Pacing (PAY-sing) is the rate at which a story develops. Narrative pace is controlled through several elements, including the length of scenes, the delivery and depth of description, and the rate and intensity of the action. Genre can also play into pacing, as the plot of an action-adventure story will likely move faster than that of a historical drama.
Writers use a mix of scenes and writing techniques to control pacing. An action scene often involves a flurry of intense activity, while expository description or narration reveals detail at a slow, measured rate. Readers and publishers tend to avoid narratives that drag, but stories that move too quickly can fail to let the story breathe or provide readers with time to digest what they’ve read. Strong narratives therefore unfold at a balanced, variable pace that speeds up and slows down as the plot demands.
Elements of Pacing
Writers have an expansive toolkit of devices and techniques that help control pacing.
Stories are often driven by plot, which is comprised of stages that quicken and restrain the narrative in turns.
Exposition introduces the main characters, the setting, and pertinent background information. It accomplishes this through narration and description, typically delivered at a measured rate that allows the story to develop naturally. Exposition tends to unfold at a slower pace because it must situate the reader and contextualize the plot.
Once the protagonist encounters the primary conflict, the plot progresses into the rising action. The pace picks up at this point, wherein the stakes and tension grow as the protagonist encounters obstacles. These details come to a head in the climax, the story’s main turning point. This features the greatest tension, conflict, and drama within the narrative, creating a sense of urgency. As the protagonist’s problems are resolved in the falling action, and the story concludes with the denouement, the pace slows down to bring the story to a close.
Word choice has a notable impact on pacing. Active voice tends to be clear, concise, and direct, which makes it great for strong, concrete description. Passive voice, on the other hand, tends to be wordier and creates a weaker, more subtle tone and pace. Short, blunt words can accelerate the narrative, while longer, more complex vocabulary slows things down, often to encourage contemplation on the reader’s part.
Much like short, straightforward words, simple sentences can increase the narrative pace. Longer, more complex sentences—with several clauses that build upon each other—have the opposite effect and tend to slow the story down.
Conversations are a great way for characters to exchange information quickly and concisely. This can help a scene maintain a quick pace, unlike lengthier, slower passages of description. Sometimes, dialogue serves as exposition, but overuse of this approach is often considered poor technique by readers and critics.
Certain genres are known for specific pacing. Fantasy and historical fiction, which require extensive exposition to develop unfamiliar worlds or contexts, tend to move slower than action-adventure stories, which focus on progressing plot above all else. This pattern is also evident in drama and comedy, with the former developing slowly to build tension and suspense and the latter whipping through scenes to maintain a lighter tone. It’s no surprise, then, that Comedy of Errors is the shortest Shakespeare play, while Hamlet is the longest.
How Writers Use Pacing
Structurally, pacing controls the rate of the plot. Writers also use pacing as a stylistic technique to create a specific atmosphere, appeal to a specific audience, or manipulate the narrative’s tone.
Narratives slow down to create emotion and suspension or contextualize the story through description or exposition. Writers heighten the pace to create anticipation, action, and tension. Children’s and young adult authors use quick pacing to appeal to their younger audiences who crave action and adventure. Slower-paced writing appeals to adults, who often prefer a story’s action to be balanced with emotion or introspection.
Writers can employ several different techniques to control pacing. The aforementioned plot structure, in which the pacing rises and falls in tandem with narrative stages, can be disrupted using other stylistic techniques. Cliffhangers are one way that authors increase pacing. These are abrupt, unresolved endings to chapters or entire stories provoke tension, which encourages readers to press on and discover how the story resolves.
Another technique is beginning in media res, or in the middle of the action. In this case, readers are plunged into a moment of high-stakes tension, which is later soothed when the narrative pulls back to provide context or exposition. Flashbacks, for example, can serve several purposes, such as interrupting an introspective moment with a tense memory or pulling back from the action to revisit a more thoughtful or retrospective scene.
Short stories don’t have the space for extensive description, so they tend to adopt faster pacing that focuses on the action. But novel-length texts are most engaging when they strike a balance between fast and slow pacing. A story with an unrelenting pace can suffer if it fails to allow the characters and readers time to process, while a story that moves too slowly could leave readers feeling bored or impatient.
Varied pacing is, therefore, crucial in storytelling. A common phrase in the writing community is “Show, don’t tell.” Writers who tell tend to insert their own opinions or perspectives into the narrative. They don’t often use literary techniques—including dialogue, backstory, and description—to develop the story organically or allow readers to come to their own conclusions. Thus, it is better when writers show, or provide adequate space and time to the narrative, which requires slowing down and allowing the plot to develop and coalesce.
Pacing in Other Media
Pacing is just as crucial in other forms of narrative media. Graphic novels, a primarily visual medium, must rely on other tactics to modulate the pace. Dialogue-heavy pages tend to read slower, for example, while the number of panels on a page can be adjusted to create urgency or ease.
The same storytelling techniques that manipulate pacing in literature—such as dialogue and rapid-fire action—are also employed in film and television. But content creators for these media have other techniques at their disposal, such as scene editing and soundtracks. And some of the techniques that work in literature, such as lengthy description and exposition, don’t translate to the screen.
Pacing is a crucial factor in adapting novels for film or TV. It takes a lot of careful consideration and ingenuity to translate pages of words into a pleasing visual experience. Consider the well-regarded Lord of the Rings film trilogy. These films focus on the core of each book, which creates a faster pace that’s more appropriate for film. For example, The Fellowship of the Ring film condenses extensive in-world history into a few minutes of voiceover narration. On the other hand, the Hobbit film trilogy stretches one book into three films and consequently suffers from a bloated plot riddled with jarring transitions and unbalanced pacing.
Examples of Pacing in Literature
1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first entry in Rowling’s seven-book series about Harry Potter, a young boy who is thrust into a world of magic. The passage below describes a match of Quidditch, a sport played on flying broomsticks. Harry and his opponent Terence are Seekers—players charged with capturing the Golden Snitch, which could secure victory for their team:
Harry saw it. In a great rush of excitement he dived downward after the streak of gold. Slytherin Seeker Terence Higgs had seen it, too. Neck and neck they hurtled toward the Snitch—all the Chasers seemed to have forgotten what they were supposed to be doing as they hung in midair to watch.
Harry was faster than Higgs—he could see the little round ball, wings fluttering, darting up ahead—he put on an extra spurt of speed—
WHAM! A roar of rage echoed from the Gryffindors below—Marcus Flint had blocked Harry on purpose, and Harry’s broom spun off course, Harry holding on for dear life.
This brief, teasing action sequence uses several techniques to manipulate the pacing. Short, simple clauses are broken up by em dashes to quicken the pace, before the sudden onomatopoeia brings everything to an abrupt halt.
2. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
This entry in the Sherlock Holmes canon follows Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as they investigate a supernatural legend. The mystery takes the partners away from their native London and into the English moorland, which figures prominently in the story. For that reason, Watson dedicates several passages to describing the landscape, including this first impression:
The wagonette swung round into a side road, and we curved upward through deep lanes […] high banks on either side, heavy with dripping moss and fleshy hart’s-tongue ferns. Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun. [W]e passed over a narrow granite bridge and skirted a noisy stream […] foaming and roaring amid the gray boulders. Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak and fir. At every turn Baskerville gave an exclamation of delight […]. To his eyes all seemed beautiful, but to me a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside, which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed. [W]e drove through drifts of rotting vegetation-sad gifts, as it seemed to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles.
The first half of the chapter was comprised primarily of dialogue that moved at a moderate clip. As the characters enter the moor, however, the pace slows down. Doyle achieves this more sedate pace in a few ways. The sentences grow longer and more complex; the writing becomes more descriptive, to paint a clear and vibrant image; and Watson’s narration takes a thoughtful, introspective turn to reflect the shifted focus to perception and observation.
Further Resources on Pacing
This Reedsy blog post provides 10 tips to control pacing in writing and keep readers hooked.
Experienced writers might benefit from Fiction Pacing: Professional Techniques for Slow and Fast Pace Effects, which teaches advanced techniques to improve narrative pacing.
This Writer’s Digest article explores how specific literary devices, such as dialogue and jump cuts, affect pacing. These tips and explanations come from their book Crafting Novels & Short Stories, a guide to writing captivating stories.