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A Quick Primer on Pacing


What is Pacing?

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Pacing is the length at which a story is told: from the length of the words, to the length of the sentences, to the length of the paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and story itself. In order to match the content of a story to the way a story is told, it is necessary to control one’s pacing.
An epic saga cannot be best told in a flash fiction. It requires some word-count.

Being able to see pacing is like being able to see the Matrix. You’re looking at a substratum of story that most people don’t know is there—and once you see it, you can’t not see it.In order to match the content of a story to the way a story is told, it is necessary to control one’s pacing.

So, what is it?


The words that you choose for your story can make it feel fast or slow.

Your selected vocabulary assists in determining whether your fiction gives a straightforward or a more convoluted impression.

The meaning of the words can be essentially the same. But the feeling that a reader gets from them is not. A lot of popular fiction uses a stripped-down vocabulary to give a feeling of directness and veracity; more literary fiction tends to use bigger words, so the readers feel like they’re chewing on some seriously high-fiber, good-for-you fiction.


A short sentence is blunt.

A longer sentence can give the impression of being more persuasive, more thoughtful, more expansive; the kind of connections one makes between simple sentences as one links them together also expresses more or less formality (semi-colons are very formal); a lot of dashes and parenthesis and commas and even a run-on sentence all indicate something going on in the sentence that requires a moment’s thought: the speaker is lying, some sort of philosopher, or not thinking straight.


Skim through the paragraphs above.
Again. Just look at the lengths of the paragraphs. Don’t read any of it.
The fact that the paragraphs aren’t the same length is important.
Which paragraphs look easier to read?
Which ones are going to get skimmed?
Which ones pop out?
Do they pop out because they’re short or because they’re different?
What happens to a reader when a series of paragraphs goes from short, to medium, to short again?
What happens when a series of paragraphs starts out short, then gets longer?
What about paragraphs that show contrast?
What about paragraphs that are all the same? Does it sound natural? Or does hitting the paragraph return at regulated intervals start to destroy the meaning of what is written within them? Is it like repeating the same word over and over again, until it becomes meaningless?

Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza.

I highly recommend breaking up any concentrated monotonies of paragraphs. Just hit the return key a few times. It’s liberating.

Scenes, Chapters, and Sections

The various pieces and parts within a story have their own pacing. As you start to shift your attention from paragraphs to larger sections within a story, you may start to notice that the paragraphing and sentence lengths shift with the tension in the scene. For example, a long paragraph might contain a lot of details that the POV character casually notices. A series of short paragraphs might indicate a chase scene.
Different writers handle their pacing differently, but there are some patterns that tend to form:

  • Shorter pacing is faster pacing.
  • Longer pacing is slower pacing.
  • Medium pacing is often broken up by longer or shorter pacing, just to keep the writing from becoming soporific, which is a word that here means “sleep-inducing.”

Something to watch for is a moment when the pacing doesn’t seem to fit the content. This is often a hint to the reader that things are not what they seem.


Pick up a print copy of War and Peace sometime. Or The Lord of the Rings. Compare the physical weight to something like “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” by Shirley Jackson.
Some stories are longer than others.
Some stories have to be longer than others.

The length of stories in a genre is not about “what sells” so much as how much plot, at what pace, the readers expect to get from stories in a certain genre. Romance novels are often shorter than epic fantasies. When people read a romance, they only want so many obstacles before the lovers get together. Too many obstacles, and it starts to feel too much like real life. With epic fantasy, readers want to have a lot of obstacles. And whether there’s a literal map included in the book or not, they want to have traveled all over it. This requires more plot and therefore more obstacles.

  • In a romance, having too many subplots is an unwelcome distraction. The reader really only cares about the main lovers.
  • In an epic fantasy, you almost can’t have too many subplots or POV characters. The reader cares about the world itself, and sometimes you need than a single main character to show it all off.
  • Short stories only have the tiniest bit of plot. They often spend most of their time setting up a single conflict.
  • Sagas have so much plot that it often takes generations and entire continents for it to all play out.
  • A novella or short novel is often the story about how one stripped-down incident suggests a larger whole.
  • A series of mystery novels—in which the mystery novels, of whatever length but all of them roughly similar—is often the story about how history repeats itself but that, with intelligence, you can learn to cope with it.

The quickest way to learn pacing is to type some in. Find authors who have been publishing a lot of bestselling books over a lot of years, and start typing in words from a book you like that’s been published in the last ten years or so. Don’t start with Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. They’ll probably be over your head. (They’re generally over mine.) After you’ve read something you like, take a moment to ask yourself why the author chose the pacing they did. Some authors are good at distracting you from how they work their magic tricks, so you just end up getting sucked back into the story. Studying those writers is like attempting to solve the unsolvable.

That’s good. Those are the ones you want.

DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press,, and her website is

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