By Ross B. Lampert
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 post and the next one will help you be more aware so you can evaluate it as you critique someone’s work.
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. 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 will be wrong for another. 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 from beginning to end a break-neck speed also needs the occasional place for the reader to catch his breath.
The same is true in non-fiction: an investigation piece is likely to be more slowly paced than a 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 appropriate for each point of the story?
- Is the overall pace of the story appropriate?
- Does the pace change?
- If not, what needs to change and why?
A lot of factors determine pace and each affects the others. The list below is certainly not complete and there are exceptions to every generalization.
- 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 is faster, so long as other factors don’t slow it down.
- Dialog versus narrative: Dialog may be faster paced than narrative, though not always. As I discussed in Part 37, 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 an expository lump—a big, fat blob of description—rather than in a way that engages the reader. Few or no details tend to let the story speed along.
- 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), or the more the pace can slow down if the author handles this 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.
Next time I’ll go into more detail on how you’ll use those four questions and eight bullets to evaluate a work, 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? Click on the Comment button to add your ideas.