WHAT IS “PACE,” and why should writers care about it? According to the dictionary, pace is “the speed or rate at which something happens, changes, or develops.” In writing, pace refers to the speed or rate at which the story is told and the readers are pulled through its events. It encompasses both the rate at which events unfold and the perception of how much time elapses in the scenes or story as a whole.
Learning how to control pace is an important skill for any writer to master, yet pace can feel elusive if you don’t understand the elements that control it.
The key: speed of action and perception of time work together to create a sense of pace. Let’s take a look at how you can use these two elements to manage pace in your writing.
Perception of time
Everyone experiences time subjectively, which means that the duration of any event is perceived differently by each person present.
You know how time seems to pass quickly when you’re having fun or totally engaged in an activity, but seems to slow down during moments of extreme experience (think skydiving) or when you’re waiting for something to happen? That’s subjective time perception at play.
Movies use slow- and fast-motion film techniques to portray and exaggerate the way we sense time — slowing down during life-threatening moments and speeding up for the high-action scenes.
Concert pianists artfully speed up and slow down the music to affect the listeners’ experience.
The same is true in literature. Writers can (and should) use this subjective sense of time to advantage by artfully mastering and controlling their story’s pace.
Situations that cause perception of time to slow down:
Fear. When we’re afraid, our senses become heightened to enable us to take in enough information to understand exactly what the danger is and to make a decision about what to do to survive — whether to fight or flee. If your character is in a dangerous situation, her perception of time will slow down. Your writing should reflect that heightened perception by dilating the scene (see description of scene dilation below).
New experiences. Like fear, when we encounter a brand new experience, time seems to slow down. We go into a heightened state, taking in and processing all the new information. This effect of novel experiences is one of the reasons time seems to pass more slowly when you’re a child — so many experiences are new and you’re just taking in all the details. When experiences become routine, you are less aware, stop taking in so much information, details blur together, and time speeds up again.
Altered states of consciousness. Drugs, psychological issues, fatigue, anxiety, dementia, etc. can either slow down or speed up perception of time, depending upon the cause of the altered state and the situation your character finds herself in. For example, hallucinations and dreams can take place in a few seconds, but seem to involve hours or days.
How to stretch time and slow it down (slow the pace)
Dilate the scene. Whenever you want time to slow down — when your character is taking in and processing a lot of information — dilate the scene. This means giving your reader the same, heightened sensory experience that the character is having by expanding description, noting the details. Slowing. Everything. Down.
Think of two ways a fight scene might be described.
In the first, speeded up version, there is only action: a right hook to the chin, a chair collapses, a character falls to the floor, a thief picks up the bag and runs. One thing happens after the other in quick succession.
In the second, dilated version, there is action and detailed description: a fish clenches, an arm extends, there’s a right hook to the chin, the crunch of bone to bone as fist hits jaw, a guttural noise escapes, jaw slides to the side, saliva flies, the character falls backward in slow motion, chair collapsing under him as his head bounces up and down on the floor. In this second version, the action happens in slow motion. This dilation technique heightens emotion and suspense while pulling your readers viscerally into the scene.
In addition to life-threatening or novel events, any important moment in your story should be dilated — especially the climax. You need your readers to understand the significance of those moments. Slow them down, expand them, make them last two to three times longer than you think they should. If the stakes are high, the tension will keep readers engaged.
Dialogue. Dialogue can also be used to manipulate time. To slow the pace, start a dialogue between your characters in which they are pondering, planning, trying to figure things out. Keep the tension high with unstated emotional conflict between the characters — or between the characters and the situation. And include details such as body language, internal thoughts of the point-of-view character, and surrounding sounds, sights, etc. that portray the atmosphere in which the dialogue is taking place.
Introspection. This is when your character is thinking. Introspection stops action completely, and takes place in the space between actions. So you’ll want to use introspection carefully and sparingly. When the action stops, so does time. If your character is too much in his head, your readers will get bored and put your story down. But moments of introspection, besides helping to portray your character, can provide much-needed pauses in the action and allow your readers to “take a breath.”
Situations that cause perception of time to speed up
Habitual behaviors and familiar places. As noted before, our perceptions of the speed of time seem to be mostly determined by how much information our minds absorb and process – the more information there is, the slower time goes. If there’s no new information to process, we go into automatic mode. Driving is a good example of how this perception works. When you are first learning to drive, you’re aware of every action you take, from braking to steering to changing lanes. Driving anywhere new seems to take a long time. Once a route or driving in general becomes routine, your mind becomes engaged with other things — conversation, music, audiobooks, or just thinking about your day. And suddenly, in no time at all, you’re at your destination with no real memory of how you got there.
Experiencing several events in quick succession. When events happen quickly, one right after the other, we don’t have time to process the information from one event before dealing with the next. And, since every event requires us to make decisions about how to respond, our minds discard irrelevant details. We notice only what is needed to navigate our way through those situations, and time seems to pass extremely fast.
Ways to speed up time (increase the pace)
Action immersion. Focus on the physical action of the characters and forces within the story with limited or no description of surrounding details or internal thoughts of the characters. For fastest action, use strong verbs and relatively short sentences. Descriptive details should be used sparingly and carefully chosen to heighten the emotion of the scene.
Active verbs, short sentences and paragraphs. Fragments, spare sentences, and punchy verbs with harsh consonants or unpleasant associations like crash, lunge, cringe, and slither all work to build drama and conflict, and hence speed up perception of time.
Series of events in rapid succession. When incidents occur one right after the other with minimal transition, leaping from scene to scene, everything seems to be happening very quickly and the reader is left feeling breathless. There is no time for readers (or your characters) to notice or process details, so the writing should be spare and concise.
Dialogue. Use short, clipped sentences, witty repartee, or emotionally charged verbal conflict to speed things up. For a faster pace, reactions and descriptions are used only sparingly, if at all.
Suspense. When the stakes are high and the outcome is unsure, you have suspense. Nothing makes readers turn the page more than when a scene or chapter is left hanging in a state of uncertainty. Unfilled needs, unfinished or interrupted actions, or a sudden threat all contribute to a sense of suspense. Suspense slows down the readers’ perception of time (when we want to know what’s going to happen, it seems to take forever) while pulling them through the story more quickly.
Summary. Summary allows you to move the story along quickly by compressing time, condensing years into a paragraph or even a few sentences. Summaries are best used when time passes, but there are no specific scenes to include.
Select a scene you are currently working on (or use a scene from a past work) and experiment with some of the different techniques listed above. If the scene was originally fast, slow it down using dilation, dialogue, and limited introspection. If the scene was slow, speed it up by focusing on the action, removing optional details, and using short words and sentences. Or change the scene to a summary, condensing its details into two or three sentences.
Each way the scene is written will provide a different experience for your readers, so after you’ve written the scene in two or three different ways, have a friend or your critique group read the scene and provide feedback.
Repeat this practice with new scenes.
You’ll gain confidence with the different techniques as well as more freedom to express yourself through your writing.