Without Pacing What’s The Point

By Shelley Widhalm

I’m reading a book with two intriguing main characters and compelling relationships gone wrong. Still, the repetitive dialog and plot points make it boring.

The issue is with the pacing, intermittent external and internal tension, and lack of cliffhangers at the end of chapters. I’m determined to finish the book, though, since I have this problem of not giving up something I’ve read 50 pages in.

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What is Pacing?

Throughout the novel and in each scene and chapter, the pacing shows the passing of time. It’s essential in particular places of the book: the opening of the story, in the middle of the plot beats, and at the climax that all need a balance of pacing to pull readers in, get them through the hump, and make them want to finish to the end.

A book that isn’t paced well goes too slow with too many pages of description, world-building, and backstory, causing readers to lose interest. Or it moves too fast with all action and little exposition so that readers can’t catch their breath and get headaches from needing a break.

Pacing is the story’s tempo or the rate or speed at which the story moves from event to event. It balances external action with internal reflection, description, and narration. Quickening it moves the progress of the story while slowing it shows the impact of what is happening or has just happened.

Whether fast or slow, the pacing is carried out on two levels: structurally or the entire framework of the story, and at the line level in individual words, sentences, and paragraphs.  

Ways to Improve Structural Pacing

The scenes and chapter beginnings need to introduce change and conflict to get the story quickly moving at the structural level. The POV character encounters setbacks and failures in meeting the primary need or desire set up in the story’s beginning.

The story gets a push, too. When new characters arrive or characters receive further information. Maybe the characters experience emotional turmoil and engage in an intense conversation. Perhaps they have a dynamic reversal and see things in a new way.

Here are a few other ways to quicken the pace at the structural level:

  • Begin in the middle of the action.
  • Create scenes high in action with minimal description, few character thoughts, and no tangents or back story—what happened before the current activity.
  • Make sure the action in the scenes unfolds as a series of incidents in quick succession or as conflicts between characters.
  • Shorten scenes, removing what doesn’t belong down to the essential details. Make sure the scenes fit and are vital to the entire storyline.
  • Add cliffhangers at the end of scenes or chapters.
  • Make the dialog quick without extra information, reactions, descriptions, or attributions. Dialogue with conflict and tension speed things up as characters banter, argue or fight.

To slow the pace:

  • Have the POV character observe the environment or become introspective or deep in thought. 
  • Engage the character in a flashback, which retells what happened before the story’s action begins and is often triggered by something specific, such as seeing an object and remembering something because of it.
  • Use large amounts of narration and description.
  • Describe the setting in detail.
  • Summarize action and dialog. 
  • Employ digressions and small distracting actions not related to the main action.

As the story unfolds from the opening scene, the rhythm needs to steadily increase toward the climax. If it slows, there needs to be a reason that gives readers pause while still putting them into a state of suspense. 

Ways to Improve Line-Level Pacing

Pacing within the lines of the page result from how words are used and sentences and paragraphs are structured.

To quicken the pace:

  • Make sure there’s lots of white space on the page.
  • Use lots of verbs, concrete language, and an active voice.
  • Use sentence fragments and short paragraphs and sentences.
  • Remove extra information, reactions, descriptions, or dialog attributions.

To slow the pace:

  • Make sentences and paragraphs long.
  • Use the description to detail the setting and details of the action.
  • Provide exposition with data and facts, information about the story world, and references to the time element.
  • Use flashbacks, retelling what happened before the action of the main story.
  • Have the character reflect on what happened just then or in the past, sort through associated feelings, assess the situation, and decide what to do next.
  • Use distractions with small actions away from the main action, such as cooking dinner or putting on makeup.

Don’t start at the beginning by writing this happened, and then that happened, and now here’s a little excitement. The excitement gets readers turning the page, whether from an unanswered question or a relationship gone awry. 

That’s why we write and read, to make time seem quicker, so we get lost in the story.

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