Time, in fiction, is anything but a mirror of reality. Think about it. You can have a short story where time is moving from tonight to tomorrow morning or, more dramatically, from the present back several years to the past or forward to the present. Yet, if the story is written well, the reader easily buys into time and its passage.

It’s up to the writer to control the passage of time. This is called pace. The rules of thumb are:

  • Scenes speed pace, while what comes before and after the scenes slow pace.

  • Dialogue, which is a form of action, speeds pace; narration slows it down.

  • Movement from any source speeds pace; no movement stalls it.

Increased pace heightens the drama of your story and increases tension. It can increase suspense as well, when teamed with danger or conflict. Faster pace in a story makes you skim through details or actions that are of little relevance.

Slower pace provides more time to develop interior thoughts and feelings of your characters and more detailed descriptions of setting, people, and circumstances. It allows for more emphasis to be placed on certain aspects of the story.

Look at the page

You can easily tell just by looking at the typed page how fast or slow the pace of your story is. The more white space you see on the page, the faster the pace. The less white space, the slower the pace. Think about it. Dialogue that moves your story forward is usually quick with more back and forth banter between the participants. What it looks like on paper is a lot of short paragraphs, i.e., white space. Dialogue that is long and drawn out (think monologue) runs long and covers most of the space on the page. Paragraphs are far and few between.

When your characters are rushing about, again, you tend to have short paragraphs and more white space, in comparison to when you slow down to give a detailed account of the English garden your protagonist is meandering through.

What is important to understand is that all stories need some fast-paced sections and some slower-paced section – the balance and amount of each depends on the type of story you are writing.

If your story is a thriller with a bomb going off in the middle of London and your protagonist quickly getting into a car chase scene, fast-paced sections are going to dominate your entire story. But that doesn’t mean you won’t take time out to slow down, if for no other reason than your readers need a break. Your audience will be reading at a fast clip right along with the action. Give them a narrative passage – maybe it’s a memory your protagonist recalls about when she first met the person she is sure set the bomb or a more detailed overview of the layout of Trafalgar Square where she thinks the next bomb is planted – so your readers can catch their breaths before skirting along again.

On the other hand, if you are writing literary fiction, which tends to allow for greater access to characters’ thoughts and sensations, don’t let your readers go to sleep by overwhelming them with details about how the protagonist’s relationship with his wife has been a consistent pattern of passive aggressive behavior, with an extraordinary amount of examples thrown it. Write a good fight scene between the two of them to prove your point.

Next week, I’ll offer some more tips for speeding up and slowing down action, and how to decide the best balance for your particular story.

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