Written by JJ Barnes
When critiquing stories, people will often refer to the pacing. I’ll explore what the pacing of your story is and give you a step by step guide to control it, and how to vary it scene by scene.
What Is Pacing?
The pacing of your story is the speed in which it moves from beginning to end. Some stories will be more slow paced, others faster. Ladies In Lavender is a slow paced film. It takes it’s time, it doesn’t rush. The Matrix is a fast paced film, it moves from scene to scene with determination.
Ladies in Lavender would suffer for pacing like The Matrix, and vice versa. Therefore it’s not possible to say one is superior to the other. The quality of pacing is based on the type of story you’re telling, rather than the speed at which you tell it.
How To Decide On Your Pacing
When you’re deciding on whether your story would benefit from a slower pace or a faster pace, focus on your characters and what they want. The higher the stakes of what they want, the faster the pace will be.
A story where failing to achieve their goal means the world is blown up will need a faster pace. Your characters will be much more focused on working for their goal, so they will move faster. A story where the goal is to rekindle and old friendship will be slower. Failure means disappointment, but not death.
How To Write A Slow Pace
A story with slow pacing allows your characters more time with their thoughts. They will have time to discuss ideas or memories, look at their scenery, understand their emotions. Slow pacing is focused on character development, and scenery is explored through diving into show don’t tell descriptions.
Picture yourself in the place of your character. If you were doing whatever they are doing, what would you be thinking about? If you’d be thinking about how beautiful the sky is, the sound of the water or the smell of the flowers, then so would your character. If you’d be thinking about the person you’re with and how to bond with them or memories you shared, then so would your character. Take the time to write those thoughts and feelings.
The pace will be slow. It’ll be ponderous and thoughtful. It’ll be emotional and filled with beautiful prose.
How To Write A Fast Pace
A story with fast pace is focused on action. There’s no time to have long emotional conversations or analyse the beautiful scenery because the stakes are high and they have to move. A fast pace is suited to stories with a killer on the loose, aliens landing, or terrorists about to blow up a building.
If you were in that scene, and you knew a bomb was ticking, you’d focus on movement. You would be concentrating on the pressure in front of you, finding the bomb, capturing the terrorist. A fast pace is focused on action and movement.
A face paced story builds pressure, grows stakes quickly. A fast pace is exciting and tense.
How To Vary Your Pace
Most stories are not constantly fast paced, or not constantly slow paced. Stories with a high stakes ending might speed up the pacing as the story moves, starting with a slower pace and moving to faster pace. Other stories will vary the pace from scene to scene, moving from a slow pace with one collection of characters, to a fast pace with another, at different points.
To vary the pace of your story, take it scene by scene. If the stakes in that scene are high, then don’t linger on detailed prose about the smells in the air or the memories your character is having. For a high stakes scene, keep them focused and active. If the scene you’re writing has low stakes, and your characters are having a romantic walk or talking about their memories, write a slower pace. Explore your Protagonists interiority in more detail.
Not Too Fast Or Too Slow
However speedy your pace is, if you don’t take any time to explore your characters thoughts, then it’ll be off-putting. You still need your audience to form an emotional bond with our characters in order for them to care about what happens. Equally so, if a slow paced story has no stakes at all, then it’ll just be boring and tedious.
Allow your pace to vary enough that your story is entertaining and your characters matter.
If your character is entering a life or death battle, it still needs a story setting. What room is the fight taking place in? Is it a big arena full of chanting crowds, or a small dark cave with a dripping ceiling? Both can be terrifying or intimidating, but both evoke a different emotional response in the reader. If your character is risking death, does he have anybody he loves that will be left behind? Did he make a promise to return to a beloved child? Those thoughts still deserve air, even if the character has to focus on the fight.
If your character is sitting in a field having a romantic picnic with a lover, your scene still needs stakes. If there is nothing that needs talking about, and it doesn’t really matter what happens, then the scene is pointless. You can spend time talking about what the field looks like and how the light bounces of his lovers eyes all you want. But if the slow paced scene adds literally nothing to your plot then it should be removed. A story with no stakes isn’t a story, it’s just a situation. And that’s boring.
Keep The Conflict Active At All Times
No matter what your story is about, and how fast or slow it moves, you need active conflict. At the start of your story you send your Protagonist on a mission. There is something they want and they are working to get it. Every scene should have that conflict at its core.
If your Protagonist wants nothing, your audience will want nothing. If your audience doesn’t want anything, they have no reason to care. If they have no reason to care, they have no reason to read or watch your story.
Any scene you send your Protagonist into, think about what they can do to move their story goal forwards. If they are always working for their goal, your story will be moving. Even slow paced stories need to move forwards or it’s just a tedious trudge through meaningless descriptions of things that have no value.
The pacing of your story can make or break it. You don’t want your audience to be bored, and you don’t want them to be so swamped by action that they don’t know what’s going on or why. Hook yourself into your Protagonist and what they want, and what they’d be thinking about whilst they are trying to get it. That is the root of controlling your story pacing.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose