From the Front Lines: Finding the perfect pacing for your prose

The secret to good writing that never confuses, bores, or leads the reader astray? It’s all in the timing.

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I’ve been signing up for races of all sorts for a really, really long time. And, at the start line of each of these races, no matter whether they’re adventure races, triathlons, 10Ks, or marathons, I’m never quick out of the gate. I always mutter to myself, “pace yourself, pace yourself, pace yourself.”

This is at least in part because I’m a recklessly irresponsible human and don’t train properly. And then, when I get to race day, I’m forced to underperform, so that I can be assured of actually getting to the finish line. This is not anything to aspire to or train for. My friends who are truly elite athletes will say that you should finish every race having left it all out on the course. What’s the point, otherwise?

But what I go for is some sense of internal “rightness” when it comes to pace, some kind of barometer that tells me that I’m striking the right pace for finishing the race. And it can be a great way to write a story or an essay. In fact, “pace yourself” is something I mutter regularly to writers as I’m reading their short stories or essays, even though I know they can’t hear me. (I also do something similar when I’m watching action movies: “Now why the hell would you do that?” is a thing I have been known to yell at the screen.)

First, some loose definitions: What does this reader think of as great pacing? Well, it’s just the hallmark of a work that keeps me turning pages without feeling lost or confused or wondering where we’re going.

And then, some ideas on what great pacing isn’t, necessarily:

It doesn’t have to be some predictable plot device, like the Hero’s Journey or even the tried-and-true three-act structure of a great film.

It isn’t strictly the purview of thrillers or suspense novels.

It isn’t always about character development.

From my desk (or couch, or bed, or chaise longue, or whatever reading location), it’s a matter of timing. And it’s also about a little thing I think of as valuing your readers’ time and the investment they’ve made in your story.

If that’s all a little nebulous, that’s OK. I sometimes think writers can’t actually see their story until they’re able to see it with fresh eyes, just as a reader would experience it. If you’re reading a work that’s paced wrong, you may get the impression that you’re just hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Or that you’re experiencing some kind of whiplash, where things are happening too fast for you to track – or they’re happening so fast you can’t tell why they’re important to the plotline or the character.

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I’ll give you some examples:

In a few recent stories I’ve read, our protagonist sits in a coffee shop, bar, or living room, or maybe in their office, ruminating over a recent breakup. Nothing else happens for some time, and there is a good amount of space dedicated to things like what the protagonist misses about the relationship. Or maybe beating up oneself over the relationship. It’s quite some time before anything actually happens, if anything happens at all.

In another kind of story, the protagonist, and some members of the cast of characters, are described at great length. Or maybe the setting is described at great length. Eventually, the descriptions run out of steam, and all the action – setup, denouement, conclusion – happens in a few pages. The reader feels jostled, confused.

In yet another kind of narrative, the writer spends a lot of time describing what brought the character to a certain point in time. Or the writer springs immediately into flashback after throwing something in media res at the reader. Or the writer introduces a character only to have that character go away for some time, not to be seen for pages and pages.

Each of these situations results in pacing problems – the reader feels impatient, or the reader feels rushed, or the reader feels cheated out of important information. But each of these is also deeply connected to one major problem: a good sense of timing.

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In the first situation, we are looking at a lack of conflict: The breakup has already happened, so nothing is really propelling the protagonist to act. (And, there is no reason for the reader to worry, since “the worst” that could happen has already occurred off-page.) In the second, we are looking at a case of throat-clearing, where the writer doesn’t quite know where to start and so spends too much time on atmospherics before we get to the meat of the story. In the third case, the story has started too early, or too late, or just at the wrong time for the protagonist’s actions to matter to the reader. (Flashback is a key indication that the story we’ve opened with isn’t necessarily the story that needs to be told, when you consider everything else: setting, character, narrative arc.)

But in each of these cases, we must ask ourselves: Why are we meeting the characters at this particular juncture in their timeline? What is going to happen, or what has just happened, for this moment to be remarkable? Or, quoting writer Mike Copperman, who paraphrased the writer Elizabeth Bowen to me: “A story is the moment, after which, a character’s life is never the same.” When writers can nail down this moment, a lot of pacing problems, I think, can disappear awfully fast.

The writer must, of course, also remain vigilant over the course of the story, even after they’ve discovered what the moment of story is for themselves. Because after we’ve identified that moment, which serves as the body of the story, there’s still all of that interstitial stuff: Figuring out when to introduce new characters. Making sure the characters react in the right space of time to major events and minor revelations as they grow through the narrative. Keeping your character growing and changing. These, too, are related to pacing. They are in service to keeping the contract you’ve entered into with the reader, committing your characters and plot to ensuring, ultimately, that your reader stays entertained and interested over the course of your story or essay.

Granted, you’re not going to win over every reader. Pleasing everyone shouldn’t ever be the reason you write anything, right? But great pacing will give you a long leg up on making stories that keep readers turning pages, and coming back for more of your work.

—Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.

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