Well, for today, I thought that I’d take a beginner-level look at the topic of pacing. In particular, I’ll be looking at some of the ways that writers make sure that a story is read quickly or slowly.
Whilst reading speed does depend on the skill of the reader, there are a lot of sneaky ways that writers can speed up or slow down the story that they are telling.
So, here are three of the more basic techniques.
1) Language and sentence length: Simply put, longer sentences with more complex/formal language (and punctuation) slow a story down. Short, simple sentences speed it up.
To give you an example, here’s a single sentence from a slower-paced historical novel (“Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel) that I’m reading at the moment: ‘You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the afternoon heat.’
Whew! That’s a long sentence! Although Mantel uses a few subtle techniques (eg: lists, repetition, using the present tense, breaking the sentence up into smaller chunks with semicolons etc..) to speed up the pace of this sentence a little bit, this is still a reasonably slow-paced segment of the book thanks to the formal language, the complex punctuation and the sheer length of this sentence.
Now, compare it to this paragraph from Ashley McConnell’s fast-paced novelisation of the first episode of “Stargate SG-1”: ‘O’ Neill shook his head. He thought about saying more and decided not to. That wound wasn’t healed. He didn’t deserve to have it heal.‘
As you can see, this paragraph contains four sentences and it’s still shorter than the longer sentence from Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”. Likewise, the language is kept fairly simple, informal and “matter of fact”. Each sentence also contains very little punctuation too. It’ll take you less time to read this group of four sentences than it will take you to read the one sentence from “Bring Up The Bodies”.
Of course, most novels (including the two I’ve quoted from) will contain a mixture of longer, shorter, complex and simple sentences. Changing these things will change how fast each sentence will be read. And, overall, a novel with more long, complex sentences will be “slower” than a novel with more short, simple sentences will be.
2) Descriptions vs. Actions: Descriptions of scenery, people or objects will usually be slower to read than descriptions of actions will be. When a segment of a novel is devoted to actions, the reader is more likely to read quickly because they want to know what happens next. However, when a segment of a novel describes something, the reader has to take the time to picture what the writer is describing.
So, descriptions are more slow-paced than actions are. A story’s pacing depends on how the two are balanced. This is why, for example, a fast-paced thriller novel might occasionally include a few paragraphs of slow-paced descriptions in order to give their readers a short break from all of the fast-paced actions in the rest of the story. Whereas, a slower-paced novel will often make sure that descriptions appear frequently and consistently throughout the story.
Likewise, dialogue is often quicker to read than descriptions are. Although dialogue isn’t quite as fast-paced as actions, the rhythm of a back-and-forth conversation between two characters will often mean that these parts of the story will move slightly more quickly.
3) Curiosity and chapters: Curiosity is the thing that makes people read stories. The more curious a reader feels, the faster they will plough through a story to find answers. As such, faster-paced stories will often include lots of mini-cliffhangers at the end of each chapter (eg: “John opened the door. He couldn’t believe what he saw…”).
Fast-paced stories will often keep their chapters reasonably short too, so that the reader feels like they’re progressing through the story faster than they actually are. And, of course, shorter chapters also mean more space for mini-cliffhangers too.
These mini-cliffhangers will often be resolved 2-3 chapters after they happen (usually by having 2-3 story threads/sub-plots), so that the reader is forced to plough through an extra chapter or two (with their own mini-cliffhangers) to get there. All of this adds up to a very fast-paced and gripping story.
On the other hand, a slower-paced novel will often control the pacing by keeping the chapters slightly longer and ensuring that the reader’s curiosity is about larger background things rather than smaller immediate events. This is usually achieved by focusing on other things like atmosphere, characterisation and intriguing ideas. Yes, slow-paced stories will usually include something that makes the reader feel curious, but it isn’t the central attraction in the way it usually is in faster-paced stories.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂