Your reader is an objective interpreter of your writing, and can't hear your voice as they read - it’s all down to them. This means that it’s all up to you to get your voice across. How do you ensure that they read sentences the way you intended, keeping to the timing and pace you intended? How do you ensure that they feel the emotion you intended, whether that’s the elation of a joyous scene or the tension of a thrilling nail-biter?
Join us as we explore pace and tone in fiction writing.
Setting and changing the pace of scenes and, indeed, entire stories, requires a lot of practice. Inherent in the ebb and flow of a well-told story is the ability to control the readers movement through it - to stop them rushing through scenes that are more cerebral and require more emotional investment to appreciate; or to encourage them to read faster, as if their lives depended on it, through action scenes.
One of the immediate ways to do this concerns your application of punctuation and the tenses you choose (see below), but the form and length of your sentences also makes a difference. Opting for a ‘staccato’ approach - with repeating short sentences - to how you relate your sentences and build your paragraphs creates a ‘stop-start’ effect that a lot of readers find jarring. You also lose the ability to make smooth, logical connections and cohesion between concepts and exposition.
In the extract below, the boy riding the horse is in for a bit of a shock, and the pace draws the reader in to the excitement of the ride, before…well, you’ll see.
Before you read the extract, however, take a look at this side-by-side comparison of the opening two sentences, in which we show two very different ways to narrate the scene:
The boy kicked his horse into a gallop. He enjoyed the rush of cool air against his face and his bare arms. The young mare beneath him seemed to fly across the stony ground. She only slowed slightly as she crested the hill. Then she raced downwards. Her hooves barely clipped the surface.
The boy kicked his horse into a gallop, enjoying the rush of cool air against his face and his bare arms. The young mare beneath him seemed to fly across the stony ground, only slowing slightly as she crested the hill before racing downwards, her hooves barely clipping the surface.
We can see here how 6 descriptive sentences have been connected and combined to form 2 sentences with a much quicker and engaging pace. This is achieved very easily, switching to the Present Continuous tense in what becomes the adjoining clause.
You will see that the structure of the ‘Possible’ piece keeps the pace slow, and that this approach would work if you wanted people to ‘savour’ each concise clause and engage in a particular way with, for example, emotionally charged exposition or a psychologically focused atmosphere. The pace of the ‘Actual’ piece pulls the reader into a quicker narrative that seems to eschew these details, almost as if they are superfluous. They are certainly relegated to mere ‘colour’ amidst the bigger picture of the action, becoming like ‘background noise’ as the story rushes on. As a reader, you don’t even notice what you are noticing.
Here is the full extract. We have underlined the elements we discuss afterwards:
The boy kicked his horse into a gallop, enjoying the rush of cool air against his face and his bare arms. The young mare beneath him seemed to fly across the stony ground, only slowing slightly as she crested the hill before racing downwards, her hooves barely clipping the surface. The young rider let out a shout of excitement which was whipped away, before leaning down to hang alongside the neck of the beast as he squinted against what was now a biting wind. The flowing golden mane snapped lightly against his face, and the way ahead became a distorted vision of hair and stone. Something large and black flashed by below him and he gasped in shock, drawing on the reins as he brought himself up in the saddle and saw the emptiness in his path. ‘NO!’ he shouted, dragging desperately to slow the horse as she whinnied in surprise and slowed her run as swiftly as she could. But it was too late: the ground gave way and the mare tripped and stumbled, throwing the boy over her neck as her forelegs crumpled beneath her. Letting go of the reins, he tumbled through the air, hearing nothing but the wind whip at his ears. As he descended, he expected with heightened anticipation to hit the ground without delay. Instead, his fall continued, tumbling through the emptiness of a great chasm, his screams echoing on the rocky walls. Something big and dark plummeted past him, and the leather of the mare’s reins lashed his face, tearing his cheek. There was a thud below him, a sickening crack as the neck of the horse snapped, and the boy screamed anew with the fear of death. But it did not come.
He found himself suddenly suspended in mid-air, inexplicably hanging no more than a few feet from the dark stone floor at the bottom of the hellish chasm. Then he heard footsteps.
and the way ahead became
‘NO!’ he shouted, dragging desperately
But it was too late:
and the leather of the mare’s reins lashed his face, tearing his cheek
But it did not come
Then he heard footsteps
Of course, you don’t always want to speed things up. You might want to slow your reader down, encouraging them to focus, to feel, to lose themselves in emotion and atmosphere. At a simple level, you can take the opposite approach to the advice above - control readers' progress through punctuation and tenses. Short, pensive sentences that convey a sense of introspection. Use language that will make people slow their reading. And, of course, as we consider below, the more detail you explore, the slower the story moves.
Another way to address the pace of your story concerns the amount of detail and exposition you introduce. You might consider this the ‘macro’ approach to the text, where the punctuation and tenses issues (above) constitute the ‘micro’ approach. It’s clear that a lot of detail and exposition creates the ‘padding’ around the story as it otherwise progresses; if it were not for such ‘padding', you could tell a story very briefly and just move on!
Of course, you can also be concise and clever with your exposition, to such a degree that the reader doesn’t get bogged down in so much detail that the pace is affected. You can visit our page on Exposition in Narrative and Dialogue for more, but we will say this: when you want to tell your reader what a character is thinking; what happened to them as children; what they are eating for breakfast; what kind of furniture is in the room, or provide details about anything else, remember that the way you present them affects the overall pace of the passages, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters into which they are inserted.
Such detail and exposition is, of course, necessary - all of it colours the narrative and lends credibility to your fictional tale; but lots of detail is difficult to condense, and chunks of text that are explicitly detail driven can lead to some readers getting frustrated and wanting the story to just move on. A little tip: if and when possible, allow the detail of the scene in the ‘present’ to lay the foundation for reminiscence, background story, and so on. That way you’ll keep everything concise, contextual, and engaging.