The pace of a story is how quickly or slowly it seems to pass for the reader. It may flash by like a fighter jet at an airshow, crawl along at a speed that makes glaciers seem quick, or do something in between.
You already have a sense of pace as a reader, even though you might not be thinking about it. This article and the next one will help you be more aware of a story’s pace so you can evaluate it as you critique the work.
Genre and Pace
While we can make some general statements about pace in different genres in fiction and types of work in non-fiction, at best they’re poor guidelines. That means that selecting the proper pace for a story can be tricky for a writer, if she even thinks about it at all—which she should! What’s right for one story will be wrong for another.
Pace isn’t a one-speed-fits-all kind of thing within a piece, either. Except perhaps for the very shortest work, the pace needs to vary, and what’s right for one scene can be wrong for another. Even for different parts of the same scene. For example, while a work that is introspective (a piece of literary fiction, say) is going to have a slower overall pace, there will still be places where the speed of the story needs to pick up.
Conversely, a thriller or science fiction “space opera” piece, which generally roars along at break-neck speed from beginning to end also needs the occasional place for the reader—and the characters—to catch their breath.
The same is true in non-fiction: an investigative piece is likely to be more slowly paced overall than a breezy lifestyle article, yet both need sections that are faster or slower than the rest to keep the reader’s interest.
As a reviewer, you’re looking for four things when it comes to pacing.
- Is the pace at each point of the story appropriate?
- Is the overall pace of the story appropriate?
- Does the pace change?
- If it doesn’t change, what needs to change, where, and why?
A lot of factors determine pace and each affects the others. The list that follows is certainly not complete and there are exceptions to every generalization, but it’s a place to start from.
- Sentence and paragraph length. Longer and/or more complex sentences and paragraphs slow the pace. Shorter sentences and paragraphs speed it up.
- Active voice versus passive voice. Passive voice is, well, passive and because of that, it slows the pace down. Active voice should be faster, so long as other factors don’t get in the way.
- Dialogue versus narrative. Dialogue may be faster paced than narrative, though not always. As I discussed in Part 36, characters giving speeches slow a story down.
- Tone. A story that is sad or introspective will be slower than a piece that is upbeat or angry.
- Language. The more academic or erudite the vocabulary of an article is, the more sedate will be its experience for the reader. Short, simple words read faster. (Did you notice the difference between those two sentences?)
- Description. The more descriptive detail the author provides, the slower the pace may be, especially if this detail is being presented in expository lumps—those big, fat blobs of description—rather than in a way that engages the reader. Few or no details tend to let the story speed along, but providing the right amount of the right details in the right place is most important. The pace of the writing at that moment should follow naturally.
- Complexity. The more information the author needs to present to the reader about the plot (in a murder mystery, for example), a character (in an interior journey of self-discovery, say), or the topic of a non-fiction piece (like quantum physics), the more the pace can slow down if the author handles this factor poorly.
- What’s happening. Story pace picks up when things are happening and slows down when they’re not.
Put these pieces together over the course of the story and you have its overall pace.
That probably seems like a lot to keep track of, and it may be at first. But if you’ve been working on learning how to do all the other things this series has been discussing, you’re already 90% of the way there, if not more.
No Questions For You!
Next time I’ll go into more detail on how you’ll use those four considerations and eight factors to evaluate a work’s pace, find its weak and strong points, and discuss them with the author.
In the meantime, are there any other factors you can think of that affect a story’s or article’s pace or that a critiquer should consider when evaluating pace? Hurry on down to the comments box below to add your suggestions.