Variety is the spice of life, right? We get bored if our lives become too humdrum, too same old, same old. The same is true of fiction. The reader wants action and drama but also quiet time to take a breather and get to know the characters better. You have hooked the fish with your dramatic opening. Now it’s time to reel it in. But just as a deep-sea fisherman must play the line, your plot should unfold with varying speed and intensity while always moving the reader toward the net — your dramatic climax.
Pacing is established on several layers of the writing. On the most fundamental level, it involves word choice. The goal is to always pack as much potency as possible into every word you use. That said, simple nouns, crisp verbs, sparse use of adjectives and adverbs will all contribute to faster pacing. Likewise, more eloquent use of language can slow things down. The same is true of sentence length and complexity. Short sentences telegraph intensity, while longer, more complex ones give a feeling of ease and leisure. A judicious use of sentence fragments can also add immediacy to a fast-moving scene. On a broader level, length and content of paragraphs, scenes, even chapters allow you to manipulate the pacing.
The entire structure of your novel should flow in a way that keeps the reader awake and interested. Vary your sentence length and structure within each paragraph. Sentence after sentence that is the same looks boring to the eye. It certainly reads that way. The same can be said for paragraphs, especially narrative ones. Most important, order your scenes so that their intensity varies. A scene with lots of breathtaking action should be followed by something less powerful. Under no circumstances, however, is it kosher to vary intensity within a scene. A sure way to kill suspense would be to put your protagonist in a seemingly untenable position, then pull back to insert some mundane piece of information. If that information were vital to understanding the current scene, it should have been presented well prior to the present action.
Effective transitions add to your novel’s momentum. If a story were told in strictly chronological fashion with every detail of your protagonist’s life fleshed out, no reader would make it past the first chapter. Contrary to real life, fiction gives you the power to manipulate time. You can compact it or expand it. Skip forward or jump backward. The trick is to make these transitions in a way that doesn’t confuse your reader. If your scenes or chapters are not contiguous, you should prepare your reader for the leap of time or setting or subject. First, make sure the change is logical as it relates to the overarching story. Second, hint at the new scene in the thoughts or actions that end the old scene. Then be sure the new scene begins in a manner the reader can easily follow.
A word about flashbacks. Flashbacks are only necessary if they add some significant insight or piece of information the reader must know to understand current or future events. Done poorly, they can interrupt the story and aggravate the reader. Done right, they will fit seamlessly into the story and contribute to whatever action is happening in the present. One technique is to place a flashback in a prologue. Sometimes the flashback is relevant only after other action has set the scene or when you are gradually revealing something about a character. In those cases, the flashback should be as concise, riveting and entertaining as possible.
Foreshadowing is the opposite of a flashback but more subtle. It hints at what is to come in order to up the suspense ante. The danger lies in giving away too much, in which case the eventual revelation will be anticlimactic and disappointing to the reader. It is important to be honest. Trying to ramp up suspense by foreshadowing an event that never happens will destroy the reader’s trust. On the other hand, foreshadowing a red herring that will be fully explained in due course can add depth to a plot. As with flashbacks, be judicious and intentional in your use of foreshadowing.
Pacing has one purpose — to build suspense and keep the reader engaged until the central conflict is resolved. Think of your plot as a narrow one-way road that climbs to the top of a mountain. It rises and falls, switches back on itself, is strewn with fallen rocks, potholes and dizzying dropoffs, and becomes more treacherous with every increase in elevation. Your characters face ever more complicated difficulties along the way. Impossible hurdles and crushing setbacks push them almost to the breaking point. They triumph despite the odds. In the process they have grown and changed in ways they could never have dreamed possible at the beginning.
How to effectively pace your novel? Instinct plays a large part. A writer can learn certain techniques, but only the inner arbiter can decide what fits best within the whole. Instincts are, by definition, inbred. But they can also be nurtured and shaped through experience. The only way to achieve that experience is to write, write, and then write some more.