, allowing you to move on to the next action. This is like a film played on high speed, where each sentence is a frame. “He fell hard” conjures an instant image of not only falling, but also landing, and feeling pain, all in one frame.
When you use a long sentence with many parts, you are forced to process this in segments, or multiple frames. “He lost his footing” is the first frame, and you picture the character slipping or tilting. “Tumbling, ungracefully” shows him now falling, perhaps with some ungainly flailing.
“Toward the hard tiles” gives us a description of the environment and an anticipation of what’s to come; however, the character hasn’t actually struck ground yet. This statement could even be followed with a second sentence to show the impact such as, “He hit the floor, and his head cracked against stone.”
Short sentences provide your readers with an instant mental image. You can then follow this with another image, and another, creating a fast paced sequence. This is great when you want high impact and lots of excitement. But be wary of having too many short sentences in a row because they can quickly become repetitive and exhaust the reader.
Longer sentences build anticipation. This is like a slow motion scene in an action movie used to highlight a specific moment of great importance by lingering on one crucial event and drawing it out in great detail. The reader is forced through each agonizing moment until the final conclusion. But would you watch an entire film in slow motion? Of course not. Be sure to break up those slow patches with a few quick bursts to keep the reader engaged and keep the events moving forward.
Action and Description
Action (characters doing things) speeds up your story’s pace
Description and reflection slow the pace of your story
Events that quickly follow one after another can create a fast paced scene. In general, the more action you include, the faster the pace will feel. The opposite of this is a lot of description. Long sequences that describe scenes are like slow panoramic shots that hover on a single image for several seconds. They can be great for setting the scene, but they also dramatically slow the pace of events.
Character reflection or narration has a similar effect. Rather than describing the environment, we are showing the character’s feelings or thought processes. For more information on balancing action with reflection, check out our previous article: Are We There Yet - Pacing and Character Arc.
There are times when action can start to slow the pace of your scene. This is particularly true in long-winded fight scenes or conversations that appear to drag on for pages and pages with no real changes. By changes, we mean an alteration in the direction of the story or a character’s frame of mind, or the revelation of new information.
If your hero and villain are locked in a to-the-death battle where they are evenly matched, you’re going to end up with a stalemate that could drag on for the rest of the day. No one wants to read an endless trading of blows where no one gets anywhere. In this instance, you can summarize the action in a simple statement, such as, “The fight continued, neither gaining on the other.” This statement allows the reader to quickly process what it happening, and then move on to the next important bit. Not that we’re advising you sum up all the juicy action with a brush-stroke of narration, but it can be as useful tool to help you easily move on from potentially boring parts.
Condensed, punchy dialogue will speed up the pace of your story
Long-winded dialogue, speeches, and explanations will slow the pace of your story
Likewise, short dialogue tags speed up your story (or at least keep it at a steady pace) while long dialogue tags slow it down
In general, dialogue works the same ways as action when it comes to the pace of your story. If you want a conversation to transpire quickly, use short, tight dialogue that forgoes introductions and farewells. Jump into the conversation just in time for the juicy parts and exit before it gets boring. It should go without saying that you should avoid using dialogue as way to dump information about your story onto your readers. That breaks the suspension of disbelief, can get boring fast, clunks up the flow of your story, and honestly, that’s what narration is for.
On the other hand, sometimes you want your characters to have reflective moments together. It’s OK to let your characters talk out their feelings a bit in situations like this--provide it’s adding to the story by revealing something about the characters or showing their reactions to a big event or is part of a sequence leading them to action. If the dialogue isn’t advancing the story, it will slow it down no matter how punchy or well written it is.
Using scene jumps instead of narration to cover transitions will speed up your story
Glossing over large chunks of inactivity will speed up your story
Repetitive description or action will slow the pace of your story
Info dumps (throwing a lot of information at your readers all at once) will slow the pace of your story
Transitions can be a head scratcher, and sometimes you’ll find yourself using lengthy narration to get from one point in your story to the next. This slows things down. Stories are a collection of scenes and moments, and it’s perfectly acceptable to cut between them just like they do in the movies--provided you clue your readers in well enough so they’re not confused by sudden scene changes. An effective way to do this is with a technique called telegraphing where you mention or allude to the next scene in the scene directly proceeding it.
Repetition is the ultimate pace-killer. As soon as the reader feels that they are doing the same thing again (endlessly trading blows), or seeing the same thing again (multiple panoramic shots), or thinking the same thing again (reflecting on the same issues), they will start to get bored. Sometimes it is important to show something multiple times to remind the reader of an important detail or to build a motif, but the key to ensuring this does not slow your pace is to bring show it in a new light, from a different angle, or reveal more about it each time.
Perhaps we are seeing the same panoramic shot of a hillside again, but because we now have new information, we know that those are not daisies in the grass but rather a field of crosses. By revealing new information, we ensure the reader’s perception of the repeating detail is constantly changing, meaning it will not feel repetitive to them.
Info dumping is when you write large chunks of information into your story such as character backstory, political history, or explanation of plot events--basically anything that drags all forward momentum to a halt so you can explain something not obvious from the current thing happening in your story. This always slows the pace of your story, and you should try to avoid it at all costs.
If you have to stop and explain, you’re probably not telling the story as effectively as you could be. It’s a good idea to stop writing at this point and think of a ways you could include this information more subtly without stopping the flow of action to shove information at your readers. Yes, some information is necessary so your readers aren’t confused, but give them some credit. They’re smarter than we think most of the time. Always err on the side of too little information and find a friend or beta reader to tell you if you’re providing enough information or if they’re genuinely confused.
After all, the preeminent purpose of any communication is to convey an idea clearly that can be easily and immediately understood, but too much explanation can come across as condescending and become a turnoff to your readers. And we readers want to feel intelligent!
Pacing is always going to be a tricky beast, and at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer. Your target audience, genre, and personal style are all important things to take into account. The techniques outlined above are designed to give you tools to better identify and control pacing issues with your story, but don’t forget to trust your instincts as well. If you’re ever unsure about how your pace comes across, the best thing you can do is ask a beta reader to evaluate it for you. Other people are your best asset when it comes to finding and fixing the holes in your work.
Now that you know a little more about how to identify and use pacing tools, let’s put that skill into practice.
Take a scene or piece of writing that you’ve done previously (this can be from an old project, or if you feel like it, you can write a new piece), and go through it with a colored pen or highlighter. Pick out the instances of fast pacing and slow pacing using some of the examples given above.
Analyze how you think the overall pacing of your scene works. Is it effective and engaging? Does it convey the necessary tone? Are there areas that could be sped up, or places that could benefit from slowing down?
Share your results by uploading them to the group folder here: October 2016 Workshops.