Have you ever read a book that gripped you from the very start—and then slowly wound down into a quagmire of details?
That’s why pace is so important in literature. If your story advances too fast, the reader will feel rushed and disconnected from the characters; too slow, and the reader will fall asleep.
Hitting the sweet middle point that keeps the reader turning pages eagerly is precisely what we’ll learn to do in this article.
Definition of Pacing in Literature
In the words of author and fiction-writing expert Jessica Page Morrell (qtd. in Carpenter), “Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events. It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story.”
Think of the books that really stayed with you long after you finished reading them. I guarantee that the authors of those masterpieces thought carefully about their pacing and found ways to improve it during their revision process.
Because, yes, even the greatest authors (such as the ones quoted in this article) have to revise their novel drafts with a special eye for pacing.
And you can, too.
Examples of Pacing in Literature
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of keeping up the pace in your own novel, let’s look at examples from literature that’s already out there.
An Example of Slow Pace
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s landmark novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, follows the lives of four different characters whose worlds are upended during the Biafran War of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The novel begins with a slow pace, setting the scene in ways that might seem unnecessary at first. Take this slow-paced paragraph from one character’s perspective. He’s a new servant for an educated village man, and every little detail makes it into the book:
In the following weeks, the weeks where he examined every corner of the bungalow, when he discovered that a beehive was lodged on the cashew tree and that butterflies converged in the front yard when the sun was the brightest, he was just as careful in learning the rhythms of Master’s life. Every morning, he picked up the Daily Times and Renaissancethat the vendor dropped off at the door and folded them on the table next to Master’s tea and bread. He had the Opel washed before Master finished breakfast, and when Master came back from work and was taking a siesta, he dusted the car over again, before Master left for the tennis courts. (Ngozi Adichie 16)
Note the long sentences and the attention to the mundane rituals of Master’s day. This is a perfect example of sentence structure working together with content to create slow pace.
There’s something fascinating even in the plodding pace of this paragraph, but its power really shines in the second half of the book: The war shatters everything mundane, and readers think back on paragraphs like this one with something akin to nostalgia.
It’s a bold, skilled move to use with care. The best authors know exactly what they’re doing when they craft sections that allow readers to get comfortable with a soon-to-be-destroyed status quo.
An Example of Fast Pace
In a book titled The Scorpio Races, you’d expect a trove of fast-paced scenes. And in Maggie Stiefvater’s 2011 novel, that’s exactly what you get. Woven through with ancient myths and characters you can’t help but love, the book is a masterpiece in literary thrill.
This scene from the book’s climax, in which Dove (a regular horse) races against the mythical, violent capaill uisce water horses, illustrates fast pacing wonderfully:
It only takes a minute for Dove to be bitten and another few seconds for me to be cut by some razor-sharp edge that I don’t think can be horse teeth. I don’t have time to look at the wound or guess what has cut me. We’re trapped in a crush of bodies. Even over the rush of wind in my ears, I hear their squeals and roars, the clucks and growls as they fight. (Stiefvater 382)
The character’s present-tense narration helps keep the pace quick, but more than that, the sentences are shorter. They’re packed with action, too: in the first sentence alone, both Puck (the narrator) and her horse get bitten.
In the second sentence, we get a sense of the speed with which everything is happening. In the third and fourth, Stiefvater transports the reader to the sights and sounds and feeling of running in the frantic, loud, terrifying race.
When to Speed Up
Now that you know what slow and fast pacing look like, let’s turn to your own writing. First, let’s see when a good time to pick up the pace is. (Later, we’ll see how exactly you can create the effect of speeding up.)
There are three major instances when you should keep pacing moving quickly:
There’s nothing worse than a scene that’s supposed to be exciting, but…isn’t. If you’ve ever read a scene about a battle, a car chase, or something similar and felt bored by it, you know what I mean.
It’s likely that while the authors made sure the content itself was exciting, their actual writing kept the pace from keeping up with the content.
So now you know: fast pacing — not just exciting content — is a crucial element in any action scene.
When I was studying with author Tim Wynne-Jones at Vermont College of Fine Arts, he told me that the most exciting scene in your entire book should come at the climax.
It makes sense, really. The climax is the culmination of all the events, thoughts, and threads that came before. It’s the moment when your characters come face-to-face with their biggest obstacles. A climax should be intense, surprising, inevitable, and — yes — fast-paced.
No matter what happens toward the beginning or middle of your chapter, your pacing should pick up toward the end of each chapter. There should be a problem left unsolved, something to propel the reader to the next chapter without stopping to shut your book and get a drink of water.
So How Do You Keep a Story Moving Fast?
Now that you know the three most important spots to keep the pacing up in your fiction, you might be wondering: “How exactly do I accomplish a fast pace in my story?”
Don’t worry! We have tips. Lots of them.
Keep It Short
Kekla Magoon’s 2014 novel, How It Went Down, is an excellent example of how brevity influences fast pacing. Told via 200 vignettes from 18 narrators, the book examines gun violence in the United States — gun violence against people of color in particular.
The book begins in the moments after Black teenager Tariq Johnson dies by gunshot wound on an errand to the grocery store. It’s a subject that necessitates an urgent pacing throughout the novel, and Magoon pulls it off masterfully.
Here’s an example from a vignette at the beginning of the book, told from the viewpoint of a witness to the shooting. It’s an action scene, and it moves quickly:
I’m not sure I had time to blink. It was over in a minute. My brain coiled around the knowledge: The boy in the hoodie has been shot. The loud sound echoed in my ears, as did his final whimper. The soft clatter-crash of his fall. The sound — yes, the sound — of the look the shooter gave me. It had a voice, that look. Sharp and clear like a bell. (Magoon 4)
The excerpt is short, yet it conveys how fast the shooting happened and how deeply it impacted the witness. Magoon packs her sentences with details that make the scene come alive. Some of her sentences are even fragments, which further evoke a sense of the impossibly fast pace of the murder.
For your own action scenes, climaxes, and chapter endings, you’ll want to keep channel Kekla Magoon and keep it short to keep it fast-paced.
Magoon’s entire novel is a lesson in the power of short chapters or vignettes. Printz Honor-winning author Julie Berry’s novel, All the Truth That’s in Me, also takes an unusual but effective approach to chapters: Instead of standard chapters, she uses roman numerals to mark off short chapters. Each set of chapters is marked off by the title of a book: Book 1, Book 2, and so on through Book 4.
In the climax of her book, she uses the technique to switch effortlessly — and breathlessly — between an important flashback and her current, climactic situation. Her past-tense writing indicates the flashback, while the present tense marks the climax:
I climbed down from the tree and tiptoed across the clearing to where Lottie’s body lay. I crouched beside her and touched her neck. Her mouth was open, her tongue distended. She looked nothing like herself. If it weren’t for her dress, and what I’d seen before, I could almost wonder if it was her. I backed away. Then hands seized me from the back and wrapped themselves around my neck.
Goody reaches the top step and disappears through the door. Just an old widow, making afternoon prayers. It must be around half past two.
Something crashed into us like a boulder rolling downhill. I fell to the ground, crushed under the man’s weight and whatever had hit him. It was another man. (257)
Berry’s Roman-numeral chapters are longer in sections that require a slower pace, but here in the climax, they are short. This brevity keeps readers glued to the page, brains leaping back and forth over the flashback and the climax, desperate for answers.
This is exactly what you want readers to do with your fiction, too, especially in those three crucial areas where you need a fast pace.
Short chapters are a particularly wonderful tool during climactic scenes. Break the climax down into several short, tense chapters and watch your pacing pick right up!
The One-Sentence Chapter
In special cases, you can use a one-sentence chapter to pack the ultimate punch in your fiction. You should use this technique very sparingly, however, because a one-sentence chapter tends to lose its power if used more than one time in a novel.
Take the famously short chapter in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which reads: “My mother is a fish.”
That’s it. That’s the whole chapter.
Here’s what precedes it: A child, the character Vardaman, cannot understand the death of his mother, which happens earlier in the book. No one in his family will tell him why she’s shut up in a box, and he tries and tries to figure out what’s wrong with her.
Then, the family is crossing a river. The box with his mother inside floats into the water and Vardaman decides, “My mother is a fish.”
The one-sentence chapter, stated with such assuredness, is enough to break the reader’s heart.
On the Gilmore Girls book-fan blog, Reading Like Rory, writer Kaitlyn Hawkins says, “In 5 words Faulkner demonstrates Vardaman’s confusion with death and his eager longing to make sense of his mother’s situation….In 5 words Faulkner breaks your heart for a boy whose only wish is to reunite with his mother” (Hawkins).
If you can use a one-sentence chapter in a way that lingers with readers for a long, long time, then go for it!
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr has an unusual but enlightening reason he keeps his scenes (and chapters) short: “It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism’” (Doerr).
His prose is indeed rich, and the white space does help the eye take it all in more smoothly, but within that lyricism, there is also action — whether Doerr admits it or not.
Take this scene from his Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, about protagonist Werner’s friend Frederick. Both boys are studying at the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, but they’re not faring equally well:
Three times in nine days, Frederick is chosen as the weakest in field exercises….Each time he is caught; each time he is drubbed while Bastian looks on; each time Werner does nothing to stop it. Frederick lasts seven blows before falling. Then six. Then three. He never cries out and never asks to leave, and this in particular seems to make the commandant quake with homicidal frustration. Frederick’s dreaminess, his otherness—it’s on him like a scent, and everyone can smell it. (Doerr 238)
It’s a short scene, but it’s powerful. Within Doerr’s lyrical prose, readers ache for gentle Frederick. We feel angry with Werner for doing nothing, yet we wonder if we would’ve been courageous enough to act differently in his place.
This short scene provokes complex thought. Here’s how you can craft short, sharp scenes:
- Include imagery that, in addition to reading beautifully, propels the story forward.
- Once you’ve drafted a scene, read it to yourself and remove any sentences that don’t contribute to the forward motion or point to a deeper truth hidden beneath the prose.
Reading through a huge block of text is like having someone talk at you for hours and hours without giving you space to breath (or reply). Don’t do that to your readers! While you want to vary the length of your paragraphs, it’s a good idea to keep them on the short side so that your readers can breathe and absorb the words you’ve written.
This example from Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me, kept in its original form, is a prime example of the power of short paragraphs:
Smoke eats a hole in the dark sky.
Darrel lies maimed before me.
Your father is dead.
The homelanders are extinct, their bodies flying up to the stars. I won’t have to see this thing that I have done.
Survivors search with lighted branches for the injured and the dead.
The river churns and swirls over ink-black stones, singing its endless song.
And we are both alive this night, you, and I. (72)
Readers don’t just have time to absorb this paragraph; because it comes after one of the tensest early scenes in the novel, they blow through it.
Berry intentionally crafts her paragraphs to be read by breathless, hungry readers, and every reader who sees these lines will turn the page quickly to find out what happens next.
In your novel, keep paragraphs during climaxes, chapter endings, and action scenes shorter. This will make sure that your pacing clips along nicely, keeping your reader pinned to the page and eager for more of your story.
I love fragments. Too much, maybe. It’s easy for me to overuse them in my fiction, but used sparingly, they make a point like no other sentence structure can.
In How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon uses fragments perfectly. Tyrell, best friend of murdered Tariq, is collecting cans from a white neighbor to sell back to the city. In the background, he hears the sound of a refrigerator door opening.
“Oh, sorry,” I tell [my neighbor]. “I didn’t mean to bother you while you had company.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, his voice growing tense. A shadow moves across the hallway behind him. My eye goes to it automatically. I see a face that I’ve seen every day on television. A face that now looms in my nightmares. (262)
That last sentence, a fragment, wouldn’t make sense on its own. But coming where it does, readers infer that Tyrell has just spotted the very man who shot his best friend, Tariq. Magoon doesn’t even have to say it; we just know, and we are horrified that he’s been hiding out at the neighbor’s house.
The fragment, which comes at the end of a chapter, speeds the narrative right up. We will immediately turn to the next chapter to find out what happens next.
When you use fragments, make sure they do the same for your story!
Rapid Dialog Exchange
Another way to keep your chapter endings, action scenes, and climaxes quick-paced is to make your characters exchange dialog rapidly. Don’t linger on mannerisms or movements here; you just want the dialog and just enough extra to let readers know who’s speaking.
A late scene in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun shows housemen Harrison and Ugwu sitting outside together toward the starving, bitter end of the Biafran War.
Remember easily charmed, puppy-like Ugwu from the beginning of the book? He’s gone now, and the dialog makes that clear:
One afternoon, Harrison came up to the flame tree carrying the radio turned up high to Radio Biafra.
“Please turn that thing off,” Ugwu said. He was watching some little boys playing on the nearby patch of grass. “I want to hear the birds.”
“There are no birds singing,” Harrison said.
“Turn it off.”
“His Excellency is about to give a speech.”
“Turn it off or carry it away.
“You don’t want to hear His Excellency?”
Harrison was watching him. “It will be a great speech.”
“There is no such thing as greatness,” Ugwu said. (500)
The Ugwu of Ngozi Adichie’s early chapters believed in greatness, but that belief has vanished under the atrocities of war. Note, also, how the back-and-forth dialog builds tension, burning low at the beginning and ending with the quiet eruption that Ugwu no longer believes in something he once held dear.
Though Ngozi Adichie never says, “Ugwu got more and more frustrated,” you can hear the frustration in his voice in this dialog exchange.
Rapid Action Scenes
Another way to keep your action scenes fast-paced is to leave out everything that doesn’t pertain to the action in question. Jump from sequence to sequence with barely a breath in between, like Maggie Stiefvater does in The Scorpio Races’ action-scene climax.
She switches quickly between Puck and Sean’s viewpoint narratives, each narrative bursting with action. It’s the same race, but the two characters have two different sets of stakes at hand. Because of this, readers are almost living through two action-packed, terrifying climaxes at once.
Here’s a snippet from Sean’s point of view:
I am holding Corr, but I am holding nothing. Somewhere, there is a high, clear scream, and then I’m falling. In the moment between Corr’s back and the surf, I think first of the dozens of horses behind us and then of my father’s death. (Stiefvater 389)
A few paragraphs later, we skip to Puck’s viewpoint, as she realizes she’s just won The Scorpio Races:
They’re shouting my name and Dove’s. I think I hear Finn among them, but maybe I imagine it. And still there are the water horses at the end of the race, milling and rearing and twisting. But I don’t see Sean….My hands won’t stop shaking; I have a terrible feeling inside me. (390-31)
By moving back and forth between these two viewpoints and making sure each sentence shows us how important and high-staked each moment is, Stiefvater keeps the pace plowing forward.
That’s exactly what readers want in a climactic scene!
Active Voice and Aggressive Verbs
Every fiction writer knows how important it is to keep your narrative voice active. We all get impatient with sentences like, “A crate of jewels was stolen out of a 1980 Toyota Camry.” We all, instead, want to know WHO stole the crate of jewels out of such an unassuming car.
Think of your writing in the same way: We want to know who did what, not what was done to who. And we want to know it with verbs that jump out and grab us by the wrist and sweep us into the moment.
During a critique group I did in my MFA program, one of my friends told me to use snappier verbs in my main action scene at the beginning of the book.
The original read, “I force myself to take a gasping breath before diving underwater. I scratch the riverbed’s pebbles and silt and force my eyes open, but all I see is mud. The river pulls my legs and arms.”
The revised version says, “I have to force myself to take a gasping breath before diving underwater. I claw the riverbed’s pebbles and silt and push my eyes open, but all I see is mud. The river twists my arms and shoves my legs.”
The original has a few aggressive verbs and a few dull ones, but the second? All aggressive, and the pacing moves more quickly, more desperately, because of it.
I have kept my friend’s advice tucked away in my mind ever since she helped me with that revision!
The number-one thing that slows down fictional stories is a lack of action. If nothing is happening, your reader will get bored and return your book to the library.
You must make sure that you’re putting your characters through every problem possible as they’re striving to reach their goal. And just as they’re solving one problem, spring them with another. Make it seem utterly impossible for them to get out of their terrible situation.
Tom McNeal does an excellent job of this in his novel, Far Far Away when a jolly baker, Sten Blix, kidnaps protagonist Jeremy Johnson Johnson and his friends, and nothing Jeremy does to try to free himself works.
In one scene, he attempts to write a code-riddled letter to his father, and as the baker is collecting the letters and cutting the captives’ food, Jeremy makes a bold move: “Jeremy shot his arm through the bars and grabbed at the knife! I was completely surprised by his action—but the baker was not. He snatched the knife back, and Jeremy’s hand closed … not around the handle but around the blade” (McNeal 296).
This action sparks a glimmer of hope that is quickly blotted out. But, readers think, there is still the coded letter. Jeremy’s father will receive it and know that the kids are in “Sten’s basement” (297).
In the next moment, however, that hope disappears. The baker tells Jeremy he knows the knife ploy was a mere distraction. When Ginger asks what it was distracting him from, the baker responds chillingly:
The baker’s cold eyes turned to [Ginger]. Then, very slowly, he reached down to the cart and retrieved Jeremy’s note to his father. “From this, my dear girl.”
He unfolded the note and, with a pencil, drew a long loop that encircled the first letter of each line. He then held the note up for Ginger to see. (297)
The circled letters form Jeremy’s desperate “Sten’s basement” phrase. Readers, now infuriated at the baker, feel little hope.
Later in the story, when the baker poisons the children’s food and Jacob Grimm, the ghostly narrator, warns Jeremy not to eat it, Jeremy and his companions are too hungry to care. They inhale the poisoned porridge, Jacob watching helplessly as they traverse the path to death.
How will Jeremy and Ginger escape this situation and get back on track to achieving their goals in the story?
You’ll have to read the book to find out. And trust me, you won’t be able to turn the pages quickly enough.
Ignore Non-Relevant Details
We may regard Charles Dickens as a great literary icon, but he was also an extremely wordy writer. David Copperfield runs longest at 358,000 words. By comparison, most novels run somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words, depending on genre.
Dickens includes every possible detail in his books. Not only does he stuff the narration with details; the dialog is lines and lines and lines of details, too!
Writing coach Lisa Cron explains it well when she writes, “The real goal of sensory details isn’t simply to let us know what it looked like or how it felt, physically. The goal is to choose the sensory details that give us insight into the story itself, so we experience it emotionally” (Cron).
So, leave out the details that add to the scene but not to the story. Show how something tasted…if you can do it in a way that reveals character or provokes an emotional response in the reader.
Instead of randomly describing the barn your character sees when she’s driving to school, tie the barn into the problem she’s struggling through. Make its chipping red paint reflect her weariness, its sag speak about how crushed she feels. Make every detail work for your story and show the reader why you’re telling it.
In general, ignore details about what people are wearing. What the weather feels like. How quickly the cornfields outside are growing. (Unless, of course, you can make those details matter.)
Instead, especially for end-of-chapter, action, and climax scenes, focus on…
Physical Details that Radiate Urgency and Distress
Sweat dripping into your character’s eyes. Slippery palms. Those physical details that let readers slip right into your characters’ shoes.
In that scene from The Scorpio Races that happens just after Puck wins the race, she feels everything, physically: “I slow Dove, patting her neck, laughing and rubbing away tears with the back of my bloody hand. All of my pain’s melted away; all that remains are ceaseless shivers. I stand shakily in my stirrups” (390).
She’s bleeding, shaking, sweating, and laughing. Readers feel it all right along with her.
That’s masterful writing. For fast-paced scenes, keep your details physical and relevant.
Tell Instead of Show
I know, I know. This advice goes against that popular “show, don’t tell” line every writer knows. But sometimes, you need to relay important information, and the only way to do it without slowing things down is to simply tell it.
In All the Light We Cannot See, six-year-old Marie-Laure, takes a tour of a museum with her father. She’s already suffering from poor eyesight, but she can still see. Her father asks her if she had fun, and this is what follows:
A little brown house sparrow swoops out of the rafters and lands on the tiles in front of her. Marie-Laure holds out an open palm. The sparrow tilts his head, considering. Then it flaps away.
One month later she is blind. (Doerr 23)
I love how Doerr infuses the sparrow with detail; it’s clear that Marie-Laure did have fun — and not only that, she can enjoy the sight of a brown sparrow.
With one short, simple sentence, Doerr tells us how blindness took that all away. He could have taken his time describing the blindness shutting Marie-Laure’s vision down, but that buildup had already happened earlier in the novel.
All he needed was that short sentence to get the sobering point across. Also, the sentence comes at the end of a chapter — and what reader won’t flip the page to find out how Marie-Laure’s blindness complicates her life?
The beauty of foreshadowing is that it sparks worry in the reader long before the scene in question. Readers can delight in knowing something terrible is going to happen — in other words, something with tension and action — and keep that tidbit tucked in their mind as the story continues to build at its regular pace.
Lauren Wolk uses foreshadowing well in her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow. After meeting a character named Toby, a vagabond who eventually becomes a dear friend, the narrator and protagonist says, “We would have been spared some trouble if [Toby and I] had not crossed paths that day” (Wolk 29).
That line gets readers’ minds whirring. Why did meeting Toby, a good friend, heap trouble onto Annabelle, the protagonist? While readers won’t get the answer for many chapters, Wolk continues to slip bits of foreshadowing into her scenes.
This foreshadowing makes the book impossible to put down, because you want to find out what the trouble is and how Annabelle gets through it.
It’s harder to employ foreshadowing if you’re writing in the present tense. Wolk’s narrator, Annabelle, is telling a story from an aged perspective, so it’s easy for her to hint at the trouble that changed her life.
If your narration allows for it, carefully place a few sentences of foreshadowing into your novel and watch the pace pick up!
Every single one of my advisors during my MFA program applauded any chapter I wrote that ended on a cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers are the easiest way to keep your chapter and scene-endings fast-paced. Look at the first few chapters in your novel, or scenes in your short story. Do they end with a resolution, or with a question?
If they end with a resolution of conflict, it’s time to re-work the chapter so that the resolution doesn’t come until the following chapter.
The chapter just before Puck and Sean’s climactic race scene in The Scorpio Races illustrates this beautifully. Puck sits atop her land horse, Dove, ready to race; she wishes she were next to Sean and his water horse, Corr:
Three race officials are pressing us back into lines behind great wooden poles. The lines ring and shrill with hundreds of bells on dozens of hooves. The capaill uisce snap and snort, paw and shudder. I keep Dove as far from her neighbors as I can. Her ears are flattened back to her head. She’s surrounded by predators.
Beside me, the capall uisce shakes its head and foam cascades down its neck and chest.
They’re counting down.
The ocean says shhhhhhhh, shhhhhhh.
They lift the poles. (Stiefvater 379)
The chapter ends there, right as the race begins. What a cliffhanger! This whole scene is rich with physical, relevant details, short sentences, and the promise of terrifying yet long-awaited action.
Stiefvater could’ve ended the chapter once Dove started running and the crush of the race began. Instead, she leaves us breathless on the edge of the starting line.
Who wouldn’t read on?
When to Slow Down
In a well-paced story, you’ll not only need to keep it moving quickly during chapter endings, action scenes, and climaxes, but you’ll also have to slow it down sometimes.
Here are four moments in a story when you want your pace to move more slowly.
Romantic or Intimate Scenes
Don’t rush through scenes of love — let your characters linger in the moment. In a good novel, a moment of intimacy or romance will be hard-won, and readers (and characters!) don’t want you to rush through it.
When your character makes a choice that changes them, slow the pace down. This is a big moment, and your slowing of the pace will help readers process it fully and understand the gravity of what has happened.
When the Reader is Expecting Something to Happen and You Want to Prolong the Moment
You know all that foreshadowing we talked about earlier? When you’re approaching the culmination of your bits of foreshadowing, slow down. The reader knows the Big Thing is coming, and they will read on, no matter what.
Let the moment be big and full and important.
When Your Character Is at Ease
Just as white space and chapter breaks help give readers space to breathe and take a break, moments when your character is at ease give your story time to rest before picking back up again.
If your character is unwinding after a long, tense day, let the reader unwind right along with her.
So How Do You Slow Down a Story?
Remember, slowing your pace doesn’t mean making your story boring. Let’s take a look at how you can slow things down without losing readers.
Ashley Hope Pérez successfully slows down her powerful, taut narrative in her Printz Honor-winning novel, Out of Darkness, which focuses on the forbidden love between a young Mexican woman, Naomi, and a young African American man, Wash.
The first time Wash and Naomi meet at their secret oak tree, this long, detailed paragraph slows the pace down so that we can see and feel what Wash does:
He could feel her warm, sweet breath. His mouth opened, but he couldn’t find any words. He laughed a little, rubbed his chin. He reached up and took her hand in his, the interlacing of their fingers so right, so overdue. He tried to pretend that he wasn’t thinking about falling against her, falling into what he wanted and tried to forget that he wanted, this hunger that was different from other hungers before. He wanted the feel of her lips, her mouth, the sweet hollow of her neck. His muscles tightened with the effort of not taking her braid in his hand. Of not working his way down the row of buttons on her dress. Of not touching her everywhere. (Pérez 159)
Even though the paragraph is long and full of what might seem like inconsequential details, it allows us to relish in the moment Naomi and Wash are sharing. It shows us Wash’s delight and his nervousness.
Naomi’s stepfather has made it clear that he doesn’t want her associating with Wash’s family, so they meet in secret, always. And each time, Pérez slows the pace down, painting each detail with care, so that we can delight in the stolen moments along with Wash and Naomi.
Thoughts and Observations
What is your character thinking during an intimate moment? How does she feel about the choice she’s made that will change her life forever?
Let those questions guide you. Write down the observations and thoughts your character is having during the moments that ask for a slower pace, and then choose which ones you’ll actually put into your story.
The thoughts and observations can help both the character and the reader to recap or fully understand what happened in a previous scene, or what’s happening currently.
Longer Sentences with Commas and Linking Words
Toward the end of the Biafran War, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters, Olanna and Odenigbo, have a grieved yet intimate moment after receiving more news of death. Odenigbo tells Olanna that she is strong, and Ngozi Adichie uses longer sentences to slow down and show us how Olanna feels about this.
These were words she had never heard from him. He looked old; there was a wetness in his eyes, a crumpled defeat in his face, that made him look older. She wanted to ask him why he had said that, what he meant, but she didn’t and she was not sure who fell asleep first. The next morning, she woke up too early, smelling her own bad breath and feeling a sad and unsettling peace. (491)
Note her longer sentences, combined with her inner thoughts and observations about her conversation with Odenigbo. Readers sense that Olanna thought about his words all the way until she fell asleep, feeling heavy with grief, change, and maybe even a glimmer of hope.
She isn’t sure how to feel, but maybe she doesn’t have to be. What matters is that Ngozi Adichie’s longer sentences, broken into digestible pieces with commas, let us slow down and feel those ambiguous feelings with her.
You can also use linking words — first, second, third; in addition; next, last, finally — to keep long paragraphs from becoming too dense. Linking words provide a soft structure for your characters’ thoughts, observations, and detailed descriptions to land.
Knowing how to pace your novel or story is critical to its success. Fast pacing during chapter endings, action scenes, and climaxes will keep your readers glued to the page, while slow pacing during romantic or thoughtful scenes allows them to process what’s happening in your novel.
Both slow and fast pacing are equally important. As the example from my own manuscript’s brush with a publishing house illuminates, sometimes pacing can get too fast. (Or too slow!) That can be a reason for an agent, editor — and ultimately, a reader — to put your book down and walk away.
But you don’t have to worry about that, because you now know all the ways to improve your pacing!
It’s time to get your brain into revision mode and get to work.
Berry, Julie. All the Truth That’s In Me. 2013. New York: Speak-Penguin Group, 2014. Print.
Carpenter, Courtney. “7 Tools For Pacing A Novel & Keeping Your Story Moving At The Right Pace.” Writer’s Digest, 24 April 2012, https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/7-tools-for-pacing-a-novel-keeping-your-story-moving- at-the-right-pace. Accessed 3 July 2019.
Chiotti, Danielle, quoting editor at publishing house. Letter to the author. 11 October 2018. TS.
Cron, Lisa. “The Myth of All-You-Can-Eat Sensory Details.” Writing Forward, 28 June 2012, http://www.writingforward.com/news-announcements/guest-posts/the-myth-of-all-you-can-eat-sensory-details. Accessed 8 July 2019.
Doerr, Anthony. Interview with Jill Owens of Powell’s Books. “Interview with Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.” A Medium Corporation, 16 July 2015, https://medium.com/@Powells/interview-with-anthony-doerr-author-of-all-the-light-we-cannot-see-3a3a501ccad2. Accessed 8 July 2019.
—. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner-Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.
Hawkins, Kaitlyn. “As I Lay Dying: ‘My Mother is a Fish.’” Reading Like Rory, 23 April 2013, https://readinglikerory.weebly.com/home/as-i-lay-dying-my-mother-is-a-fish. Accessed 8 July 2019.
Magoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2014. Print.
McNeal, Tom. Far Far Away. 2013. New York: Ember-Random House, 2013. Print.
Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of a Yellow Sun. 2006. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Print.
Pérez, Ashley Hope. Out of Darkness. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab, 2015. Print.
Stiefvater, Maggie. The Scorpio Races. 2011. New York: Scholastic, 2013. Print.
Wolk, Lauren. Wolf Hollow. New York: Dutton-Penguin Young Readers, 2016. Print.
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