You know how some books seem to fly by in an instant—even though you’ve been reading them for hours? Other books you can sit and luxuriate in for days, turning each nuance and turn of phrase over in your head. The way the reader experiences a book comes down to pacing: the rhythm and tempo of how a story unfolds.

But how do you master this elusive skill of the writing craft, and how do you nail the right pacing for your novel? Let’s dive into everything you need to know.

What is pacing?

A story’s pacing is the rhythm at which a narrative progresses. Narrative pace is influenced by the rate at which the key plot points unfold, and by literary devices like syntax, dialogue, exposition, and white space. A fast-paced novel will feel like the plot is constantly in motion, while a slow-paced novel will feel more relaxed and introspective.

You can think of pacing like a piece of music—how the pattern of notes come together to create rhythm. A short story or poem is like a song and will usually be fast paced or slow. A novel, on the other hand, is like a symphony. It should have faster segments and slower ones that come together to create a broader whole.

Some genres of literature are predisposed to faster or slower pacing overall. We’ll take a closer look at genre below.

Pacing refers to the tempo and rhythm at which a story progresses.

Why is pacing important in a story?

Pacing matters because it influences how invested your reader becomes in your story. A well-paced story will have scenes that move along faster and scenes that move along slower. The faster pace helps keep readers engaged and heightens tension and suspense; the slower pace gives your readers and your characters time to reflect on what’s happened and what will happen next.

It’s important to incorporate slower paced scenes as well as fast ones in your narrative. If we look back to the idea of music, a good song keeps things interesting by having sections that slow down and sections that speed up. Without this variation in rhythm, a song will stop being a narrative arc and turn into background noise.

If your entire novel is fast paced from start to finish, it can begin to feel tiring and your reader can become desensitized to the narrative twists and turns. If your entire novel is slow paced, it can be challenging to hold the reader’s attention.

Elements of narrative pacing

So this is all good to know, but how do you actually control pacing in a story? There are a few elements that determine whether a scene or narrative arc has fast or slow pacing.


The plot points that move a story forward have a big impact on narrative pacing. Stories with a lot of action scenes and new discoveries will usually progress at a fast pace from beginning to end. More introspective, character-driven fiction that explores relationships and growth will often have a slower pace.

To a certain degree, the efficacy of these stories comes down to reader preference. Some readers love tense, high-stakes, seat-of-the-pants thrillers, while others might find them too chaotic and overwhelming. Some readers enjoy the honest humanity of slower, subtler stories, while other readers can find them boring. Stories with the best pacing usually fall somewhere in between these two extremes, balancing active action scenes with more relaxed character development.

The events that move the plot forward will determine if your story has a fast pace or a slow one.


Exposition is the way a writer conveys background information to the reader. This might be something about the world the characters live in, or something that happened in the main character’s past. This information is essential for the reader to know, but something else really important happens in these moments: when you begin delivering exposition, your story stops moving.

Because exposition involves looking backwards (or sideways) instead of forwards, the narrative pacing slows way down. This means the best time to deliver exposition to your reader is right after a jam-packed action scene, when your reader and your characters all need a moment to catch their breath. If you need to deliver exposition during a faster paced scene, see if you can convey the essential information through small, quick details rather than long descriptive passages.

Sentence structure

A critical element of pacing in writing is the way each individual sentence is actually arranged on the page. Short, choppy sentences will speed up the pace of a narrative, while longer ones filled with multiple clauses and a small army of semicolons will create a slower pace. This is especially true in dialogue.

There’s also a generational aspect to this pacing element. You may notice that older novels tended to use longer, more complex sentences, while contemporary readers and writers lean more towards shorter ones that mimic everyday speech. If you’re writing historical fiction, try experimenting with longer sentences to make your writing feel more authentic to its time period.


When a reader chooses a book in a certain genre, they’ll often come to it with a certain expectation of how the story moves. Thriller novels, as we noted above, usually move at a fast pace. If your thriller novel is slow paced, your reader might be confused and put off because it’s not what they’re used to. Fantasy and science fiction novels are also generally faster paced—although there are exceptions, particularly when it comes to sprawling epics.

Light, “beach read” romances will often be fast paced, while more introspective “women’s fiction” romances can have a slower pace. What we often think of as “literary fiction”—that is, fiction that prioritizes character development over plot—can get away with a slower paced narrative, because it allows room for introspection.

That’s not to say you can’t completely upend these genre conventions in your own writing. However, it does help to be aware of what your readers are expecting when they pick up your book.

Some genres, like crime thrillers, are associated with fast paced narratives.

8 ways to master pacing in a story

Now that we understand pacing a bit better, here are some tips to help put those elements into practice.

1. Arrange your story’s major plot points

An easy way to ensure your novel has the right pacing is to work with a narrative arc template like the three-act structure, the five-act structure, Freytag’s pyramid, or the eight-point arc. Far from being formulaic patterns, these templates are based on rhythms that have worked in successful stories for millennia.

A narrative arc will determine the best places to put your major active plot points, and the best places to step back for a bit of exposition or reflection. Spreading them out evenly will ensure your story doesn’t feel too crowded with action or contain too much passive introspection.

If mastering a narrative arc sounds intimidating, don’t worry! We have plenty of lessons to help you out in our writing academy.

2. Vary sentence length

You can control pacing by experimenting with the way your paragraphs are assembled on the page. Punctuation does more than just clarify ideas; it also shows your reader where to stop, start, breathe, and hurtle forward.

Longer, more complex sentences and vocabulary with three or more syllables will create a slow pace. This can be useful if you want to give your story a dreamlike quality, dig into character relationships, or show your characters recuperating after a period of crisis.

Shorter words and sentences give prose a faster pace. If you’re in the revision or beta reading process of your rough draft and you find that certain sections are dragging along too slowly, a super easy fix is to simply break up some of the longer sentences into short ones.

3. Explore white space

The way your text is laid out can also have a big impact on the rhythm and pacing of a story. Detailed descriptions in a scene normally take up a lot of space on the page, resulting in more black text than white background. Dialogue, on the other hand, usually takes up less real estate and leaves lots of white space on the page. This physically guides the reader through the story faster and makes it feel like the story has a more upbeat tempo.

To encourage fast pacing in a slower scene, try breaking up large paragraphs into shorter ones or adding snatches of dialogue in between lengthy descriptions. On the other hand, if you want your reader to really take their time with the way you’re using language, you can pull some paragraphs together.

The use of white space is a big part of why novels-in-verse have become so popular! They combine beautiful, poetic language with a fast-paced story.

Use action beats, active voice, sentence structure, and page space to control the pacing of a story.

4. Utilize action tags

Action tags—not to be confused with dialogue tags—are a godsend when it comes to mastering pacing. This is a literary device that describes a character’s action in order to link them to a line of dialogue. For example:

“I don’t think this is working.” Sarah threw back the last of her coffee. “Maybe it’s time to try plan B.”

What happens here is that the action tag creates an implied pause in the dialogue, even though the writer hasn’t outright said “she paused.” But, it also helps keep the pace moving because the characters are doing stuff, rather than hanging around behind all the “she saids” and “he saids.” The action tag keeps the dialogue from feeling rushed, while also implying that something’s about to change.

If a block of dialogue feels like it’s spilling out too fast, try breaking it up with some action tags to give your characters some breathing room. If a conversation feels like it’s moving too slowly, try swapping out some dialogue tags (“she said,” “he said,” “she admonished,” “he shouted”) with action tags instead.

5. Reveal information carefully

Your story probably has some information it needs to get across to the reader, either about your main character or about the world they live in. As we saw above, exposition acts a bit like a rock on a string—it weighs your story down. That means you need to carefully choose your moment to give your reader this message.

You may notice that in genre fiction like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, expository scenes usually come right after high-stakes action scenes. Your band of heroes escape a beastie from the deep, finally locking themselves inside their safe house (for now). Your heroine gasps, “What was that thing?” The heroine’s mentor and/or strapping love interest pulls out an arcane text and goes, “Well, allow me to explain…”

When done well, exposition gets important information across and acts as a buffer between action scenes so that everybody can pull themselves together. You can communicate exposition in smaller doses, too, if a scene is feeling a bit too rushed. If a scene feels like it’s dragging by a bit too slowly, check and see if there’s any exposition you can move a little later or a little earlier to a more active scene.

6. Consider opening in medias res

In medias res” is a term that refers to opening a story in the midst of the action. Rather than starting with “Once upon a time,” your story opens with Red Riding Hood already on the road to Granny’s house (aka her imminent doom).

Although a good story should work with different paces throughout the narrative, it will be challenging for a reader to invest in a story that’s slow right from the beginning. In other words, hit the ground running. Any information that’s needed from prior to where your story begins can be incorporated later through exposition, when you need your pacing to slow down a little bit.

7. Use a few cliffhangers (but not too many)

Cliffhangers are a helpful literary device for keeping readers engaged with what your characters are going through. This means ending a chapter or section on a big dramatic question, like “will the hero’s hiding place be discovered?” The reader has to keep going in order to find out the answer.

However, some writers make the mistake of using too many of these in a row, so that every chapter in the entire story ends on a big cliffhanger. What happens then is that the reader can start to feel desensitized to the tension and become aware that they’re being intentionally manipulated. A few cliffhangers can be an effective way to create suspense, but too many will wear away the very effect you were trying to achieve.

A novel with good pacing will use enough cliffhangers to keep readers interested, but also allow them time to catch their breaths with slower paced endings.

8. Read your work out loud

Poets well know the value of reading your writing out loud, but prose writers can benefit from this practice too. Once you’ve finished a chapter or section, try reading it out loud as if you’re reading it to an intimate audience (this is where all those stuffed animals you couldn’t bear to throw away come in handy).

Hearing the words outside your head will help you pinpoint places where the pace slows and starts to drag a bit too much, or places where so much is happening that you lose the thread of the story.

You can improve pacing by reading your final draft out loud.

Examples of great pacing in literature

Now that we understand a bit more about what affects the pace of a story, let’s examine a few writers who have made particularly good use of it in their work.

The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler

Let it be on the record herewith and forevermore that all aspiring writers should read Raymond Chandler (this is not to be confused with Raymond Carver, who also knew a thing or two about putting words on paper).

Chandler’s crime novels are fast paced, with secrets and lies spilling out every which way across the LA pavement. But, he also knows how to slow things down when the moment demands it. Check out this example:

I took the Dancers photo out of my pocket and held it out. She looked at me a long steady moment before she dropped her eyes. Then she looked at the snapshot of herself and Steelgrave in the booth. She looked at it gravely without movement. Then very slowly she reached up and touched the tendrils of damp hair at the side of her face. Ever so slightly she shivered. Her hand came out and she took the photograph. She stared at it. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly.

In real time, the action taking place in this moment takes about two seconds. Maybe three. But the author wants the reader to really luxuriate in what’s happening between these two characters. He shows us that the protagonist is watching the woman very, very carefully, on high alert for any clue that might give away the truth. Even though the narrator uses short sentences, the heightened specificity gives the scene a slower pace.

Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer

Like all good action-adventure stories, Meyer’s nautical Bloody Jack series throws its protagonist into one scrape after another. Written from the first-person perspective of a young girl posing as a boy aboard a ship, the narration moves at a quick pace as the protagonist adapts to the challenges of the world around her.

Here’s an example of one of many crises the hero faces:

The men listening in at the cabin window shake their heads sadly.

It looks like it’s over.

Liam to be hanged and I’m the cause. I’ll have to beat the drum as he’s hauled aloft, all twisting and…

No. This cannot be.

I runs down the passageway and ducks under the bayonets and beats on the door.

“What the Hell?” from within, and “Stop there, you!” from the sentries. One grabs me by my neck.

The author makes effective use of white space on the page to kick the pacing up, reflecting the frantic desperation of the protagonist. The sentences are short and staccato, with the shortest being only one syllable. While an entire novel written in this style would become difficult to read, it’s an effective tool for key scenes where you want to create excitement or convey a sense of breathless urgency.

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris

In Joanne Harris’ character-driven novel, a mother navigates the dual conflicts of an absent daughter and a stranger in her community. Much of the story’s subtext is carried through the senses, like in this example here:

I walk into the kitchen. The scent of chocolate is strong, strong enough to silence her voice. The scent of other places rushes in to fill the void: the ozone of the Pacific, the salt tang of the Côte d’Emeraude. I put a handful of Criollo beans into the grinder. Their scent is very far from sweet. I can smell oud, and sandalwood, and the dark scents of cumin and ambergris. Seductive, yet faintly unsavoury, like a beautiful woman with unwashed hair.

Engaging the senses is a good way to keep slower paced scenes present and interesting for the reader. Notice how the paragraph is made up of a mix of shorter sentences and longer ones. Even though not a lot is happening in this moment, its sensuality allows the reader to fully immerse in the story’s world. This type of fiction writing is warm and comfortable, like a favorite blanket.

Pacing is a literary device, a stylistic technique, and your new secret weapon

Pacing in writing is something we’re all aware of on an unconscious level as readers, but can prove elusive when we try to think about it as craftspeople. By learning to manipulate pacing in a story, you can create a bigger emotional impact and keep your reader engaged from beginning to end.