How To Write a Narrative With Pace

Learning how to write a narrative with the right pace is one of the most crucial writing skills there is. Get it wrong and you are seriously jeopardizing your chances of success.

You see, writing a novel with poor pacing is one of the biggest things that newcomers to novel writing screw up on.

  • Sometimes (not very often), the pace is way too quick.
  • Mostly, though, it is too slow, too leisurely.

What does writing a narrative with a good pace entail?

There is really nothing complicated about it. It simply means producing a passage of writing that is fast (pacey) enough not to leave the readers yawning, but slow enough that you don't leave them unsatisfied. Oh, and the pace should not be all the same, either.

If you really want to grasp how to write a narrative with the correct pace, think of reading a novel like taking a trip downstream in a boat. You need plenty of white water for excitement. And you need calmer stretches in between for the readers to draw breath and take in the beautiful scenery.

A novel that is all fast rapids or all calm water is not good.

When to Speed Up and When to Slow Down

"Our literary agency receives, on average, about twelve thousand pieces of mail a year...About 95 percent of the material that gets sent to us is rejected. Why? Because the vast majority of the manuscripts all have at least one mistake in common - the pacing of the story is off."
- Peter Rubie and Gary Provost

There is actually a paradox here, or an area of possible confusion, that you should be aware of...

  • When you think about a scene in a novel, the first thing that comes to mind is a fast-paced action sequence.
  • With interludes, however, you think about those slower parts in between the scenes when the character reacts emotionally to whatever has just happened.

But here is the paradox: scenes in a novel should actually read slowly, and interludes should happen more quickly.

Let me explain that...

Scenes, broadly speaking, contain all of the novel's interesting and exciting and dramatic material. It makes sense, therefore, that the readers won't want them to be over with too quickly.

Let's say that a scene involves a car chase. In one sense, the action here could be described as fast (not least, because the cars are moving at high speed).

But in terms of pace, the scene should read slowly - it should last for several pages, in other words, and all of the action and emotion and so on should be fully described, so that the reader can extract the maximum enjoyment from it.

Interludes, on the other hand, are not so dramatic. They move slowly in the sense that nothing much is happening. But in a pacing sense, they should read quickly - with two days of events being summarized in a single paragraph, for example, or perhaps even in three words: "Two days later..."

Learning to write a narrative with pace is not quite that simple, though (because nothing about writing fiction ever is!)

For one thing, not all scenes in fiction are equal.

Some will be more dramatic and more central to the plot than others. So if you devote twenty pages, say, to a key scene, you might write a less crucial scene in only six or seven pages (by writing it far less fully - but more on that later).

Another point is that the beginning of a scene is not as interesting or exciting as its middle and end.

A scene can be divided into two broad stages:

  • First comes the gentle part. This is where the characters meet and make small talk, where the setting is described, and so on. Nothing much has happened yet.
  • Soon, though, comes the blood and guts of a scene. This is where the characters dispense with the chit-chat and get down to business, usually resulting in an argument or a fight.

The opening portion of a scene is clearly not very dramatic. In pacing terms, therefore, it should happen fast and be over with quickly, accounting for maybe half a page of the novel (or no space at all if you dispense with it altogether and begin the scene once the action has already started).

The blood and guts portion of a scene is usually very dramatic, and therefore needs to be lingered over in loving detail. The readers have probably been looking forward to this confrontation for some time, and they will want their money back if it is over with far too quickly.

What about interludes? Should they always happen fast - being dealt with in a few words, or a few paragraphs at most?

Not always, no.

Inconsequential interludes, in which the character has not got a whole lot of "emotional reaction" to work through (because the scene that just ended wasn't especially momentous) can be dealt with using a simple "Two days later..."

But where the preceding scene was momentous - where the character was metaphorically or literally left for dead - you will want to devote some space to the interlude, probably several pages.

This, of course, will cause it to move slowly.

How to Write a Narrative With the Right Pace

You have probably already figured this one out for yourselves, but I'll tell you anyway. There are two ways to control the pace in a narrative:

  • Showing vs. Telling
  • Showing vs. Really Showing

Let's look at them one by one...

Showing vs. Telling

If you haven't already read the article on Showing and Telling, you should read it right after this.

Here, though, is the gist of what I said...

  • Showing means writing fiction in such a way that everything is described in vivid, sensory detail.
  • Telling is flat and factual. It states something but doesn't demonstrate it.

Here is an example of "showing" in a narrative from my own novel...

Beth finally made it to Harbour Street a little after half-past four. Emily, her best friend, greeted her outside the flower shop with a snowball in the stomach. The snowball came out of nowhere and for one dreadful moment Beth thought she was under attack from some unseen gang, but then Emily ducked out from behind a parked car, delighted with herself, and gave Beth a birthday hug right out there in the street. Emily was forever embarrassing her in public like this. If she wasn't making people stop and stare by pulling stunts like this overblown hug, she was attracting just as much attention with her startling dress sense, which today consisted of lime-green corduroys and a pink sweatshirt with Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout on the front. Emily seemed immune to what anyone might think of her, which left Beth to feel mortified on both their behalves, but she couldn't help but love her.

And here is the "telling" version...

Beth met Emily, her best friend, at the Harbour Street flower shop at half-past four.

The implication for writing a narrative with the correct pace is obvious...

If an event in a story is interesting or important (and only you will be able to decide whether it is or not), show it so that the readers can linger over it.

If it is not, deal with it concisely (or scrap it altogether) so you can quickly move to the material that is interesting or important.

Showing vs. Really Showing in a Narrative

Again, there is nothing complicated about this, but it is worth explaining.

The difference between telling and showing is clear. How much you show, though, can make the difference between a chapter being ten pages long or fifty pages long.

You can, for example, describe a character eating lunch in one sentence...

Jane grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and was back at work by two.

This is obviously telling.

Showing her eating lunch might look something like this...

Jane bought a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich in Frank's Deli and took it to her favourite bench in the harbour. The bread was a little stale, she thought, but the filling was good. She ate it in small mouthfuls and fed the crusts to the hovering seagulls...

I won't demonstrate really showing because it could potentially run on for pages and pages of narrative. But here are some of the extra things you could mention while Jane eats her lunch...

  • The two boys she sees catching crabs on the harbour wall.
  • The man who sits next to her and starts smoking, ruining her lunch.
  • The way she takes off her coat when the sun comes out and she feels sun on her arms for the first time this year.
  • The smell of fish and chips from the shop along the road and the childhood memory it triggers.

Telling usually takes place in a few words. It is "fast-paced" because it can be read quickly by the reader.

Showing can take up as little or as much space as you want. How much space you allow it to take up depends on the event's importance in the narrative, and whether you want the readers to skip through it relatively quickly or to linger over it for much longer.