What IS the pace of a novel?
The pace of a novel is how quickly the story moves along. When you receive the feedback that your story is dragging, that nothing seems to be happening, or that (horrors!) the story is boring… those are all probably signs that you need to pick up the pace.
If you’re writing a mystery, thriller, or suspense you already know the importance of a tight pace that keeps a reader turning pages. Chapter books, middle grade, and YA also need to keep things moving at a clip (because young people’s attention spans certainly aren’t getting any longer). In fact, most novels, no matter the genre, can benefit from taking a close look at the pacing.
How do you improve the pace of your novel?
#2 Consider where your story REALLY starts
Often in first drafts there’s a lot of “throat clearing” at the beginning. Consider your first fifty pages. Are you including lots of backstory? Do you have several chapters of set-up? Where’s the catalyst that gets the story ball rolling? Try to start the novel as close to the catalyst as possible. Often you can weave in the backstory as you go — or delete it altogether.
#3 Arrive late, leave early
This is a screenwriter adage, but it works for novelists, too. When writing a scene, begin with the action already in place, and start as close to the main meat of the scene as possible. Don’t linger in the scene too long either. Get in, get out, and move on.
#4 Skip ahead
Do we really need a scene of your character riding the bus to school, walking through the hallway, stopping at her locker? Maybe we can just start with her entering the cafeteria, about to have a confrontation with her enemy. Sometimes we think we have to get our characters to their scenes, but readers can make the jump.
Again, think of your novel as a movie. A new chapter or a space break is all we need to cut to a new setting, a new day. And if you really feel the reader needs it, you can add a quick transition like, “The next day…” or “Later, at school…”
#5 Short scenes and chapters keep things moving
I don’t know about you, but when the chapters are short, it seems so much easier to keep turning the pages. “Just one more chapter…” I find this works especially well for middle grade and YA.
#6 Ask yourself if each scene is pulling its weight
Every scene in your novel should have a purpose, whether it’s showing a character’s motivation, revealing a clue, or moving the plot forward. If you’re not sure what the purpose of a scene is… could be a sign it needs to be cut.
#7 For fast-paced action, use short sentences and paragraphs
When you really want to speed things up, like in an action, chase, or fight scene, consider using short, choppy sentences (or sentence fragments) and short paragraphs.
#8 But sometimes you need to slow it down!
Of course the goal is not to leave your reader’s head spinning with a nonstop fast pace. Sometimes you want to slow things down. Maybe a character needs to reflect on what just happened, or you need to emphasize a pivotal moment in the story. Horror novels are a great example of needing slow pacing (as you build dread) followed by bursts of fast-paced action.
Look at your overall story arc and consider which scenes should move quickly and which should be slower paced. In the slower scenes, you can include more interiority (a character’s internal thoughts) and more description. In fact, this might be a place where some procedural language is useful. Think again about a horror novel, and how a character moving up a flight of stairs might be slowed down with detailed (even procedural!) description:
I gripped the handrail and gingerly placed my foot on the next step, wincing as the wood let out a groan. I stood there for a moment, heart pounding in my throat. Had the noise stopped? But no, there it came again. A low murmur, like someone was in my bedroom, talking to themselves. Except it couldn’t be. I was home alone. Wasn’t I? I took another step, the old stairs creaking loudly beneath my bare feet.
Obviously you could just write, “I walked up the stairs to investigate the weird noise coming from my bedroom.” But where would be the fun in that?
For more ways to improve your writing, check out my post on Line Editing, or subscribe to my free substack newsletter for writers, which is always chockfull of writing advice and resources.