Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lens On: Pacing

Lens On: Pacing
By Brad R. Cook

Pacing may be one of the most important aspects of a novel and one few workshops touch on. This isn’t a post about sentences; today I focus on the flow of words and how quickly a reader can get through your writing.

Pace is a writer’s gift to the reader. No one wants to get bogged down in the middle of a book, struggling to turn each page, fighting every word and sentence as if trekking through the Amazon jungle with a machete. Readers want pages to fly by like a Lamborghini speeding down the highway.

Modern novels… okay, good modern novels, have a pace you can snap along with. I love them and I try to emulate them. I’m not exactly certain when it started, but I would argue that the noir detective novels might be one place. These mysteries really developed the quick pace dialogue that now dominates the market.

Older novels, especially the Victorian novels, had a much slower pace. Overly wordy prose, filled with tangents that deviated from the main plot, and monologues that lasted a page, led to books with hundreds of pages – giant tomes bound in leather, that are completely unsuited for a beach read.

I find that good pace comes mainly from three places –

1 – Back and Forth Dialogue – Quick dialogue with short or no tags is a great way to increase your pace. Too much description in a dialogue tag can slow down the natural flow of a conversation. Beware the monologue; unless you’re a teacher or lecturer, most conversations involve two or more people speaking over each other. Capture that on a page and readers will fly through your work.

2 – Action Scenes – Fight scenes, chase sequences, or sex scenes are a great way to increase the pace of your novel. These are the exciting parts, and naturally should be a quick read. All are places where you don’t want to bog down the reader with, long descriptions, too much emotion, or an over focus on scenery. It is actually really hard to talk while fighting or running – try reading out loud next time you’re running on the treadmill.

3 – Word Choice and Sentence Length – When a sentence, short phrase, long phrase, paragraph, chapter, novel, or article is packed with terminology, expressions, vocabulary; words that may be important to conveying the meaning of your prose, but all the writer ends up doing is making the reader, or audience, re-read the same passage repeatedly, over and over, until they fully obtained the meaning of your original intention. (that may be the worst sentence I have ever written, so I hope you get my point) Keep it short; keep it sweet, keep it simple and the pace will follow.

What is your favorite way to improve the pacing of your writing? Or do you recommend a novel with great pacing? Let us know in the comments section.

The Lens On: Series highlight various aspects on writing for The Writers' Lens; they are meant to start a discussion on the stated topic. For more information on this topic please consult Google or other literary sources.

Brad R. Cook is a historical fantasy author and President of St. Louis Writers Guild. Please visit , follow me on Twitter @bradrcook , or my tumblr page Thoughts from Midnight


  1. I agree about your comment regarding the slow, wordy pace of the Victorian novels. Descriptions are still important, but they should be woven into the book's action, and should not bog down that action. I don't mean to knock the slower pace of Victorian novels--some of them are still pretty good--but the pace of the modern world has sped up considerably since the lazy, hazy days of the past.

    On the other side of the coin, some of the modern-day writing styles seem a bit childish to me. I would hope that someone reading my book would take the time to "get into it." A good book should slow us down long enough to forget for a moment the chores that await us.

    Please visit my new website ( I have written short essays about the modern writing styles being forced on us. You can find these essays under the Writing Skills section. I would appreciate your comments on them in my literary forum there. I welcome those who disagree with me, but be friendly & professional.

  2. What I want to know is what guidelines to follow to decide how fast each section of a story should be paced. It sounds from this post like faster is always better. When do you deliberately slow the pace of a paragraph, scene, or chapter?

  3. What I want to know is what guidelines to follow to decide how fast each section of a story should be paced. It sounds from this post like faster is always better. When do you deliberately slow the pace of a paragraph, scene, or chapter?

    1. Good question. This was explained to me really well by an NYT Bestselling author who told me - to stretch out the important moments of any scene - keep the word pace up, don't bog down a reader, but stretch out the good moments so the reader gets to salivate over them. It can be a climatic moment, an emotional low point, or a description, but stretching out a moment isn't slowing down the pace. Take an emotional low point - stretch out the moment by describing the MC's emotion at that moment, their internal and external reactions, watch the ice swirl in the glass (that's cliche but I hope you get my point) - relate it all to the low moment and you have a compelling scene. Pace is about word flow and the point is not to trip up the reader.