Story pacing – An essential element of good fiction writing

Pacing is a tool writers employ to influence the speed and rhythm in which a story unfolds. It’s as important to a story as plot, character development, language, spacing and punctuation. Think of pace as a tour guide at The Louvre. This guide has control over how tourists are introduced and then guided through the collections – walking (sometimes dragging) them briskly through, lingering far too long at the Mona Lisa (it’s overrated – trust me) or left largely alone, unguided, to leisurely stroll through the museum on their own. Pace is a critical component of effective fiction writing – to keep readers engaged and drawn into the story. Storytellers of all varieties use the tool – effectively, if they’re skilled. Novelists, screenwriters and even songwriters use pace to structure their narrative. Even a ghost story, told over a campfire, can be made more successful (assuming your goal is to scare the crap out of the kids assembled) by including pregnant pauses, followed by rapid delivery. Draw the kids in slowly and then hit them with the terrifying truth to send them screaming, to their tents, and deep into the sleeping bag, for the night. Ah, telling stories can be so satisfying.

Reading several blog posts related to story pace, by writers, editors and agents alike, convinced me to pay greater attention to pace, yet, left me confused. Like many aspects of writing, what constitutes good, is subjective. Some said (I’m paraphrasing and aggregating the thoughts of several bloggers) “grab them from the start and never let them off the wild ride”, and, “draw them in by maintaining a steady momentum and constant speed.”

I reviewed my latest manuscript draft (revision number 3, thank you) with a more critical eye. I had to acknowledged that it started slowly. And, I’d had some feedback by respected sources that confirmed so. I crafted an addition to the first chapter, and plunked it down at the very start. I was satisfied that the new scene added action, conflict and intrigue, right out of the gate. The draft now starts in the present and time-jumps to the past. The second scene, somehow, didn’t mesh with new addition. I needed some glue to connect and bind the two, and added yet another new addition, to start Chapter 1. The new section included preliminary introduction to the protagonist, a short scene cut, and better context for the (now) second scene.

I re-read the entire manuscript specifically to review and evaluate pace over the course of the weekend. I might have been rationalizing my own exercise, but after the revisions to Chapter 1, I was largely satisfied with the variety of pace I employed, to lead the reader through the entire story. A metaphor for pace popped into my head, as I ruminated on the subject, and provided a counter-point to those writers and editors who might suggest a consistent, fast pace and momentum. What’s more fun: a rollercoaster ride, or a flight from NY to Los Angeles, on a 777, cruising at a steady 550 MPH? Taking a reader on a ride that includes some slow sections, which provide opportunity for the reader to catch his/her breath and look around the amusement park, from a lofty vantage, and builds anticipation and excitement for what will come next, is the best way to ensure the reader is entertained.

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