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Pace

Have you ever experienced that moment when you read a book and want to know what happens next? Or who did it? Or what is really happening? The pace of a story is the critical element which makes you ask these questions.

Define Pacing & Pace in Literature

Pacing is a stylistic technique that controls the time and speed at which the story unfolds. In other words, the narrative pace is about how slow or fast the story moves. Writers use various literary devices to control the pacing of a story, such as dialogue, action intensity, or the use of a particular genre.

The pace of a novel, poem, short story, monologue or any form of writing is integral to conveying a text's message. Pace also influences what a reader feels in response to the text.

It's so subtle that you wouldn't consider it when analysing literary texts. But it is just as important as the many other stylistic devices writers use.

Why do writers use pace? Read on to find out more about the purpose of pacing in literature.

Purpose of Pacing in Literature

The purpose of pacing in literature is to control the speed at which the story of moving. Pacing also can be used as a stylistic technique to create a specific mood and make the reader feel a certain way.

Varying the pace throughout a story is essential in keeping the reader gripped.

A slower narrative pace allows the writer to create emotion and suspense or provide a context about the story's world. A faster narrative pace increases action and tension while creating anticipation.

The plot would be too overwhelming if a book only had fast pacing. But if a novel is only slow-paced, the story would be too dull. Balancing scenes with a mixture of pacing allows the writer to build suspense and trigger interest from the readers.

The action film Mad Max (1979) has a fast pace through the many action scenes of car races. In contrast, Les Misérables (1985) has a slower pace as it traces the many intertwined stories of the characters.

The varying pace makes the characters' lives more believable to the readers too. During the slower pace scenes (in which characters are recovering from a dramatic event written at a fast pace), the reader can process the character's emotions along with them.

But how does this work? We will examine how specific devices can create and alter the pace.

Characteristics of Pacing & Pace in Literature

Now that you have a brief understanding of what the different paces in a narrative can do, here is a breakdown of the elements.

Plot

The different stages of the plot are affected by pacing. Story arcs can be split into three sections: (1) exposition/introduction, (2) rising action/complication and (3) falling action/denouement. Each section of the plot uses a different pace.

Exposition introduces the main characters, world and setting.

The rising action or complication is the central part of the story. It is when a series of events and crises lead to the climax. These events usually link to the main dramatic question of the text. For example: will the detective catch the killer? Will the boy get the girl? Will the hero save the day?

The denouement is the final section of a narrative, play or film which ties together all the loose ends of the plot, and any outstanding matters are resolved or explained.

1. During the exposition, the pace can be slower as the writer must introduce the reader to a world they don't know about. The slower pacing gives the reader time to understand the fictional setting and characters. Texts do not always start with exposition; novels that start in media res plunge readers into the action sequence straight away.

In media res is when a narrative opens at a crucial moment of the story.

2. When the protagonist enters the primary conflict and rising action stage, the pace will quicken. This is usually the point the writer wants to increase the stakes and tension. The climax is the time with the most urgency as the conflict and anxiety are at their highest. As such, the pacing is the quickest at the stage.

3. Finally, in the falling action and denouement/resolution, the place slows down as the story ends. All questions and conflicts are resolved, and the pace slows to a gentle end.

Diction & Syntax

The type of words used and their written order also affect the pace. The general rule is that short words and short sentences increase the pace, whilst longer words and sentences decrease the pace. This is also relevant to paragraphs, chapters, or scenes.

  • Shorter words quicken the pace, whereas extended, complex expressions slow the pacing.
  • Shorter sentences are quicker to read, so the pacing will be faster. Longer sentences (with multiple clauses) take longer to read, so the pace will be slower.
  • Similarly, shorter, simpler paragraphs increase the pacing, and longer paragraphs slow down the pace.
  • The shorter the chapter or scene length, the faster the pace.

So long descriptions with great detail and multiple uses of adjectives create a slower pace as readers spend a long time reading the scene.

Dialogue, however, would increase the story's pace as the reader is moved from one character speaking to another. It is also a great way to reveal new information concisely and quickly.

Crisp verbs with onomatopoeia (e.g., scatter, crash) and words with hard consonant sounds (e.g., kill, claws) quicken the pace.

Using an active voice or a passive voice also impacts the pace of a story. Passive voices use wordier language and usually have a slower pace and subtle tone. The active voice is clear and direct, allowing a faster pace.

Active voice is when the subject of the sentence acts directly. Here, the subject acts on the verb.

E.g., She played the piano. Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon. E.g. The piano is being played by her.

Genre

Different genres have certain known rules on pacing. For example, historical fiction and fantasy genres tend to have a slower pace as these stories need a lengthy exposition describing new worlds and places to readers.

J. R. R. Tolkien's epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954) starts with a slower pace as Tolkien sets up the new fantasy setting of Middle-earth. Tolkien uses longer descriptions to explain family trees and the magical rules in the fictional world, which slows the pace down.

Action-adventure or thriller stories have a faster pace as the main focus is to progress through the plot. As they contain many fast action sequences, the pacing is quick.

Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train (2015) is a fast-paced psychological thriller. Hawkins's fast pace keeps the reader hooked through heightened tension and intrigue.

Cliff Hangers

Writers can use cliffhangers to increase the pacing of their stories. When the outcome isn't shown at the end of a particular chapter or scene, the pace quickens as readers are curious to know what happens next.

When the outcome is prolonged, such as through several chapters, the pace increases. This is because the suspense builds in line with the reader's desire to know the outcome.

pace, people climbing a cliff, StudySmarterCliff hangers are popular narrative devices, pixabay.

Types of Pace

As well as specific genres being known for certain pacing, some plot lines are known for a particular use of pace too. We will take a look at the four common forms of pace.

Pace of Expectations

Readers begin to expect what will happen next at a certain point in a novel. Writers can play with these expectations by sometimes fulfilling them or making something unexpected occur instead.

Specific expectations are present for different genres. For example, a romance novel will end with the couple getting together; a detective story would end with the mystery solved; a thriller would finish with security and safety.

Writers can also play with the pace of expectations to encourage the reader or viewer to support a particular ending or concept.

In the TV series Sex Education (2019–2022), the playwrights play with the viewer's expectation and support for the characters Otis and Maeve to get together. The pace quickens as the viewer expects that long-awaited union between Otis and Maeve. Yet when this is thwarted each time, the pace then slows down. But it also raises the suspense and tension during the subsequent possible union, which increases the pace again.

Inner Journey Pace

This type of fiction is character-driven and primarily deals with the protagonist's inward feelings. Rather than lots of car chases to increase the pace, not so much happens outwardly. Instead, the main action occurs within the protagonist's mind.

Tension is created by how intense the character's needs are. This is affected by a series of twists, complications and surprises that don't necessarily occur physically but affect the protagonist's inward feelings. Here it is the character's thoughts that drive the pacing.

Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) traces the thoughts and feelings of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War One veteran. While the pace is slower as Septimus spends the day in the park with his wife, the pace then quickens as he experiences a series of hallucinations. The pace increases due to his trauma from the war and his guilt that his friend Evans did not survive.

pace, Types of pace, StudySmarterInner journeys often determine the pace of the narrative, pixabay.

Emotional Pace

Compared to the Inner Journey pace, this pacing focuses more on how the readers feel instead of how the characters feel. Writers can try to pace the reader's reactions: at one moment, you may feel like crying, yet the next, the text has you laughing out loud. This is an example of emotional pace.

Through the back and forth movement between scenes with tension and energy, the readers go through a series of emotions about what will happen next.

Candice Carty-Williams's Queenie (2019) alternates the emotional pace of the reader. In some scenes, the emotional severity of the protagonist's trauma might make the reader sad and upset. Yet these scenes are lightened up by comic moments where the reader might want to laugh.

Moral Pace

This is another pace set with the readers' reaction rather than the characters. Here, the writer plays with the reader's understanding of what is morally right and wrong.

For example, the novel's protagonist could initially be innocent and naïve and the antagonist an utterly evil villain. But, as the story progresses, the antagonist is portrayed as wise or not as evil as they initially seemed. And in contrast, the protagonist becomes arrogant and rude. Or do they? By seeding doubt into the reader, the writer can play with the moral greyness, challenging the reader to think and judge themselves.

The eponymous protagonist Jay Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) is morally ambiguous. Despite the attempts of the unreliable narrator Nick Carraway to idealise Gatsby, the final chapters reveal Gatsby's shady criminal past. Fitzgerald plays with the reader's moral pace, encouraging them to form their own opinion of Jay Gatsby.

Examples of Pacing & Pace In Literature

Here we will look at a few examples of pace from literature.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Various subplots in this novel shift the story between different pacing. The scenes around the central conflict between Darcy and Elizabeth quicken the pace as the reader wants to find out the answer to the dramatic question: will the couple get together?

Yet the many subplots slower the pace, such as the relationship between Lydia and Wickham, the love between Bingley and Jane, and the relationship between Charlotte and Collins.

Austen also uses letters as a literary device to control the story's pacing. Her use of detailed descriptions and dialogue further slows the pace. Mrs Bennett is also used to slow down the pacing through her laments about her daughter's marriages and her portrayal of handsome suitors.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle

In the below quote, Arthur Conan Doyle sets the scene of the English moorland during a carriage ride through Devonshire countryside.

The wagonette swung round into a side road, and we curved upward through deep lanes […] high banks on either side, heavy with dripping moss and fleshy hart's-tongue ferns. Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun. [W]e passed over a narrow granite bridge and skirted a noisy stream […] foaming and roaring amid the gray boulders. Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak and fir. At every turn Baskerville gave an exclamation of delight […]. To his eyes all seemed beautiful, but to me a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside, which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed. [W]e drove through drifts of rotting vegetation-sad gifts, as it seemed to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles. (p. 19)

The pacing slows down in Doyle's detailed description of the English moorland. In this exposition section, the pace is slower to introduce the reader to the new setting central to the story. The sentences are longer, more complex and descriptive, with many clauses, adverbs and adjectives. The narration is more reflective, too, with the narrator Watson reflecting on how the landscape affects him. This dramatically contrasts with the novel's final fast-paced scenes, which reveal that Holmes has figured out the mystery whilst living in the moors.

Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams

Let's take a close look at the varying use of pace in Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy when Arthur Dent wakes up in the morning to a demolition site.

Kettle, plug, fridge, milk, coffee. Yawn.

The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with.

The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one. (Chapter 1)

The short sentence consisting entirely of nouns quickens the pace. The directness allows the reader to fill in the blanks and understand what is happening.

The following sentence is much longer and more complex. The slower pace here matches the slow fogginess of Arthur's mind as he is slowly waking up and noticing the events around him.

The following sentence then is shorter again, picking up the pace. This sentence reverses the expectations of the reader and the character, who are all surprised by the bulldozer in front of Arthur's house. This is also an example of the pace of expectations.

Pace - Key Takeaways

  • Pacing is a stylistic technique that controls the time and speed at which the story unfolds.
  • Different genres have certain known rules on pacing. For example, historical fiction and fantasy genres tend to have a slower pace, whereas action-adventure stories have a faster pace.

  • The length of words, sentences, words, paragraphs and chapters impact the pace of a story. In general, the longer the length, the slower the pace.

  • Using an active voice or a passive voice impacts the pace of a story: passive voices usually have a slower pace, while active voice allows for a faster pace.

  • There are four different types of pace: the pace of expectations, inner journey pace, emotional pace and moral pace.

Frequently Asked Questions about Pace

Pacing is a stylistic technique that controls the time and speed at which the story unfolds.

Pace is important in literature as it controls the rate at which the story moves forward and controls the appeal of the story for the readers. 

The effect of pacing in literature is that writers can control the speed of the scenes and the events that take place to create certain effects on their readers.

Good pacing in writing involves using a mixture of fast pace and slow pace in different scenes to keep the reader’s interest.

Suspense is created through a slower narrative pace.

Final Pace Quiz

Question

What is pace in literature?

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Answer

Pacing is a stylistic technique that controls the time and speed at which the story unfolds. In other words, the narrative pace is about how slow or fast the story is moving. Writers use various literary devices to control the pace of a story such as genre, dialogue and intensity of the action taking place.

Show question

Question

What are some of the characteristics of pacing in literature?

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Answer

Genre, a mixture of fast pace and slow pace, sentence length, diction, syntax, cliffhangers, and plot.

Show question

Question

How does genre affect the pacing of a story?

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Answer

Different genres have certain known rules on pacing. For example, historical fiction and fantasy genres tend to have a slower pace as these stories need to have a lengthy exposition describing new worlds and places to readers. Action-adventure stories have a faster pace as the main focus is to progress through the plot. 

Show question

Question

What is passive voice?

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Answer

When the verb takes action on the subject.

E.g. The piano is being played by her. 

Show question

Question

What is active voice?

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Answer

When the subject of the sentence performs the action directly. The subject acts on the verb. 

E.g.,  She played the piano.

Show question

Question

How does active voice affect the pacing of a story?

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Answer

The active voice is clear and direct which allows for a faster pace. 

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Question

How does passive voice affect the pacing of a story?

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Answer

Passive voices use wordier language and usually have a slower pace and subtle tone.

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Question

What does in media res mean?

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Answer

When the story begins at a crucial moment of the story.

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Question

What does denouement mean?

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Answer

The final section of a narrative, play or film in which all the loose ends of the plot are tied together and any outstanding matters are resolved or explained.

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Question

What is Moral Pace?

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Answer

When the writer plays with the reader’s understanding of what is morally right and wrong.

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Question

What are the four types of pace in literature?

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Answer

Pace of decisions

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Question

What is the inner-journey pace?

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Answer

This type of fiction is character-driven and has mostly to do with the inward feelings of the protagonist. Therefore, not so much happens outwardly but the main action happens within the protagonist’s mind. 

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Question

What is the pace of expectations?

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Answer

When writers play with the readers' expectations by sometimes fulfilling them or making something unexpected occur instead. 

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