For the longest time, pacing was my craft nemesis. I would write books that were basically all beginning, with a rushed middle, and then they would just END. And I could tell something was totally off about my structure, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to fix it. It took me several years (and several trunked novels) to find that balance—to know when to speed up (my beginnings), but also when to slow down (my endings).
Here are a few thoughts on how and when to tighten pacing.
Commit to the premise.
Often, when we look at story structure/beat sheets like the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat where the MC is invited on a journey, there’s a part where the MC refuses the call and contemplates not going. It’s understandable. If a stranger showed up at your door and offered you money for retrieving an ancient book, your first thought might be “um who are you and why should I trust you?”
I used spend forever drawing out that part. The MC would go through all the reasons why they shouldn’t go on the quest. I felt like I had to prove that I was smart—that I’d thought of every single thing that might go wrong and thwart any clever reader who might try to poke holes in my logic.
And true, the rare reader might say, “This part makes no sense. Why would the MC trust this stranger?” But here’s the thing. We all know the MC is going to go on the quest. If they didn’t go, there would be no book.
I feel like romances actually do this really well. They never over explain meet cutes or tropes because they know their audience is there FOR those things. Is it unbelievable a princess and a baker trade lives without anyone noticing? Sure. Is it going to stop people from enjoying it? Hell no!
Focus on your character’s desire.
But committing to the premise can have a drawback: it can feel like your character is doing things just for the sake of story—like the MC accepting a quest immediately because that’s literally the plot of the book.
Instead of focusing on the debate or why the MC shouldn’t go, I realized that if I spent time explaining the character’s desires and therefore their motivations for why they should go, the deciding incident naturally fell into place. And it actually moved everything after that along quicker too, since I didn’t need to waste time repeating what the stakes were if the character failed.
Let’s say the stranger is back at your door offering you money for retrieving that magical book. But now you have a sick family member and you have to buy expensive medication to keep them alive. Now it makes sense why you’d agree to get that book for a stranger—and what the cost is if you fail or if the stranger betrays you.
Scenes should do multiple things.
The biggest discovery I made about pacing was realizing that my scenes couldn’t just be focused on one thing. In my first book, I would write scenes with a single goal in mind. For example the goal for one scene might be: show that character X and character Y argue a lot. So I’d write a scene where they were arguing over a cup of coffee. The next scene’s goal might be: show that character X and character Y are looking for clues about a break in. So then I’d write that scene. And so on.
The easiest way to tighten pacing is to just combine those scenes. Have the characters argue while they look for clues. That way the story is moving forward even as we discover more about the characters and their dynamic.
Tell don’t show.
We all want to make things difficult for the MC. You want to feel like they earned every milestone or piece of information, that nothing was just handed to them. But it took me a long time to realize how to spot and avoid unnecessary detours.
Some things are easier to show in film. A quick jail break or a fight scene is done in a minute and can easily convey that the character is skilled or clever. But in a book every additional scene has the opportunity to detract from the tension you’re building.
If the obstacle doesn’t add something vital—a new piece of information that can’t be gained any other way or a really important character moment—maybe it’s better to just skip it. Sometimes showing takes too long and doesn’t really add value. Sometimes all you need is a quirk transition and move on to the next major thing.
Now that we’ve talked about when to speed things up, here are some scenarios in which you might want to slow things down.
Highlight key information.
World building is one of my favorite parts of writing fantasy, but it can also quickly become overwhelming for a reader. When we introduce readers to new worlds, its hard to make sure they feel oriented and grounded in that world. They might be getting a ton of new words or descriptions in a short amount of time and it can be hard to know what to pay attention to.
This is where I like to slow things down and really highlight what I want to make sure the reader knows. If it’s a very pivotal piece of information—like how my magic system works, for example—then I might write an entire scene with that element as the focal point. If it’s a smaller piece of information, I might have characters converse about it to lend it weight or use repetition to make sure readers remember that element.
Weave emotions into the climax.
Endings are always the hardest part for me. In my books, the action tends to ramp up the closer I get to the end. And we’re told often not to write too many thoughts or emotions into action scenes, to keep our sentences short and snappy and focused on the action. While I think that’s generally good advice, I do believe having nonstop action near the end can make endings feel really rushed.
I used to think that having emotional processing in the middle of my climax would cause the tension and stakes to fall. But when I saw how rushed my endings were, I realized I needed to take some time to show the characters reacting to and processing the events around them. And I found my endings actually got stronger when we got to see the moments the characters grow and complete their arc rather than going through the action, and then having the character realize how much they’ve changed afterwards.
Pacing is hard. And ultimately, the best tip I have is to study authors who you feel do it well. Think back to that last book you flew through–that book that when you put down, you couldn’t help but constantly think about until you picked it back up again. And now reread that book and pay attention to how the plot unfolds, which moments they speed up, and where they slow down. And if you’re still unsure, be sure to get critique partner eyes on your manuscript to help pinpoint where things might be moving too slowly or quickly.
What are your favorite pacing tips? I’d love to hear them down in the comments below!