Posted On September 15, 2014 by Print This Post

Pacing Can Make or Break Your Story with Maggie Touissant

One of my favorite authors, Maggie Toussaint, is here to give us some amazing tips about pacing and how to make your story sing with the best movement.  I know you will love this post!

If you’ve written a book, you have more than a passing familiarity with editing. However, many authors focus their editing onMaggieToussaint2_fun_larger big ticket items like character and plot, and often pay lip service to pacing. I believe pacing is on equal footing with the big guns. Here’s why.

Pacing is the rate of movement or progress in your book. It’s the length of time between moments of conflict. It’s how you make your story travel at its intended speed.

Some liken pacing to a heartbeat, which has an everyday rhythm and an excited rhythm. While others liken it to music, which has meter and beat. Regardless of how you perceive pacing, it’s the glue that pulls sentences into paragraphs and yields scenes and chapters.

Words matter when it comes to pacing. “Make every word count” is especially true with pacing. Word choice speeds up or slows down your story. Both pacing speeds are necessary to tap into the emotions of readers.

Pacing tracks the tension and conflict of the story; it must shift like human moods throughout the story. The reason for the variance? It’s exhausting to read a totally high octane story.

In Make Your Words Count, Gary Provost offers four pacing pointers. They are: travel light, openings matter, make things happen, and proportion.

Traveling light means to move the story along at maximum efficiency, to differentiate between junk words and keepers. Keepers include rich description, detailed characterization, and extended dialogue. Junk words—such as almost, be able to, proceed to, for some reason—add nothing to the story and can be eliminated.

Openings matter because they hook the reader and set up a promise for the rest of the story. If those first few paragraphs aren’t spot-on, readers will put the book down. Omit background information from the opening. Make sure to engage the reader so that they keep reading to find out what happens next.

Whether you’re using fast or slow pacing, things must happen. While description makes the story more vivid, it shouldn’t be what’s happening. If you put people on every page and in every paragraph and have them doing something, pacing will unfold naturally. The more things that happen, the faster the story pace.

With regards to proportion, a story can be broken down into events and information. Knowing the correct proportion of each comes with experience. Be forewarned. Too much information will wreck the pacing.

Using skill and instinct; an author listens with his/her inner ear to get the right balance of sound and feel. This perfect blend will better engage the reader emotionally.

Although pacing is at every level of the story, breaking the analysis down into scenes helps me understand what’s going on. Within a scene, there are micro-changes which affect pacing, such as small actions, small emotional setbacks, changes in intensity, changes in awareness, and changes in working information.

To create fast-paced action scenes, it is helpful to limit setting information, to tighten the camera angle to the point of view character’s immediate environment, to use details that put readers in the moment (pain of a broken bone, whistling of a blade), to keep sentences crisp and short; to use short paragraphs and sentence fragments, to use stronger nouns and sharp verbs, and to eliminate modifiers

Slower action scenes are used for middle scenes, romantic scenes, and developmental moments in the plot. For instance, if you want to emphasize something, you can layer in details. This type of pacing might be used at the moment of a car crash to expand emotional impact. There’s no thinking of past events, just point of view sensation, reaction, and concrete details.

Mechanically, slower action scenes have a sense of panorama from a wider camera angle. Sentences are longer, with softer sounding verbs and sensory-rich descriptions.

Fast paced dialogue scenes give the illusion of action. They move a reader through the story faster than narrative. Write lean, limit description and movements, model after real dialogue sentence structure, and quickly cut to the next scene when the needed information has been transmitted.

Slower paced dialogue scenes have fewer interruptions and more listening. It’s often people talking around the key information. There might be stops and starts, people forgetting what they meant to say, or even irrelevant details. Characterization can be deepened by adding more description and movements.

Chapter pacing examines the broader scope of the story. Use hooks to start and end chapters, and remember to build and release the tension within a chapter so that fast and slow passages are balanced.

Within a chapter, build to a climax, give the reader a brief rest, and introduce the next conflict. Begin to piece together the character arc, showing the change in a character from one chapter to the next. Remember to have more than one action within a chapter or the pacing will suffer.

To dissect pacing on a book scale, larger elements come into play. The pacing instituted at the start of a book is an author’s promise of the type of pacing a reader can expect in this book. On the book level, character arc should relate to theme. Foreshadowing can heighten tension. Character growth can be seen as the character tries different things. Pacing at the book level ties the plot and subplots together in a way that builds to a conclusion.

If you have pacing issues, identify places in your story where the pacing is off. For a dragging story, pick up the pace. Suggestions to fix this include trimming the details, moving narrative into dialogue and action, and show, don’t tell.

For a racing story, slow down the pace. Suggestions to fix this include checking scene choreography, characterization, and plot. Be careful not to dump details in as a quick fix.

Take home message: Few writing rules are absolute. Write a compelling story and no one will notice the craft elements.


Make Your Words Count, Gary Provost, 2001 Author’s Guild edition, ISBN 9780595174867

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King, 1993, HarperCollins, ISBN 9780062720467

Writing Mysteries, ed. by Sue Grafton, Jan Burke, and Barry Zeman, 2001, Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 9781582971025


So, what are some of the books you’ve read that have had the perfect pace?

Kimberly Kincaid will be with us on Wednesday! 



RoughWaters_w8335_750Formerly an aquatic toxicologist contracted to the U.S. Army and a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint loves to blend murder and romance in her fiction. With twelve published books to her credit, her newest release is Rough Waters, the last in her Mossy Bog series, featuring a pink haired florist and a former SEAL. She’s an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. Visit her at Maggie lives in coastal Georgia, where secrets, heritage, and ancient oaks cast long shadows.

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28 Responses to “Pacing Can Make or Break Your Story with Maggie Touissant”

  1. Great post. Thanks for all the examples; shared this link with my writing students.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | September 15, 2014, 7:40 am
  2. Loved this post and the timing is perfect for me. I’m reading through my story one more time after sending it through critique groups and editing it.

    Thanks for the tips!

    Posted by jackielayton | September 15, 2014, 8:24 am
    • Hi Jackie,

      You’re at that final stage of polishing. Been there. It’s tempting to send it out because you KNOW it’s good. But there’s that awful gut-sucking feeling of “is it great?” that keeps you from hitting the Send button.

      I have a story that’s at the same stage. It could go to my editor right now and I’m reasonably certain she’d contract it. But I want to let it sit a few days and read through it again. Just in case, you know?

      Wishing you many successes!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 10:18 am
  3. Hi Maggie. This is a terrific “how to” summation of pacing. SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS is my go-to book when I’m in editing mode. I also found Jack Bickham’s SCENE & STRUCTURE to be enlightening. You and I both write humorous mysteries and sometimes I release the suspense too early because I have a zinger I’m just dying to throw in. These are great tips to keep in mind.

    Posted by Cindy Sample | September 15, 2014, 12:08 pm
    • Hi Cindy,

      In this day of everything being google-able, I still find myself relying on craft books for the nitty gritty stuff like pacing. Another book I forgot to mention is Chris Roerden’s Don’t Sabotage your Submission. She gives lots of examples there that I find helpful.

      Pacing was a difficult craft element for me to master. Like you, I want to get to the good part right away. Pacing helped me learn restraint, and to keep the readers wanting more.

      Anyway, I hope no one thinks I have mastered pacing. I haven’t mastered anything except being stubborn enough to edit my books into publication. I like to think I might be at the intermediate level when it comes to pacing, LOL!

      Thanks for your visit and comment, Cindy. I enjoy your humorous mysteries!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 12:22 pm
  4. Hi Maggie – What a great post! I love this: “Some liken pacing to a heartbeat, which has an everyday rhythm and an excited rhythm. While others liken it to music, which has meter and beat. Regardless of how you perceive pacing, it’s the glue that pulls sentences into paragraphs and yields scenes and chapters.”

    Bookmarked it!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 15, 2014, 12:23 pm
    • Thanks, Becke. I hope that folks who generally know this information will get fired up reading my version of it, and that beginning writers will take a moment to think “I never thought of that.”

      We all yearn to do better. Maybe this will inspire someone to take a little more time with their pacing before they sub to a contest, or an agent/editor.

      Best wishes to you!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 12:27 pm
  5. Lots of helpful hints and good advice. Thanks!

    Posted by susan coryell | September 15, 2014, 2:36 pm
  6. Hi Maggie,

    This is a terrific breakdown on the ‘spectrum’ of pacing. It’s something I hone in on when I’m reading and because of that, I worry about pacing when I write. Love the camera angle analogy.

    I’ve read that the pace of a story should be slowed, like after a fast paced action scene, to give the reader a breather. What’s your take on that?

    Great post. Thanks for joining us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 15, 2014, 3:53 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      I absolutely believe the pace should be slow after a fast paced action scene, but it could be a slower paced action scene next (They turned down a side street, kept inching forward while craning to glance behind the car. Is anybody following us?), or a fast paced dialogue scene (can you believe we did that???), or a slow paced dialogue scene (she stared into the not quite steady cup of coffee she held as she phrased her reply…).

      I’m very glad to be here! Thanks for the comment, Jennifer.

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 4:25 pm
  7. Hi Maggie, Excellent post chock full of wonderful advice! I’ve bookmarked it for future use. Thanks, Joanne 🙂

    Posted by Joanne Guidoccio | September 15, 2014, 6:10 pm
    • Thanks, Joanne. I’ve been judging contest entries this summer, and pacing is a writing aspect that many beginning writers don’t seem to understand. That frustration I felt for them, for wanting their story to pour through the screen and into a reader’s heart, spurred me to write this blog on pacing. I am by no means an expert, but I have thought about this a lot.

      I appreciate the comment!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 7:19 pm
  8. Great information here Maggie, I never thought of the analogy of a camera lens to scenes of the story. I’m saving this, 🙂

    Posted by Jacquie Biggar | September 15, 2014, 6:57 pm
    • Hi Jacquie,

      I can’t claim to have thought of the camera lens, but I am fairly good at knowing what works for me. This analogy was in one of my sources for pacing information and made it into my pacing folder. I like to have information like this at my fingertips to review before I start edits.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 15, 2014, 7:21 pm
  9. Evening Maggie! =)

    Excellent post and something I’ll read again! =)

    One of my favorite paced books is Nora Roberts The Witness. From page one I fell in headfirst and rarely did I find a spot where I WANTED to put the book down. I was more or less forced into it by the sun coming up. =)

    Thanks for the great advice!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 15, 2014, 10:08 pm
  10. Good information! Well-paced, too 🙂 Thanks, Maggie. This is going in my “Refer to Often” file.


    Posted by Molly MacRae | September 16, 2014, 6:05 am
  11. Love this post, Maggie. Great tips. Thank you!

    Posted by Terri L. Austin | September 16, 2014, 10:21 am
  12. Your suggestions are right on, Molly, and just the reminders I needed while I began going through this rewrite.

    Posted by June Shaw | September 16, 2014, 10:30 am
  13. Great post, Maggie. I’m bookmarking this. Fortunately, I have a great critique partner who cuts out my slow-down words.

    Posted by Polly Iyer | September 18, 2014, 9:15 pm
  14. Thanks for the compliment, Polly. Critique partners are an excellent resource.

    Friends, if you’re a beginning to intermediate writer and are seeking feedback, a critique partner or a critique group, especially one in your genre area, can help strengthen your writing. However, critique comes with some baggage and the author must be able to discern the good advice from the not-so-good.

    Best wishes, Polly! I’m so glad you stopped by.

    Posted by Maggie Toussaint | September 19, 2014, 8:01 am


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