Posted On July 28, 2017 by Print This Post

Pacing Can Make or Break Your Story with Maggie Toussaint

Happy Friday! We’re running an old post on pacing by author Maggie Toussaint.  

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


Bio: Formerly 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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One Response to “Pacing Can Make or Break Your Story with Maggie Toussaint”

  1. A terrific column filled with extremely useful info. Thanks so much for this!

    Posted by Carol A. Strickland | July 28, 2017, 8:50 am

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