The Challenge of Pacing
by Vaughn Treude
To many outsiders, writing looks easy. As with most worthwhile pursuits, the challenges aren’t obvious to beginners. You can be good at spelling and grammar and even be able to craft a coherent narrative. Your characters could be interesting and engaging. Yet your story still might not be engaging to readers. One of the most important factors in getting this right – and one of the most difficult to master – is pacing.
Pacing is the rate at which the story unfolds. This depends on the ratio between description, dialog, and action. It’s a matter of personal style, of course, and it varies between genres. Going too slowly may bore your readers, but go too quickly and you could lose them. In modern times, the trend has been toward faster paced fiction. That may be, in part, because there’s so much competition for peoples’ attention. If you’ve read classics such as Don Quixote or Moby Dick, you know that narratives written in those times moved much more slowly. Today, people are accustomed to watching television shows and movies with non-stop action, like a J.J. Abrams sci-fi adventure. It makes writing an engaging story much more challenging.
Fiction is, by its nature, a compromise between description and action. Getting a feel for the setting is an important part of the reader’s experience, especially if the story is set back in history or on an future alien world. Too much atmosphere, however, can test your reader’s patience. On the other hand, a story that is all action reads like an outline or a play where actors duke it out on a bare stage.
Are there any rules of thumb a writer can use to ensure good pacing? It’s difficult to formulate one that will work for everyone. Genres and writing styles differ. Even “action” can be difficult to define. It’s not necessarily violence, danger, and mayhem. It can be the struggle of an athlete to score that winning goal, or an emotional argument between friends.
One approach some writers take is to highlight the portions of their prose with different colors for action, description, and dialog, to try to ensure a proper balance between these. I haven’t tried this yet, because my beta reader (my ever-patient wife, Arlys) catches me when I do this.
Other authors have offered more specific advice. Sci-fi master A.E. van Vogt made sure all his stories had a plot twist every few pages. I kept this in mind when working on a recent short story and found that it really helped keep things moving.
The notion that writing fiction is easy is a popular misconception. Even after one masters the basics of grammar, plot, and dialog, it’s still necessary to hold the reader’s attention. In order to achieve that, the writer must master the art of pacing.
Vaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out his works at VaughnTreude.com and look for his exciting new website, SteampunkDesperado.com, coming soon!