Pacing is the speed the action unfolds with in a story. Pacing is crucial because it is one of the most effective tools you have for playing with a readers emotions.
Imagine you’re in a special car. This car represents a story. It’s going to take you somewhere, even though it only has a single speed. You start the car and begin to drive.
There were hundreds of blades of grass waving back and forth beneath the wind. Far in the distance to the right there was a cluster of trees. To the left was a cornfield with the corpses of stalks bent this way and that. Ahead was nothing but the horizon.
Right now, you’re seeing things as they happen, right along with the narrator of the story. Think of it this way: time flows at the same speed as the prose. This is most useful for scenes where some form of interesting action is going on.
I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example because many people have read it. In Harry Potter, does Rowling describe every class Harry attends at Hogwarts? Nope. Just the interesting ones. And after the interesting ones, do we ever get to see them again? Nope. Not unless something else is happening in the scene that’s both new and interesting.
So lets go back to our car. The aforementioned landscape isn’t going to change. If we kept describing every blade of grass, it would soon become tedious and the reader would lose interest. For example:
It wasn’t long before mile marker 14 was passed. The mile markers were in ascending order. The city was one hundred miles away. There is a sign for a rest area ahead and another saying that at the next exit, one can choose to eat at Burger King, McDonalds, Wendys, Arbys, or Applebees. The sign is green. Some kid had taken a gun and shot three bullets into the metal. One of the bullet holes was above the…
The above section is slowed down drastically. As a storyteller, you need to know when to slow down the story and when to speed it up. This is obviously a place where nothing is happening. The details above don’t matter at all.
Lets skip ahead a few hours until we get to the city.
After six hours of driving I arrived at the city.
The above section is recapitulated. Short, sweet, and transitions the reader nicely into the next scene. Most storytellers are good at doing this correctly. It’s obvious, but recapitulation is when the prose moves MUCH faster than time in the story.
Now that we’re close to the city, lets revisit the slowed-down description above:
Shortly after the spires of the city’s towers breached the skyline, the highway turned into a four lane highway. It was right as it switched to four lanes that a car careened across the lanes towards me. I tried to switch into the lane on my right, but my reaction wasn’t fast enough and I knew the car was going to hit.
I would remember this later. I would remember hearing stories of how people would think of their loved ones or how their whole life would flash before their eyes when exposed to a near death situation. None of this happened. Honestly I didn’t have time to think anything except “shit”. If I said anything else it would be a lie.
It felt like an old wooden roller coaster when it hit. A wooden roller coaster taking ninety degree turns in a hurricane.
When the prose you write reads slower than the action in the story is happening, you should be writing a scene of great importance to the story. Slowing down the action is typically reserved for scenes of action (think of your favorite fight scene in a story), scenes where the narrator’s thoughts are very important to the story, or any other moment the reader wants to see more of. Think of slowing the action down like bullet time. This is your time to shine as an author. Slow it down and let the reader savor every detail.
There they are. The three speeds of pacing. Hopefully this will help you to match the speed of your prose with the speed the story should be moving. Just leave a comment if you have any questions.