How to Create Strong Pacing For Your Story
Note: This article is an overhauled + updated version of "How to Nail Your Novel Pacing", which originally appeared on the blog on April 16th, 2015.
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Books are a bit like amusement park rides.
They come in all shapes and sizes and even levels of thrill, with enough variation that there are few who don’t enjoy any sort of ride at all. But there is one element that all rides must have if they're to succeed: an expectation of pace.
Fast rides fly. Slow rides meander. But it’s rare that a ride will catapult between high and low speeds until the rider begs to be removed. Why? Well, the intense change in pacing would leave most riders bewildered—and likely a bit nauseated, too.
The same goes for stories that lack consistent pacing. So let's avoid bewildering, and perhaps even nauseating, our readers, shall we? Buckle up, writers. We’re about to go for a ride!
What constitutes strong pacing?
Let’s begin by dispelling a common writing myth: the speed of a story’s pace actually matters very little in comparison to the consistency of the pace itself. Just like amusement park rides, stories of different paces will appeal to different readers. And that’s a-okay!
So let’s worry less about whether our stories are too slow or too fast-paced, and instead focus on whether certain parts of our stories fall into one of those categories.
The best way to create consistent pacing is not to fix pacing issues in revisions (though we’ll certainly have to do that from time to time, too), but rather to understand the foundations of strong pacing so we can build it into our stories from the start.
Strong pacing, believe it or not, begins with structure. No matter which plot structure (or lack thereof) a book utilizes, most stories do hit a few key beats that ring true with readers:
Beat #1: The Hook. Most books kick off with a first chapter that introduces the main character, presents the way in which the main character is dissatisfied in life, and encourages readers to feel some sort of emotional connection with this character so they begin to root for their success.
Beat #2: The 1st Plot Point. Somewhere around or before the 25% mark of a book, an event occurs that forces the main character to finally confront the dissatisfaction in their lives (or do so in a new way). And so their journey begins!
Beat #3: The Midpoint. Roughly 50% of the way through a book, the main character experiences a serious conflict that changes the game, pushing them to ignore any previous reservations and tackle their goal with renewed gusto.
Beat #4: The Climactic Sequence. As we near the end of a book, the story’s conflict reaches a fever pitch during the climactic sequence—a make-or-break moment or series of events that determines the outcome of your main character’s story.
Beat #5: The Resolution. In the final pages of most books, remaining loose threads are tied up and the main character’s new everyday normal is established—hopefully, a far better one than they had at the beginning of their story.
These five story beats are so common across all storytelling mediums that books that lack them often seem off-kilter…or should I say off-beat? By therefore employing each of these major beats in your own stories, you’ll lay the groundwork for strong, consistent pacing.
But what about all the chapters between these beats? How can we ensure readers stay interested long enough to reach them?
Throwing The Emperor Off His Groove...
While addressing plot expectations is a fantastic place to begin building consistent pacing for your story, it won’t solve all your story’s pacing problems. Consistent pacing is all about the balance between action and reaction. Cause and effect. Conflict and consequence.
No matter how you word it, if too few or too many of these types of scenes worm their way in between your story’s major beats, you’re going to throw the emperor off his groove...sorry, your pacing. You’re going to throw your pacing off its groove. And that will likely get you—or rather, your book—thrown out a reader’s window.
So, how can we ensure our stories’ cause-and-effect plays out properly? This is where the Pacing Cycle comes into play!
Let’s Talk About The Pacing Cycle…
In between each beat of a story, the main character typically cycles through four key stages—one representing action and three representing reaction. This is what I like to call the Pacing Cycle, and it goes a bit like this:
Stage #1: A conflict occurs.
An instance of external conflict—be it a fight, a competition, an argument, etc.—occurs, typically between the main character and the story’s key antagonist, though any other antagonistic force or physical roadblock will do.
This represents an instance of action.
Stage #2: The main character addresses physical consequences.
After an external conflict takes place, the main character is left to deal with the immediate physical consequences, which could be anything from stanching the bleeding of a wound to drowning themselves in a stiff drink, or so on.
This represents the first stage of reaction.
Stage #3: The main character confront internal consequences.
After dealing with the physical consequences of an instance of conflict, your character should address—or possibly repress—the emotional ramifications of the conflict, which can range from joy at a victory to intense grief, fear, or anxiety surrounding a loss.
This represents the second stage of reaction.
Stage #4: The main character accepts their new reality.
It’s only after dealing with both the physical and emotional consequences of the conflict that the main character is able to accept how the conflict has changed their lives and resolve to push forward despite or because of it.
This represents the final stage of reaction.
After a character has accepted their new reality, the Pacing Cycle repeats with the next instance of conflict.
In some cases, these moments may overlap or interact, and that’s alright. The key lies in giving your characters—and thus your readers—the opportunity to properly address each moment of conflict and consequence throughout your story.
Bonus Tip: Some writers find it helpful to maintain a relatively consistent word count during each cycle in their story. For example, if you wrote 4,000 words between your story’s first two plot points, you may find it helpful to write roughly 3,500 - 4,500 words between the next two conflicts to ensure consistent pacing.
This is certainly not a hard-and-fast rule, but this kind of structure can provide a bit of consolation to writers who struggle with consistency and often fear they’re throwing their story out of whack.
But is there ever a time to break the Pacing Cycle—and your story’s consistent pacing with it? Let’s talk about that!
When to break the Pacing Cycle…
External conflict is what keeps your plot moving forward, even in character-driven books, so I don’t recommend skipping stage one of the Pacing Cycle at any point in your story.
That said, there are indeed instances in which you should break from your story’s consistent pacing. This should always be done strategically, however, rather than incidentally. Remember, the point of pacing is to provide a general sense of expectation to readers…
"The beginning of this story was rather snappy. Seems like it’ll be a fast-paced one! "
"I love how detailed this story world is. I can't wait to settle in!"
But there are, in fact, moments in which readers expect your story’s pacing to increase or decrease in order to amplify its tension or to provide a necessary breather. For example...
Example #1. The climb toward the climactic sequence.
Most readers expect the pace of the plot to pick up as they near the story's climactic sequence, just as they expect the thrills of an amusement park ride to increase before they take that last terrifying plunge. In this case, you can increase your story’s pacing, and thus its page-turning suspense, by cutting your characters’ reaction time.
If your characters can’t properly address the ramifications of a conflict before the next one begins, they’ll be thrown into that conflict at a disadvantage, raising the stakes in that scene and encouraging readers to fly through the pages to find out what happens next.
Example #2: The Dark Night of The Soul.
Building off our first example, many books experience a dramatic decrease in pacing in the moments immediately preceding its climactic sequence, in a plot point known as The Dark Night of The Soul. In this instance, the story still increases in pacing as it draws near the climactic sequence, but gets sucker-punched at the last moment when the main character is blindsided by an unexpected loss.
The main character must confront and overcome whatever remaining doubt, fear, flaw, or regret has plagued their journey before they can rise from the ashes and tackle the climax of their story with renewed passion.
Think of this instance as the split second at the top of a rollercoaster when the whole world comes to a halt. Anticipation increases until the rollercoaster finally plunges and you experience the biggest thrill yet!
Example #3: Extended reaction times after major plot points.
Another common place to decrease your story's pacing is immediately following its bigger plot points. This gives characters and readers alike a moment to pause and reflect on all that's happened—and to prepare for what’s to come.
If there are moments in your story where you feel the plot or its characters could benefit from more or less action, don’t be afraid to play around with the Pacing Cycle, adjusting or even cutting one or more of its stages. Just ensure that you’re doing so with intentionality rather than a lack thereof, and you’ll be the emperor of the groove your story needs.
Writer, I hope you found a lot of value in today’s pacing breakdown and got a kick out of all my Emperor’s New Groove references, too. If you haven’t seen that movie yet, I’m assigning it for homework this week. Go watch it. It is hilarious!
Have any questions about the Pacing Cycle and how you can apply it to your work? Don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below. You can also join in the conversation over on Facebook!