Pace the story

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Narrative pace concerns how fast or slow the plot movement feels to the reader as they make their way through the story. Good pace enables the narrative to offer a feeling of smooth and constant movement, with no feeling of sluggishness or anti-climax anywhere in the story. Good pace isn’t just about fast plot movement; sometimes the pace needs to slow. Pace will vary. A slower pace at certain points is crucial in a story. Variation in pace contributes to the plot’s overall rising tension and so helps prevent the reader from losing interest in the story.

Pacing is one of the toughest skills to develop because it is entangled up with other narrative skills, and until we have mastered them we will simply not have the necessary ability to pace our story well. So pace is best understood by describing how it works within aspects of the narrative.

Here we will examine its dynamics within plot structure in the children’s short story (for the middle reader). An argument can be made that the perspective shown here is of equal importance to any type of story, so this post should be useful for all types of fiction writer.

Plot structure is static. The pace flows through the different plot points like a cross country runner over a course. The course itself is like the static plot and determines how the runner will pace himself at different points over its terrain. Early on in the race, the runner must conserve his energy and not run off too quickly. At certain points on the course, he may get bogged down in muddy ground or be forced to run slower uphill. At other points, he may run faster and effortlessly; for instance, downhill or on flat, hard countryside; and near the end of the race he might be sprinting against the competition in a tight finish. A smart runner will study the course beforehand so that he knows the right pace he must use on different sections of the ground. Just as he will know his course in order to prepare his pacing plan, the writer must also know his own terrain, the plot structure, so that he can also plan his pacing. The writer, of course, has one big advantage over the runner: it is his own course he is studying.

In the plot arc structure, where we have the set-up and inciting incident in Act 1, plenty of conflict in Act 2 and the climax in Act 3, we will be linking all the scenes of conflict/action by non-action scenes that must also help the tension rise. For this to happen, they must be paced correctly, which means we have to work out which scenes will be faster and which ones slower and also make sure slower ones don’t directly follow each other.

If you are not familiar with the 3 act plot structure it might be a good idea to read that post before continuing with this one.

Our conflict/action scenes will actually be slower paced and the non-action scenes faster paced. These non-action scenes are where the protagonist is ‘licking her wounds’. She is dealing with the consequences of the last direct bit of conflict while working out what to do next to overcome her opponent, the antagonist. Because these scenes are a link between the conflict/action scenes they need to be brisk paced and full of tension. The reader knows that greater conflict and risk is coming (or should be), and uncertainty prevails as to its outcome, so if we write these non-action scenes properly, the tension will only rise considerably.

The idea of pace can be quite confusing, especially as it is linked to tension and tension only makes the reader more absorbed in the writing. If pace is not only about length, but also about being absorbed in the narrative then we might ask: why aren’t the action scenes also seen as fast paced? Well, action scenes are slower paced because they are generally longer in a children’s short story with much more description added. When the reading is highly absorbing, it will seem as though we get through long scenes quite quickly. In the faster-paced scenes, there is less writing, particularly description, and so the actual reading is done quicker. This is why we get a smooth feeling to our reading when both types of scene are done well. If our linking scene was pointlessly long (overly described, for example), it would corrupt the smooth pace of the story because it would become unnecessarily slower. It would cause a drag in the story.

Below is the plot outline of one of my children’s short stories Paddy’s Beard. Here we will look at it from a pacing perspective.

This first scene builds quickly with direct conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. The scene is longer and slower paced than the following one.

Scene 1. Set-up and inciting incident. Mr Scalppen starts at school, terrifies the class, tells them he hates hair, spots Paddy, pulls his beard, demands he gets rid of it.

The second scene is faster in pace. Here the protagonist is licking his wounds and uncertainty and tension hang in the air.

Scene 2. Small scene at home. Mum really annoyed. Paddy licking his wounds. What to do?

Next is a conflict scene with lots of dialogue, slower paced but with plenty of tension.

Scene 3. Head’s study. Mum and Paddy have it out with Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen wins argument over the beard but lies to get his way. Mr Scalppen doesn’t admit to wanting the beard gone because he hates hair: he says, the beard makes Paddy stick out and not conforming this way will have the other children doing their own thing and then the dress code will be shot to pieces (important plot point here: Mr Scalppen’s lie comes back to haunt him in the last scene). Paddy must get rid of his beard before the new term.

Now we have a faster-paced, short scene with tension.

Scene 4. We find out mum makes potions. Paddy had measles when young. Mum gave potion to help get rid of measles and beard started growing as she mixed potion too strong.

Next is a slower-paced, big conflict/action scene.

Scene 5. In classroom between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Ends in a draw.

Then we have a mid-paced scene, full of tension.

Scene 6. At home with mum. Lowest point for Paddy. Mr Scalppen has slipped something into his drink and made him go bald. Mum decides to fight fire with fire.

Then a faster-paced, tiny scene, full of tension.

Scene 7. Paddy brings lemonade to school with hair-growing potion in it. Still a low point for Paddy as things don’t go according to plan. Teacher won’t drink lemonade but lets the class drink it. End of term.

Finally, a slower-paced, conflict scene.

Scene 8. Start of new term. Last scene and final showdown between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen’s lies from Scene 3 come back to haunt him as he has to try and deal with an unexpected twist related to Paddy’s mum’s potion. Paddy’s classmates now have beards as the teacher gave them the hair-growing lemonade to drink. Now Paddy is the odd one out – he has no beard. So the head insists it’s only right and proper that Paddy should grow a beard so as not to stick out from the others. That was Mr Scalppen’s whole point and why the head gave in and told Paddy to get rid of the beard in the first place. The teacher has been caught out. Unable to take all this hairiness a moment longer, he flees the classroom never to return.

Here it is really condensed so we can’t possibly miss the pattern. The story is 4,550 words long and has 8 scenes. Note the difference in word length between the faster-paced scenes and the slower-paced ones.

Scene 1, (1,055 words) slower paced, action,

Scene 2, (206 words) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 3, (649 words) slower paced, conflict

Scene 4, (225) faster paced, licking wounds

Scene 5, (715 words) slower paced, action

Scene 6, (446 words) mid paced, licking wounds

Scene 7, (141 words) faster paced

Scene 8, (1,106 words) slower paced, conflict

This switching between action and non-action scenes and their different and appropriate word lengths within the plot structure gives the plot movement a feeling of smoothness.

Let’s use an analogy with juggling to show how pace variation in these conflict and non-conflict scenes work in another medium. This will demonstrate why pace variation is necessary for the continual rise of tension. When the juggler is in the middle of a spectacular demonstration, things seem to slow down and work in slow motion due to the increased tension. In fact, a long time might pass but it is hardly noticed by the audience who are too busy marvelling at the spectacle. This is his slower-paced period because he is much more involved in his activity and is taking longer over it. Then, in between these exciting activities, he is still juggling a little but is really resting and preparing himself for the next highlight. This resting is his faster-paced period because it is much shorter in time and his juggling will be much less involved. This is a necessary interval in which both he and the audience can catch their breath and refocus their attention. But something else of great importance is happening here. Soon his body language indicates that he is getting ready to up the stakes and do something much more spectacular, thereby increasing the chances of dropping the skittles. The tension is rising now, and continues to rise during each resting period because he is always preparing to go on and do something even more spectacular and risky.

Now we know it is the same for the story. We crave the spectacle but we don’t just want continuous action. We just as much crave the build-up between the combative action scenes because that gives us a moment to savour the feelings of rising uncertainty and tension regarding what will follow next. Pace variation greatly helps to achieve this.

So remember: The pace moves through the plot structure like a cross-country runner moving over a course. The runner’s change of pace, faster or slower, will depend on the terrain on various points of the course. The flow of the pace in the story, faster or slower, will depend on the type of scene it is travelling through. We will have more description and therefore slower pacing in the action scenes, and faster pacing with far less description in the non-action scenes which are usually much shorter in length. Switching continuously between action and non-action scenes keeps the pace feeling smooth and lively.


This post is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 8, Pace the story, from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.

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