Pacing is movement, and movement has rhythm. Some rhythms are fast, staccato beats, rat-tat-tat-tat; some are slow, leisurely swells; and some are a steady heartbeat. One thing is true for all of them: in order to have a beat, in order to have rhythm, there must be sound and then silence. A single continuous blast of a foghorn has no rhythm; neither does complete silence. It’s only when you get the foghorn in multiple blasts that a rhythm can develop.
But there’s more to rhythm than noise-silence-noise-silence. Rhythm has a beat, and that means emphasis in some places and not in others. The marching cadence isn’t one, two, three, four; it’s Hup, two, three, four; the heartbeat is a steady lub-dub, lub-dub. Rhythm can also change the length of each beat, like the shave-and-a-haircut door-knocking rhythm: dum-da-da-dum-dum…dum dum.
And all of that applies to pacing in a story. In addition, you have the increase in tension to play with, until it all comes unwound at the climax. You can climb your plot-hill in a steady upward heartbeat, lub-dub, lub-dub, a tense action scene followed by a lower-key relief/reaction scene, like the “scene and sequel” model most recently promulgated by Jack Bickham. You can have a series of quick action scenes of varying length and importance, rat-a-tat-tat. Or you can go for something more complicated, like the door-knocking rhythm, where the long and short beats and the emphasis on each is irregular, but still pleasing.
The tools a writer has to work with are not sound and silence, but action, reaction, relevance, length, description, tension, density, word choice, and viewpoint. Each of those tools can be used in a way that’s “fast” or “intense,” or in ways that are slower and less emphatic; the writer mixes and matches them in each scene to manipulate the reader’s impression of speed or pace. The story gets told one word at a time, regardless.
The place most people start is with action. It’s a writing truism that action scenes “read faster” than contemplative scenes around the campfire…but even so, some action scenes read faster than other action scenes. Using longer sentences and paragraphs, providing more detailed description of the setting in which the action is occurring, stretching out the blow-by-blow description of the action itself (like a slow-motion scene in a martial arts movie)…all that can slow down an action scene. Doing the whole scene as a two-paragraph summary instead of a fully developed and dramatized scene can change the emphasis on a major battle scene, making it the “a” in the rat-a-tat-tat instead of the rat. Providing more of the viewpoint character’s immediate reactions in-scene, similar to stream-of-consciousness, can speed things up or slow them down, depending on where and how you place the reactions.
The denser the prose, the more slowly it tends to read. This is why one of the paradoxical fixes for a slow scene is often to make it longer – the lagging pace is the result of too much information coming at the reader too fast, so making the information less dense by spreading it out over another page or two is one way of solving that problem (the other being to take some of the information from the paragraph or scene out completely, and either dispense with it entirely or move it to another scene that needs slowing down some).
The key to all this is variation. Each of the elements of storytelling can vary independently, but they all come together to build the pace of the story. Yes, it sounds horribly complicated – which is one of the reasons why pacing problems are a horrible bear to fix – but it’s not something most writers do consciously and deliberately. It’s like riding a bicycle – you can tell when your balance is off and correct it without consciously controlling each and every muscle in your legs. The trick is to step back occasionally and look at the whole story, not just whatever scene you’re working on. Too many folks have had it drummed into their heads that a slow scene is “bad,” so they make all their scenes fast, action-packed, snappy, and tense…and end up with an overall story pace that is as even and unmemorable as a freeway ride through a desert at 90 miles an hour.
And next I’ll finally get to the complex-multiple-viewpoint pacing problems folks were asking about.