How Fast is Fast Enough? A Question of Pacing.

For a young to moderately old dog (face it, Tock, that second one is you) who’s chasing after something that’s running away, catching up to it as fast as possible seems to consume them. They extend their stride and fly over the ground, stretching and leaping…

Dog bounding uphill

…until wham, they reach it. And stop dead. For a short moment to a long while, depending on both the dog and the object that’s been caught, nothing happens. No running, no excited barking and whining, nothing at all except perhaps the chomping of the dog’s jaws, or the sniffing of the place where the thing disappeared.

Dog standing still

If we translate this into the universal language of writers, these two actions would exist at the furthest extremes of what we know as pacing—a critical concept that governs the ebb and flow of a story’s narrative and a reader’s sense of time. The narrative might rocket along, perhaps getting a character away from an evil villain or blasting someone into another universe, the reader turning pages so fast their fingers begin to blister. Or the action might vanish altogether, leaving the story dwelling on a single moment, a deep thought, or a detailed description of setting. Or the story could settle on a pace somewhere in between.

When I received an early critique of one of my first manuscripts long ago, one line in the editorial letter stuck out to me more than the rest: Your pacing is inconsistent. Unfortunately, the editor didn’t provide examples and went on to discuss other things. In my naiveté, I didn’t know whether this remark was meant to point out something good or something bad. After many more years of writing and both giving and receiving critiques, I reached the conclusion that that editorial comment had pointed out something I’d done that was very bad indeed. A reader doesn’t want to feel jolted out of high-speed mode, or conversely, thrust ahead without warning.

Child pulling resistant dog on leash
Photo credit: Vidar Nordli Mathisen

Consistency in pacing is especially important when discriminating one genre from another. When we pick up a thriller or an adventure, we expect almost non-stop action from start to finish. We want a book heavy on plot, with a relatively small amount of time spent digressing into characters, their thoughts, and their backstories. We want a book we could inhale in a single night if we so desire. Conversely, when we pick up a book of literary fiction, we’re anticipating a long, slow read in which we can take time to appreciate each poetic phrase, each carefully chosen word, each well-developed character, no matter how secondary they are to the plot.

But what about all those books in the middle, which might require an equal treatment of plot and character? Crime Novels, Psychological Thrillers, Women’s Fiction, and Mysteries, for instance (author Elizabeth George’s contemporary mysteries are just one example of masterful blending of plot and character). Or stories that need to incorporate lots of slow-paced world-building, like Sci-fi and Fantasy? And don’t forget the many books that cross genres, like “literary thrillers.” In all of these categories, I’m not so sure anymore that consistent pacing is necessary. Or even desirable.

Lest this alarm you, let me clarify. I’m not advocating that your story should stop and start haphazardly. If you do that, your poor reader will end up disjointed and confused, probably with a headache. They’ll feel like a dog might who’s expecting a nice, relaxing amble, and instead is yanked around on the end of leash, or ordered to do lots of things for no apparent purpose.

Poor Tock was a bit confused when told to lie down shortly after being told to come.

Instead, what I’m suggesting is that it’s perfectly fine to change your pace as long as there’s a reason for it. Or as long as it’s consistent with the plot and character arcs at that moment (this is what I now think that past editor must have meant!). If the plot demands a page or a chapter of tense action, the reader will expect it. Alternatively, if you’re moving characters into a new location, your readers will likely become confused unless you slow down and spend a paragraph describing the scenery. Your characters are allowed to act as fast or slow or erratically as you need them to—as long as you’ve included some inner thoughts that explain their actions. Only then will the readers understand (and anticipate) pacing changes.

We fully expect Tock to come to a sudden stop in another second because we know in advance that his main goal is to catch the frisbee.

I like to view pacing as a continuum. It’s perfectly okay to shift gears, either gradually or slowly. The trick, ultimately, lies in whether the change in pacing makes sense. Like a dog on an exploration, readers look forward to speeding up and then slowing down, over and over through the course of a story.

Dog sniffing snow
A lot of dogs are happiest when they’re just allowed to be dogs—going for a walk, running, or stopping to sniff as they see fit.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a story that’s fast-paced from start to finish is in danger of tiring a reader out so much that they can’t finish. After a fast section that spans many pages, your characters—and your readers—will appreciate a brief rest via a retreat into thoughts or dialogue.

Panting dog
Tock’s dearly departed older “sister,” Moth

And conversely, be careful not to spend too long on your slow sections. They take longer to read and process, and are best digested in little bits, interspersed throughout more active scenes. Otherwise, you risk losing your readers to boredom … or worse!

Sleeping dog

If only I’d realized long ago that the phrase inconsistent pacing really means illogical pacing. Pacing, in other words, that is too fast or too slow to make sense at that point in the story. So the next time you read through your work, pretend as though you’re starting out on a delightful walk with your dog. Let him stroll, let him trot or gallop or jump in the air, let him stop to sniff and pee and paw at the soil—and then start moving again. As long as he’s having a good time, you’re doing it right.

Dog trotting across landscape

Happy Tales!