How do you know if your novel’s pacing is right? What changes can you make to adjust the pacing and keep readers hooked?

There are a few different elements of your manuscript you can play with to create effective pacing. Let’s get started.

What is pacing?

Simply put, pacing is the speed at which your story unfolds. How quickly do you reveal certain details? When do things slow down? How soon do plot points rise and fall?

Controlling your pacing is important. If some parts are too quick, readers will feel rushed. If some parts are too slow, readers might put your book down and never get back into the story.

Your story doesn’t have to be all the same speed–that wouldn’t be effective either–but you do need to find balance to tell your story most effectively.

How can you control pacing?

Four ways you can control pacing include:

  1. Structure and syntax
  2. Language
  3. Details
  4. Characters & reflection

You want to use all of these together, as appropriate, to set the pacing of your novel. You can’t do it with just one!

How Structure & Syntax Influences Pacing

Chapter length, paragraph length, and even sentence length can influence your pacing.

Start at the chapter level. In most trade fiction, use the guideline of 2,000 to 5,000 words per chapter. This can vary, of course, but that’s a good baseline to use when trying to figure out the length of your chapters.

A longer chapter can slow the reader down and keep them hooked in one scene for longer. On the flip side, a shorter chapter can keep readers moving.

While I wouldn’t recommend varying between 1,500 and 12,000 words per chapter–this might frustrate readers–try playing with the length of your chapters. Even a difference of 1,000 to 1,500 words can influence the pacing.

The same principle applies to paragraphs and sentences. Longer paragraphs and sentences slow readers down because they have to focus more. This can be good when delivering important information, but if you have an exciting fight scene, keep things shorter and quicker.

How Language Influences Pacing

Just as paragraph and sentence length can influence pacing, so can your word choice.

If you want to ramp up the pace, use shorter, more economical words. Be precise. Cut back on the details. Keep it simple.

If you want to slow down the pacing, you can be a little more flowery with your language. Stroll indulgently through the prose with your protagonist and your reader alike.

Play with language and see how fast or slow you read it back to yourself, then decide if it fits the feeling and speed you want readers to get.

How Details Influence Pacing

Another great way to impact pacing is with the details you provide in a given scene/paragraph.

Is your character running from the villain? They probably won’t notice much around them. They won’t notice the finer details of the scene if they’re trying to save their own life. 

Is your character having an indulgent evening with their love interest? Slow it down! This can also be a great time to add in more sensory details.

These two can even be mixed for interesting tension and drawing the reader’s attention to something specific. For example, if your character is running from the villain, maybe they don’t notice the details of every building until their eye catches on something very out of place. This can force them–and your pacing–to slow down as they take the risk to investigate.

How Characters Influence Pacing

Your character’s development influences pacing too. Those pivotal moments of understanding, growth, change, and revelation should be slowed down for readers to really absorb the impact.

Characters, like people, need time to think about what’s happened. If you have several action-packed scenes in a row, give your character (and readers!) a moment to breathe with some introspection. Let the character reflect on what’s happened, how they’re feeling, and what their next steps might be.

Conversely, if you’ve had a lot of introspection, maybe it’s time to pick up the pace. This can be when a character decides to take action and do something about the situation.

This can ebb and flow throughout your story, especially one packed with action. Think about the natural breaking points for introspection in your story and how you might use those.

Good pacing is balanced.

Remember that neither fast nor slow pacing is better than the other. They’re both important for your story.

What’s important is finding the right balance and right flow. Give readers important details but not overloading them. A cohesive, engaging story that brings readers both high and low with your characters is what your readers are ultimately looking for.

After all, writing is all about balancing different elements of story. One way isn’t better than the other; you just have to find what works for your book.

It’s okay to be unsure about this!

Pacing can be hard to evaluate objectively as the author, just as many things about writing are. When you’re so tied up in your own story, it can be hard to see what details are necessary, what readers really need to know, and what scenes are paced poorly.

Do your best as you self-edit and revise. Remember that if you’re bored or overwhelmed by certain parts of yours tory, that’s a hint about your pacing. If you react that way as the author, readers will probably have the same reaction.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask your editor, your critique partner, and/or your beta readers about pacing. Fresh eyes can identify a lot that your own brain will miss. Utilize the people on your team! They want to help.

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