Pacing is probably the second hardest thing to describe to writers, right after voice. It’s easy to say that pacing is the speed at which plot points develop, but the reality is that it’s more than that. We’ve all read stories where things seem to keep happening, and yet we just don’t care. Similarly, many classic novels feature a typical Seinfeldian plot, a story about “nothing.”
This is because pacing is not only about the unfolding of relevant plot points, it’s also the speed at which worldbuilding and character development happen, moving a reader through the story. And the reader is the most important part of pacing: too slow, with too little development, and a reader loses interest. Too fast, with too much information being revealed, and a reader might become frustrated and overwhelmed. The trick then becomes to reveal plot points, develop character, and build the world at a rate that keeps the story moving and keeps a reader satisfied.
So then, how can we do that?
By looking at three components of a scene, the lowest level of the story. I look at a scene as: stimulus, reaction, response.
Stimulus: this is the outside world working upon the characters. This could be Voldemort appearing in the graveyard to kill Harry or it could be John McClain being shot at in the Nakatomi building. This is some kind of physical action directed at or impacting the main character that not only requires them to respond, but also is dependent upon the setting/world of the story.
Reaction: This is how your character reacts to the stimulus at a physical level. This should be in line with character and what the reader knows of your world. So, for example, after his friend is killed Harry battles Voldemort, because he has been shown to be a loyal friend throughout the narrative. Similarly, John McClain tries to defeat the terrorists in the Nakatomi building to save the civilians and his estranged wife. Harry doesn’t use a machine gun to battle Voldemort, because he exists in a world of magic. Thus his response is in line with both his character and the established worldbuilding.
Response: This is the mental and emotional response that a character has to an event. Again, these must be in line with the established worldbuilding and character building a writer has done. So, Harry is grief stricken that he couldn’t save his friend and John McClane is determined to face down the terrorists even though he is outnumbered and out gunned. This emotional and mental response builds character and creates a connection to the reader, placing both character and reader in the world of the story more fully.
By looking at issues within the triangle of stimulus, reaction, and response a writer can identify issues with pacing. If the stimulus is too far in the past or it has been too long since a character has reacted to a stimulus, the pacing might feel too slow. Similarly, a stimulus with a reaction but no response might make the story feel too fast or may make it difficult for readers to care about a character.
And not every scene has to have all three. A high stakes novel might have stimulus/response/stimulus/response/and then a prolonged reaction in between events. But! Not having the reaction will make characters feel flat. After all, people feel things.
Finding the perfect balance of stimulus/response/reaction can help a writer go from too fast or too slow to just right.
Justina Ireland enjoys dark chocolate, dark humor, and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Vengeance Bound, Promise of Shadows, and Dread Nation (April 2018). Visit her at JustinaIreland.com.