In writing, pacing refers to how quickly you reveal and explore information (and to readers, how quickly the story feels like it’s moving). This means that pacing applies to any genre, whether it’s poetry, nonfiction academic work, or a high fantasy novel.
One of the trickier things about what makes “good” pacing is that it will differ every time—between different works and even between different parts of the same work. It’s affected by multiple elements, and what works won’t be the same every time.
How Target Audience Affects Pacing
Pacing happens on many levels (from chapter to chapter, page to page, word to word). When looking at the overall pacing throughout your book, you’ll likely want to be thinking of your target audience. For instance, if your book is geared toward young readers ages eight to twelve, then the story (and the storytelling) will need to move along faster than if the same plotline or topic were being presented to an audience of adults aged eighteen to twenty-five.
Pacing Throughout a Story
Pacing throughout a story is affected by overall elements, such as:
the overarching plot
How many plot lines are there?
How much time is being spent on each one?
Is the character attending to multiple problems at once?
the length of the book
A typical novel for a middle-grade audience (usually pre-teenagers) will likely have a word count of between 20,000 to 60,000 words, while a novel for a young adult audience (generally within ages thirteen to eighteen) will likely be longer, falling between 70,000 and 110,000 words. Books for adults might be even longer. These ranges are what is common in the English-speaking publishing industry, but exceptions exist, and the length will depend on not just the book’s target audience, but also the book’s genre (and sometimes limitations set by the publisher or distributor).
Pacing Within a Story
Pacing within a story from scene to scene, page to page, and sentence to sentence can include many elements, such as:
number of beats (like a resting point or checkpoint in a story, or a semicolon in a long sentence)
number and intensity of character actions
Some of these elements refer to not just how a piece of writing sounds when it is read out loud or in your head, but also how it looks on the page. This is because space—and lack thereof—matters. Have you ever picked up an essay with no paragraph markings at all, just a page filled from end to end, top to bottom with nonstop words and sentences? For most people, this can feel overwhelming, because the writing seems dense and unstructured.
Paragraph markings help structure what you write both visually and mentally. The more paragraph breaks there are, and the shorter paragraphs are, the more a scene is likely to feel as if it’s moving more quickly. Details are brought out and made to seem more vivid when they are given their own space on the page rather than built into a long paragraph with many other long sentences.
See how that short, two-word sentence/paragraph reads differently?
A nice variety of long and short paragraphs tends to be the “sweet spot” for most points of a story. The variation helps the pacing seem more believable; most of us experience life in changing paces (like how an hour with good friends feels much faster than an hour spent in rush-hour traffic).
Same goes for sentence-level elements. Shorter sentences tend to intensify whatever is happening in the scene (for instance, “She stopped.” feels very different from “She came to the end of her action”), so they might make the pace seem faster. You can test this out by picking up a novel with a tense, action-heavy scene (such as a killer pursuing his victim). You’ll likely find many more shorter sentences than in other parts of the book; some sentences might even be just one word long. How (and whether) you deliberately vary sentence lengths should depend on what you’re hoping to accomplish. Think about what you want the reader to be feeling in that moment and what you want them to be focusing on.
If they should be focusing on the rustic, small-town feeling you’re trying to set up, maybe sentences will be longer, allowing more details to be built in and to blend together. But if the character is performing important or multiple actions, that’s what readers will probably be noticing. The plot moves with the character(s)—both physically and emotionally.
Characters will take breaks, too, even in action-heavy stories, just like how we have to stop and breathe even during our angriest, longest rants. The pauses taken by the character and the beats within a story can reset the pace a little and give the character (and reader!) a chance to transition to something else. A beat might look like a time jump; the character was shown talking to their friends at school, and the next scene places them in their house a few days later. It might be a character walking away from arguing with the narrator. These beats and transitions can slow down the pace within the writing—but just like with every other element, the opposite can be true. If you’re jumping a month ahead each time you move to a new paragraph, it’s going to feel incredibly fast.
That’s why none of these elements can be taken in isolation. They work together to moderate the pace. Play around with it, and see what happens to the writing whenever you change even just one element. (And take breaks as needed... pace yourself!)