If writing a novel can be compared to running a marathon and finishing on your feet, you surely don't want your finished novel to feel that way to readers. You want your novel to read the way a symphony sounds, sometimes slow and evocative, other times fast and exhilarating. In short, you want your book to have effective pace.
Pace equals movement, but whether a given chapter moves fast or slow will depend on what effect you want it to have on readers. The following techniques can help you manage the pace of your chapters—provided you choose them carefully, and always with your readers in mind.
Use normal pace when the story is progressing, but nothing special is happening. This technique is good for setting a scene or creating a transition between two or more dramatic scenes. Normal pace can also give readers a break from the action and allow you to tone down the story's pace so you can begin to build it back up again.
To create normal pace, use an even blend of description, dialogue, narration and exposition. Since no one story element predominates, readers pay equal attention to them all and experience a smooth, steady flow of prose.
Here's an example of normal pace:
Scott drove to the Ash Creek Community Recreation Center, pulled into the lot, and slowly drove around the small traffic circle where people could drop off their children. It really wasn't much to look at from the outside: brown brick, narrow, rectangular windows, large glass doors like a department store. The lawn was neatly mowed and the hedges trimmed. Ash Creek wasn't exactly a ritzy community, but that didn't stop folks from trying.
In this example, while nothing special is happening, the scene isn't static, either. We're introduced to the setting; we experience action as the character looks for a place to park and observes the rec center; and we get a blend of physical description and the character's impressions of the center, as well as a touch of exposition about the town itself. While the scene is obviously moving toward something more important, the point is that the scene is still moving—and that's the strength of normal pace.
Use fast pace when the story needs to shift to a higher gear, such as during an action scene or when your characters are engaged in an emotional confrontation. Be careful, though: Fast pace can only go on so long before readers become exhausted or numb. You should switch to a different pace after one scene or chapter.
To create fast pace, focus on one fictional element to the near exclusion of all others—just dialogue, just narration of action, etc. Since readers have fewer elements to pay attention to, they can move more rapidly through your prose.
Here's fast pace in action:
Mongoose-quick, Raven cross-drew two black metal shuriken from her leather wrist sheathes and hurled them at Omega. Fffwwt! Fffwwt! As soon as the throwing stars left her hands, she was up and running toward the terrorist.
Two steps toward Omega. He moved to the left, and the first shuriken passed through empty air where his face had been only a split second before.
In this example (which admittedly might be more suited to a comic book than a novel), the emphasis is entirely on action and fast-forward story movement. There's no description beyond physical action, and even that is kept to a minimum. The short sentences increase reading speed, serving as "action bits" for readers to gulp down. It's almost impossible not to read this at a gallop—and that's what fast pace is all about.
Employ this technique to create a mood or a specific feeling in a chapter. Atmospheric pace can set a scene, establish a tone or foreshadow events—often all at the same time. To create atmospheric pace, focus on blending physical and psychological description to set the mood you want your readers to experience.
Benjamin Strathearn lay half in, half out of the creek. From the knees down, his legs were immersed in cool running water, but the sensation was overpowered by the pain in his right side. It felt as if he were on fire inside, as if instead of a musket ball, his flesh had been penetrated by a white-hot coal that grew hotter by the moment.
Benjamin's cheek pressed against the creek bank, grass tickling his nose, the blades swaying in the breeze caused by his panting breath. It was early spring in South Carolina. Trees were beginning to bud into life, and birds sang out, calling to potential mates. Squirrels rustled through the underbrush, raccoons, deer, who knew what else. Wolves, maybe, drawn by the smell of blood. He wondered if they'd wait for him to die or if their hunger would goad them intoattacking sooner. He wondered if he cared.
This example, set during the Revolutionary War, contrasts the peacefulness of the natural setting with the violent injuries the protagonist has suffered. The physical descriptions of both the setting and the character's wounds are matched by his mental and emotional impressions of them, creating an overall effect of suspended time, a moment when life and death are in precarious balance.
As always, the story is still moving forward, but the blend of the physical and the psychological suffuses the scene with the desired atmosphere—and who isn't going to read on to see which way the scales finally tip?
When you want to keep readers on the edge of their seats, use suspenseful pace. Focus on step-by-step detail and action that work toward, but delay, the ultimate payoff. Don't confuse suspense with fast pace, though. Suspense is slow, but it seems fast because readers speed up as they rush to see how events play out.
It wasn't so much a thought as it was an instinct, a prickle on the back of her neck, a tightening in her gut. Laura paused at a pawn broker's and pretended to look through the window at the items displayed: guitars, jewelry, video cameras. She was uncomfortably aware of what a good target she made—standing still, back of the head presented almost as if she had a bull's-eye tattooed there. She could almost imagine him sighting on her head, seeing it through cross-hairs, finger on the trigger, skin not sweaty, flesh cool as he calmly, professionally, began to squeeze ...
Stop it, she told herself. Neal would never risk acquiring her on a busy city street. There were too many witnesses; Neal preferred to work neat. Besides, it was too windy. As good a shot as he was, he might well miss. And Neal absolutely loathed taking a second shot.
In this example, the accumulation of step-by-step detail as the character becomes aware she's being hunted—and struggles not to look like she's aware—allows readers to experience the same anxiety as the character. Will Neal take a shot? How will Laura get away? Readers will increase their reading speed to find out the answers as quickly as they can. Plus, the indication that Laura knows Neal, as well as something of how assassins operate, will make readers curious about their relationship and even more eager for the eventual confrontation between the two characters.
Different pacing techniques can be used to create individual scenes within a chapter—one scene employing atmospheric pace, the next suspense and the third fast pace. They can also form the basis for entire chapters. Use different pacing techniques whenever and however they best seem to serve the needs of your story. Keep in mind that, whatever else you do, you want to maintain a varied pace throughout your novel. Avoid several scenes or chapters in a row that use the same technique.
While these four pacing techniques are only a few of the many ways to manage pace in your novel, if you use them wisely, readers will not only finish reading your book, but when they put it down, they won't let out a long sigh of relief, thankful it's over: They'll be eager to head out to the store and pick up your next novel.
This article appeared in the February issue of Writer's Digest.