Pacing is a very important part of writing, but very difficult to get exactly right. To pace something properly, you have to be very aware of everything from sentence length to paragraph breaks. The proper pacing can make a scene or a story as a whole.
What do I mean by pacing you ask? I mean the pace at which your writing itself moves, not the story. Do you need your writing to sound slow for some menial task? Fast for a fight scene? This post will hopefully provide some insight into pacing in a way that makes easier to understand. The basics of pacing involve understanding the effects of punctuation, conjunctions, sentence length, and paragraph breaks.
Punctuation and Conjunctions
When you’re writing, certain types of punctuation cause a longer pause than others. For instance, a comma (,) provides the shortest pause, followed by a semicolon (;), then a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation point (!). Ellipses (…) cause the longest kind of pause in writing. Dashes (-) are typically used to indicate an interruption in speech or thought. Colons (:) indicate the start of a list. If you want something to sound faster, it’s better to use a comma. For instance, you can say, “He swung his sword, dodging to the left” or “He swung his sword. He dodged to the left”. The first of those two statements sounds much faster and makes the character’s actions happen at almost the same exact time. The second statement makes it sound like he performed both actions separately, which would make him seem much slower.
Now, conjunctions (and, or, but, yet, for, so) and transitions (then, next, finally) all share basically the same pause length. Compared to punctuation, they fall in between a comma and semicolon. To repeat my earlier example, “He swung his sword, dodging to the left” is faster than “He swung his sword and dodged to the left”. The second one, like a period, suggests that these two movements are separate actions. However, the conjunction doesn’t suggest a hesitation in moving into the second action.
Conjunctions also can be used for polysyndeton and asyndeton. Polysyndeton basically means “many conjunctions” while asyndeton basically means “no conjunctions”. Asyndeton can make things sound shorter and faster. Polysyndeton tends to make things sound slower and more tedious. An example of asyndeton would be, “I washed the dishes, did the laundry, swept the floor, dusted, took out the trash, washed the car”. An example of polysyndeton would be, “I washed the dishes and did the laundry and swept the floor and dusted and took out the trash and washed the car”. In the first example, the list sounds fast and rushed. The speaker isn’t trying to make a point of what they did to whoever they’re speaking to, they’re just informing them of what they did while the other was away. In the latter example, the use of the word “and” is very pointed and makes it obvious that the speaker is trying to get a point across to whoever they’re speaking to, in addition to making the tasks seem much longer and more tedious than in the previous example.
Sentence Length and Paragraph Breaks
Sentence length has a rather obvious effect on pacing. The longer a sentence, which generally means the more punctuation and conjunctions, the slower the pacing. Shorter sentences are faster. However, you also don’t want too many long or short sentences packed together. That will make your writing seem far too bland, bland enough to make your readers lose focus and have to reread lines or take a break from reading.
Paragraph breaks in fiction don’t always just show a change in topic. They can show a realization or a sudden shift in what’s going on. For instance, take the following text as an example:
The woman spun and shot off away from the city guards, sprinting around a corner. She ran down several side streets and into an alley, hopping onto some crates. From there she leapt straight up, catching a windowsill with her right hand and hauling herself up. Once she was able to balance in the window, she sprang up again and grabbed the edge of the roof. She pulled herself up onto it, then gave herself a moment to catch her breath before taking off again. She ran and ran, darting across the rooftops. Soon the flat roofs of the poor district became the clay-tiled roofs of the rich district and the woman smirked. She moved faster, knowing her destination was almost within reach.
And then she fell.
In this case the paragraph break represents a sudden shift. The character goes from being quite confident with everything she does to suddenly experiencing a very physical shift, one that will probably also affect her confidence.