Pacing is one of the most difficult elements of any novel to get right. If it’s too slow, your reader will lose interest. If it’s too fast, the story will feel rushed. But striking the perfect balance throughout the novel and fitting the needs of each scene is difficult to master. Pacing can also be one of the trickiest elements to fix in revision. So, let’s take a look at ways to better adjust your pacing.
First, let’s take a second to define pacing. I think a lot of writers assume that if the pace is too slow, they simply need to cut scenes, or add them in if the pace is too fast. But while cutting/adding scenes does clearly affect pacing, it doesn’t always address the underlying issue. I find it helpful to think of pacing as the number of pages that it takes for something happen. Therefore, the way to adjust pacing is to adjust the number of pages in a given scene or section.
Let’s look at an example. Say you have a scene with a character receiving important information, and you know the pacing is too slow. But that information is going to be important later, so you can’t cut the scene. What can you do? Well, take a look at how long that scene is. How long does it take for the information to be given? Is there a lot of superfluous detail? Do you linger on setting description or exposition or internalization that isn’t key to the scene? What else happens in the scene, and is it necessary? Instead of cutting the entire scene, try trimming the elements within the scene itself that are slowing things down.
This example also works in reverse. Let’s say you have the same scene, but it feels rushed. Think about what you could do to lengthen it. Can you ground the reader in the setting more? What details are lacking? Have you included important internalization from the character—her reaction to the information, for example? What’s important for the reader to see here? While you don’t want to go overboard with this and weigh things down with unnecessary information, adding needed details can help flesh out your scenes and balance the pacing.
What else can you do to adjust pacing? Here are my tips:
- Think about white space
Take a look at the amount of white space on each page. White space can have a strong impact on reading speed. The more white space there is, the faster the text will read. Do you have lots of long, blocky paragraphs with few breaks? This is likely to slow your pacing. On the other hand, really sparse text with lots of one-line paragraphs and dialogue reads very quickly.
- Look at sentence and paragraph length
On a similar note, pay attention to how long your individual sentences and paragraphs are. Your style will likely dictate your pacing: the more verbose your prose, the slower your pacing is going to be. If, like me, you have a tendency to use sentence fragments and one-line paragraphs, your pacing will be much faster. It’s important to understand which type of pacing issue is inherent in your style and look for places where you might be overusing your preferred sentence/paragraph lengths.
- Think about chapter length
Similarly, the length of your chapters also affects how slow or fast the reading feels. Short, choppy chapters add lots of white space and make things feel much faster, while lengthy chapters feel slow. If you’re having issues with the pace in a particular chapter, it’s worth looking at its length to see if it needs adjustment. And if you’re having pacing issues with a larger section, consider merging chapters or cutting them in two to adjust.
- Allow for contrast
It’s important to remember that any one pace will begin to feel monotonous after too many scenes in a row. Pacing should really be a mix of contrasts, with a balance of slow and fast scenes.
I had this issue a few years ago with one of my middle grade novels. I kept the pacing brisk and snappy in a way that’s great for middle grade in general—but I overdid it. Things moved so quickly in the first third of the story that it was breathless and rushed, and readers were burned out before they ever reached the midpoint. Fortunately, my brilliant agent identified this issue right away, and I corrected it by adding in some quieter scenes that gave both characters and readers space to breath. That structure—bursts of speed followed by a brief period of rest—works much better. The balance of highs and lows keeps things interesting.
What do you think? Do you struggle with pacing? Do you have any tips for making adjustments? Let me know in the comments!
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