Pacing is the art of controlling how rapidly the action feels to the reader. It’s similar to the use of cut scenes, slow motion cameras, and close-ups/distance shots in movies. All the tricks used in movies to control the audience’s focus have corresponding techniques in writing. Further, it helps you focus on a character, their mental state, and their personality. Of course, if you don’t use the techniques for pacing well, you can end up with fight scenes shot all in slow-mo, and romance scenes that feel like they were shot with a shaky cam.
How to write action scenes
Before you do anything, you have to know what type of scene you’re writing. Let’s start with a fight scene. Fights are all about high-speed action. They’re about constant motion, intensity, and pumping adrenaline. The way to achieve this is through short, punchy, standalone sentences. Back them up with short words, and you will have action.
Consider these two sentences:
1) Neo successfully threw a rabbit-punch to Smith’s face, snapping his head back.
2) Neo carefully looked for the opening, finally finding it and snapping his fist forward, aiming for the right side of the jaw; he was rewarded with a satisfying smack as Agent Smith’s head flew backwards.
Both sentences describe the same activity: a fast punch to Smith, which connects powerfully. However, the first sentence is quick to read, and conveys motion as well. The other slows the reader down, and slows down the punch. The reader can only envision the action as fast as they read it. The result is the second sentence was “shot” in slow-mo. Unless you want to convey slow motion, the second sentence is a complete fail.
Notice something else: the fist sentence has one comma. The second has two commas and a semi-colon. Each of these punctuation marks indicates a slowing down of the sentence, and thus a slowing down of the action being described. These also indicate that the second sentence is more complicated. This means the reader will have to think harder to process the sentence, further slowing down the action in the reader’s mind.
So, for fast pacing, such as in fight scenes, you want small words in short, simple sentences. Of course, that suggests the opposite for slow pacing. Let’s look at some examples where this applies.
How to write reflective scenes
Suppose we want to have a character reflecting on their situation. Our poor character, Neo, has just had it revealed that everything he thought he knew about the world is a lie. How will he process this information?
1) Neo woke with a start. His eyes darted around the room. Suddenly, he remembered that he was in the puny craft Morpheus flew. Morpheus had “awoken” him with that crazy pill. Now he was cold. Now he was hungry. Now he was trying to understand his new reality. It was overwhelming.
2) Neo woke with a start. He felt himself on an unfamiliar bed, and cracked his eyes open. He was in a small, dank room. As he took in the room once again, his mind drifted back to his “awakening” after taking the pill, being ejected, and being caught by the crazy ship Morpheus flew. He took a deep breath, his mind coming more alert. The robots had done an amazing job of replicating the feeling of a deep breath, but it wasn’t quite right. A cramping feeling in his stomach, hunger, pushed him out of bed and into the chill air. He wasn’t sure he cared for reality; it was still overwhelming. (Sybil demands Winged post this as a fanfic.)
So, let’s consider the impression these two paragraphs convey. The first has short, choppy sentences, exactly what we’d expect in an action scene. In this case, they convey anxious thoughts, an almost panicky mental state. It’s reasonable to anticipate his next actions to be an escape attempt of some sort. Also, we don’t really get a sense of his thoughts or attitudes. With no introspection, it reinforces a sort of panic-mode mindset.
The second, on the other hand, has longer sentences, more complex sentences and word choices, and more sentences. Rather than him simply being awake, he’s slowly coming awake. He’s experiencing a moment of disorientation before he recalls where he is. He’s being reflective as he recalls how he got into the room. He’s focusing on what it’s like to be real, rather than in the Matrix. He’s noting subtle differences and processing them. There is no sense of panic in this, but a slow coming awake and processing of his reality. This is what you would expect of a naturally thoughtful, intelligent person.
So in this case, using short, punchy sentences on a character’s musings speeds up the “action,” to the effect of making the character come across as mentally disjointed and panicky. Using longer, more complicated sentences and wording slows down the speed of the “action,” to the effect of making the character come across as calmer and more reflective. Note, also, that we’ve mentioned word choice a couple times, now. More advanced words slows down the reading, and conveys a more intellectual state. Simpler words speeds up the reading, and conveys a less intellectual state. More advanced words also tend to have more nuance, making the scene deeper and richer.
Know what your scene is, and write to it.
Now, let’s reverse the process and be deliberate about what we want to achieve, and chose the pacing to reflect it. For our example, let’s consider a tender moment when Trinity and Neo are having some “alone time.” There are a few options for how we can want this to work. Option one: they’re having a tender moment, just cuddling together. Option two: they’re getting hot and heavy, expressing their animalistic desire for each other.
For option one, we need to think about what makes a moment tender. It’s not about hands rushing to various body parts, but about emotional closeness. For this, we want our characters to mainly be holding each other, and reflecting on their love for each other. We’ll be using emotion-laden, long sentences.
1) Trinity felt relief course through her as Neo suddenly breathed again. His heart began to beat, and she threw herself on him, fresh tears coursing down her face. She couldn’t see what he was doing in the Matrix, but heard amazement in the voices around her. All she knew was that she loved this man. He was determined. He was noble. She was drawn deeply to his character as she vowed to herself that she would do anything, anything, to protect him. He was The One, and she would be his one, if he would have her. When they finally unplugged him from the Matrix, she gave in to the impulsive desire and kissed him.
Notice the emphasis on emotion, hopes, and reflections. Long sentences structured together with plenty of commas and subclauses. We choose words carefully to get very specific nuance to each sentence, and use adjectives and adverbs liberally. The goal of this is to show Trinity’s epiphany.
Now, let’s consider later in their relationship, where they share a room together. Neo’s The One, and he is confident in what he is. Alas, he’s about to go into danger, and they both want to share the joy of being alive with each other. This is about raw, primal sex (not graphic). It will be somewhat emotional, but mainly carnal.
2) Trinity pulled herself tight against Neo. The room always felt slightly chilled, but there was a sheen of sweat on her skin. “I’ll miss you,” she panted, before pressing her lips firmly against his. He gripped her tight, pulling her flush against his naked body. “I’ll be back soon,” he gasped, when their lips parted. Trinity pulled back, shoving him down on the bed. She straddled him. His hands roamed her body. As death threatened from every side, they reaffirmed life. Soon, she collapsed on him. They were exhausted, but happy. Finally, he rolled her off him, “I have to leave now, Trinity. I’m sorry.”
In this case, we want faster action. They aren’t thinking, they aren’t reflecting, they’re just being together. In your version of this, you could certainly expand on the details of their passion, but the goal is motion. Short bursts of sensation, motion, touch. This is physicality, with an emotional undertone, unlike the first scene, which was emotional, with some physical expressions. Sex is action. Emotion is mental. As a result, sex uses short, punchy sentences, while falling in love uses long, complicated sentences.
Pacing doesn’t just apply to individual scenes, but also to your chapters and story as a whole. An action scene will have shorter paragraphs and shorter chapters. A reflective scene will have longer paragraphs and longer chapters. Also, the choice of content will become very important.
Think about your own life story. There are probably some interesting times you could talk about if you wanted to share it. WingedPanther got run over by the family car when he was five. Sybil got burned on her leg when she was three. Those are interesting stories, but the day-to-day details of kindergarten are probably of no interest to anyone, since they don’t even remember those details themselves.
Many things that you could write in your story are things that you shouldn’t write. You want to skip from important scene to important scene, not relate the daily life of your characters. For example, we know that Neo is a programmer. We don’t know if the concept of marriage exists in Zion. What we know is only what is needed to establish relationships between characters, and to advance the plot. What you share in your own story should only be the things you need your reader to know.
We’ve all read stories where the story seems to bog down. Often, it’s because there are scenes, or even entire chapters, that have information that doesn’t advance the story. It turns into a vanity piece about characters (OC or canon). Often, it comes down to the author running out of ideas for the plot, and just writing stuff down. The readers, however, just feels that things have stalled out. When chapter after chapter of the “evolving love between Mary Sue and Gary Stu” grinds out, everyone becomes bored. You need to have a goal, and then make sure that each chapter, scene and bit of dialogue advances your characters towards that goal.
Finally, be careful, when writing, to make sure you have knowledge of what you’re writing about. This doesn’t mean you have to get married to write about weddings and marriage. You can observe married couples, hopefully your parents, to learn about it. Similarly, you don’t have to be gay to write about gay characters, but it helps to know someone who’s gay (or have a gay beta-reader as Sybil once did).
Winged and Sybil often discuss what it is like to be male or female in various situations, in order to do a better job with their characters. If you write about things that you are ignorant of, your writing will flounder, and your pacing will become derailed as you struggle to express yourself at all.
Pacing boils down to choice in words, sentence length, paragraph length, and content. Make deliberate choices in all these things, and you can have successful pacing in your story.