A bit like Einstein’s iconic train, the way time unspools in fiction is relative. Just as in real life, glorious moments seem to last forty-five seconds, while the wait for news of surgery seems to last forty-five hours. Pace comes from efficient writing, sentence length and structure, and the one great detail that replaces four very good ones.
But you can’t control reader expectation and appetite. You can only strive to satisfy, and that won’t happen unless you consider who your readers are.
- Do your readers crave mostly self-explanatory action?
- Do your readers crave a thrilling new mystery or secret every couple of pages?
- Do your readers crave sentence variety?
- Do your readers crave facts and analysis?
- Do your readers crave beauty and economy of language?
Tip: Pace is a combination of what you write and how readers respond to it.
What affects reader response?
~ In a witty or lyrical voice, readers might welcome a long passage of history, such as
one might find in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
~ At a crucial moment, readers might welcome a stretch of backstory, resembling what
Phillipa Gregory executes in The Constant Princess.
~ At a life juncture, readers might welcome the psychological analysis that motivates
Richard Russo’s characters in That Old Cape Magic.
You can and should think about your audience. But you can’t know exactly what readers think unless you could ask them. Happily, some truths about pacing pertain to almost all fiction. Avoid the following unless you include them intentionally.
State the obvious.
Double verbs, as in “Ellen lowered her eyes and fluttered her eyelashes.”
Bury action in logistical details.
Maintain the same pace all the time.
Disregard the “tension on every page” axiom.
Repeat words, details, or information that the reader’s already seen.
Use passive sentences when active ones work better.
Bury momentum in awkward constructions.
Pace protects the passion in fiction.