How to Pace a Story and Write an Irresistible Novel
If you want to write the kind of book readers can’t put down, you need to know how to pace a story.
A good story is not enough. An outstanding story is not enough.
You can have a high-stakes conflict, fascinating characters, and unexpected twists. But it’s all worthless if you don’t know how to roll them out to your reader at a pace that keeps them engaged.
And what is the ideal pace?
That’s the challenge. The answer isn’t the same for every book. Don’t worry, though; you’re about to learn how to find the right pace for your story. You’ll also pick up some solid strategies for building that pace at every phase of the writing process.
First, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language.
What is Pacing, Exactly?
Pacing refers to how quickly you lay out the events of your story. “Fast-paced” doesn’t necessarily mean a book is shorter. It only means stuff keeps happening without loads of scene description and internal character development in between.
We tend to think of a fast pace as always positive. After all, a fast pace is what gets readers flipping those pages, right?
Sure. But sometimes readers want a slow build before they get to the nail biting. Others want a non-stop thrill ride.
Your goal as an author is to hit the pace that keeps your readers engaged. If your storytelling drags, you risk losing their interest. If you’re tearing through story beats, you risk telling a shallow story with two-dimensional characters your readers don’t care about.
So where’s the sweet spot?
It all depends on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. Here’s how to break it down for yourself:
Understand Your Story’s Pacing Needs
To find the right pace for your novel, consider the following three aspects of the story you plan to tell.
Readers won’t just hope you pace your story a certain way. They’ll expect it based on your genre.
If you write action-adventure, you’ll probably want to keep the pace moving, only inserting the occasional calm, reflective scene so your reader (and protagonist) can catch their breath.
Fans of romantic comedy expect the story to move at a steady clip with punchy dialogue and strong character choices. But they’ll also count on the story to slow here and there, grounding them in character development and emotional themes.
Take a close look at your genre and subgenre to get a sense of what your readers are looking for from your story.
What’s the tone of your story?
Is it gloomy? Pensive? Romantic? Then it would make sense to create space in your storytelling for observation, reflection, and mood-setting.
A playful tone, on the other hand, probably calls for a story that bops along at a steady pace. So would an urgent or adventurous tone.
Just as they do with your genre, a reader will make assumptions about your story’s pace based on your tone. Make sure you’re fulfilling those expectations.
When you ask yourself how to pace a story, you want to consider who will be reading this masterpiece of yours.
If you write for kids, for example, you don’t want your characters faffing about, reflecting on the complexity of human existence. Sure, it’s still important to create a sense of place and write fully developed characters. You just want to keep the story moving.
What else do you know about your reader?
Do you see yourself writing for a teenager who wants to get sucked into the non-stop drama of your dystopian sci-fi novel? An exhausted parent looking for a leisurely beach read that flows along swiftly without stressing them out? A retiree who finally has time to sink their teeth into something heavy, slow, and thought-provoking?
Imagine your audience and take your best educated guess about what will keep them engaged.
When you have a sense of what kind of pace your story needs, you’re ready to start plotting.
Lay Out the Plot
Whatever pace you’re going for, start by figuring out the events that make up your story.
It’s always a good idea to work off a specific story structure. A story structure is essentially a storytelling template that helps make sure you hit all the essential beats of an engaging narrative. You can learn about the most common story structures here.
When you work from a structure, you’ll at least know there aren’t any massive stretches of story where nothing happens. That’s already a win in the pacing game.
Here are a few more strategies you can use to nail down your pace as you plot.
Create an Outline
Outline your entire novel beat by beat, scene by scene.
If you’re a planner, you’re probably way ahead of me on this.
If you land more on the pantser end of the spectrum—that is, you prefer to discover your plot as you write it—you might be getting ready to click the “x” on this browser tab. Don’t do it. I’m not here to fight you on your process. Just create your outline after you’ve written your first draft. Even a reverse-engineered outline will help you visualize the rhythm of your story.
Now, there are a few options for how to pace a story using an outline.
You can sum up each scene in one to three sentences and read through it, beginning to end. Do you notice any sections of your novel when it feels like a lot of action and no character development? Does anything feel a little snoozy?
Color-coding can be a huge help here, too. I do all my outlining on the Dabble Plot Grid, and the labels feature is great for indicating things like tension and urgency.
It can also help to simply write down how each scene furthers the plot. Do your slow, reflective scenes demonstrate something about who the character is and how they need to change? Or is it a lot of thinking and feeling with no purpose?
Once you’ve got a handle on the events of the story and how they roll along, you’re ready to examine your timeline.
Establish the Timeline
Learning how to pace a story isn’t just a matter of figuring out what’s most interesting for your readers. It’s also about recognizing what makes sense for your characters.
How long would it take them to fall in love? Get a promotion? Close on a house? Reconcile with their estranged mother?
The answers depend on your story, of course. But anything that happens too quickly without justification will make the story feel rushed. Anything that happens at a glacial speed will make the narrative drag.
That’s not to say you can’t skip ahead from the moment your protagonist sees the “for sale” sign to the day they move in. Just make sure you communicate that time has passed.
Time Your Reveals
This is one of the sneakier maneuvers to consider when thinking about how to pace a story.
Maybe you drop hints that your protagonist has a traumatic backstory but take your sweet time saying what happened to them.
Or you let your readers see how suspiciously antsy the sidekick is as they embark on a new mission.
Or you so casually mention that your main character locks their front door as they leave for vacation, fully believing that they’ll be back in two weeks. (What? Why even say that? Will they not be back?)
Suspense makes your reader’s heart race which makes it feel like the story is racing, no matter what’s actually going on.
So look at your outline and note when you reveal shocking new details or tease hidden information. How might those choices influence the way your reader experiences the story?
Once you feel good about the pace of your plot, you’re ready to think about how to pace your prose.
Set the Pace in Your First Draft
Before we get into the nitty gritty of how to pace a story on the page, I want to explain a concept that’s going to make all of this way easier.
Get to Know Scene and Sequel
All stories are made up of two story units: scene and sequel.
Now, if you’ve been defining a scene as a story unit that happens in one location or at one specific time, I’m going to ask you to set that definition aside. Right now, I encourage you to think of a scene as a unit of action.
In a scene, a point-of-view (POV) character:
- Pursues a specific goal
- Runs into obstacles
- Meets a new disaster
A sequel, on the other hand, is a reaction unit. This is when a POV character processes what happened in their previous scene.
In a sequel, a POV character:
- Reacts emotionally to the new disaster presented in the scene before
- Reflects on the dilemma presented by that disaster
- Makes a decision about the dilemma
That decision becomes the goal that drives them in their next scene.
Now, you can learn a lot about the fine art of balancing scene and sequel in this article. For now, you just need to understand this basic rule:
Scenes accelerate the pace, while sequels slow things down.
This is why sequels in thrillers and action-adventure stories are often very short. They’re just long enough to remind you that the protagonist is a breathing, feeling human being before leaping back into the action.
It’s also why some literary fiction is about 70% sequel.
When you understand how these two types of story units work together, you have a much better grip on how to pace a story.
Add these next several tips to your brain bank, and you’ll be in a great position to nail your novel’s rhythm.
Tools for Ramping It Up
Want to make the story move along at a faster clip for your reader? Here’s what you do.
Tension and suspense are your pace-accelerating superheroes. They get readers to plow through the pages, eager to see how this ends.
So how do you heighten the tension? Boy howdy, have you got options. You could:
- Introduce a new and worse consequence if the protagonist fails to reach their goal
- Toss a new obstacle in their path
- Present a dilemma that forces them to consider the morality of their mission
- Let them fail massively
- Allow someone they care about to be harmed by the pursuit of their objective
- Add a new antagonist or a character whose loyalties are unclear
- Tease a secret
- Drop a bombshell
Ultimately, anything you do that makes your reader worry more about your characters is going to inspire frantic page turning.
Keep It Active
This probably won’t come as a shock to you, but action quickens the pace.
By “action,” I mean whatever counts as action in your genre. If you write action-adventure, you may be expected to involve weapons and/or vehicles. If you write romance, you might be looking for adorably awkward workplace antics, a regency ball, or—well—action (*winky face*).
We’re basically talking about anything your characters would do to move closer to their goal.
Tighten It Up
If you’re trying to figure out how to pace a story faster, brevity is your friend.
Shorter sentences. Shorter paragraphs. Even shorter scenes and chapters.
Simplicity is key, too. Nothing bogs down the brain like too many complex sentences and a bunch of SAT words.
Now, what about when you want to ease off the gas a little? Glad you asked.
Tools for Slowing It Down
Whether it’s because your reader needs a moment to breathe or your character does, here are some reliable tips for slowing the pace of a scene.
While fast-paced scenes are all about action and conflict, slower ones focus on the internal life of your character. The conflict still exists. They still feel the tension. But for this moment, they’re safe enough to take a beat—feel all their feels and think all their thinks.
If you’ve been wanting to divulge some essential character information in the form of a flashback or memory, now’s the time. A sequel is also a great time for your character to:
- Wrestle with their internal conflict
- Seek the support or advice
- Connect deeply with another character
- Process feelings they’ve been denying
- Have an epiphany
- Take a shower, bandage their wounds, and put on a really fluffy bathrobe
To slow their roll even more:
Include More Details
I’m going to tread lightly with this one. You don’t want to add details just to slow things down. Every little info-nugget you add to your story should have a reason for being there.
That said, you may have only had time to mention that Eloise noticed she was bleeding in the previous fight scene. But now, safe in the calm of the sequel, you can clarify how the wound looks and feels. Because this is the first time Eloise has had a chance to register these things.
Slower moments give you the opportunity to lean on your reader’s emotions with highly specific details. The chipped brown coffee cup, the incessant whine of the cicadas, the lemon-scented air… you’ve got time for all of it.
Give Your Words Some Room
Again, I don’t want to say, “Want to know how to pace your story a little slower? Write the most complex sentence you can!”
Simplicity and clarity are virtues in all writing, no matter what pace you’re going for.
However, a sequel is a good time to allow yourself things like:
- Longer paragraphs that explore your character’s thoughts
- Some complex (but still clear!) sentences
- Dialogue in which characters struggle to find the right words, confess their feelings, or explain why they did what they did
Once you’ve played around with this and all the other pacing tools you just learned, you’re ready to review your work.
See How It Reads
This is the moment of truth. This is when you discover if all the work you put into pacing your story actually paid off.
Li’l spoiler: you’ll probably discover that some parts drag and some parts feel rushed. It happens to all of us. That’s what the revision process is for.
Here’s how I recommend reviewing your draft for pacing:
Be a Reader
Do the first read-through of your draft without pausing to edit. Just read it straight from beginning to end like you’re purely a reader, not the person in charge of making this story awesome. How do you experience your novel?
- Scenes that bore you
- Moments that engage you emotionally
- What those emotions are
- When things start to drag (and how long the dragging lasts)
- Anything that feels too rushed
Take notes, but don’t obsess over how to fix them now. Keep reading. If you can do it all in one sitting, even better.
Reviewing your novel this way allows you to experience how the story moves. If the pacing’s off, you’ll feel it.
Read It Out Loud
You’d be amazed what you notice about your work when you read it out loud. That includes everything from typos you somehow couldn’t see before to major pacing issues.
I think just about every writer knows the pain of listening to their own voice reading their own story, realizing they’re taking forever to get to the point. That pain is deep. But you have to feel it in order to fix it.
Fun fact: If you use Dabble, the Read to Me feature allows you to sit back, close your eyes, and listen to someone else read your story.
Your revision process should always involve feedback from other people. You need folks like critique partners, beta readers, and editors to help you catch clichés, underdeveloped storylines, and everything in between.
These people can also be a huge help when it comes to mastering your pace. Unlike you, they don’t already have the entire story living inside their heads. If a section drags, they’ll feel it because they won’t be thinking about the exciting thing that comes next.
So gather feedback. Read your novel out loud to yourself. Experiment with all the tools that are available to you and find the pacing that fits your genre, hooks your reader, and drives emotional engagement.
And if you could use the help of one more tool:
Let Dabble Help You Set the Pace
From brainstorming and plotting to drafting and revising, Dabble makes the entire writing process way easier.
Huge plus: you can try it for free for 14 days. A free trial gives you access to every single feature, including the Plot Grid, Story Notes, and co-authoring.
You don’t even need a credit card to sign up. All you have to do is follow this link and get started.
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