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Ask an Editor: Pacing and Tension

Last month, we took to the Twitterverse to see what elements of writing craft you would like our editors to tackle, and we got some great responses!

Thanks for the question, Sarah!

Pacing is an issue that comes up again and again. And it’s tricky! If you get the pacing wrong one way, the book will start to drag, leaving the reader feeling like nothing is happening or that there is nothing to care about... which unfortunately translates to "no reason to keep reading." But if you go too far in the other direction, you can rush right past important scenes or information, leaving your readers feeling cheated and confused. It’s an issue that requires a careful balancing act.

Important note: I think that pacing and tension is something that an author will really need to work on while editing and revising. When you're writing that first rough draft, the important thing is just to get the story down. As long as you're moving forward, you're doing fine. It’s much, much easier to figure out the pacing and tension once you know what the story is about and where it’s headed.

So what exactly is pacing? It’s the speed at which the story moves forward. There are a lot of things that contribute to this. It’s not just action sequences—although those can help—but rather it’s a sense that the plot is moving forward. That the characters are either moving closer to their goals or are getting deeper into trouble.

Pick a scene in your work. How does that scene help progress the story? Are the characters learning something that will show them how to move forward on their "quest"? Are they having important emotional discussions and revelations?

If it’s an action scene, are the characters actively trying to achieve their goals, or is it just action for the sake of action? The former moves the story forward; the latter, no matter how cool it might be, slows the story down. Every scene should have a purpose and should be relevant to the main plot or to the characters’ personal development (which often comes through side plots).

But remember, it’s also important to take time to process and think and plan. No one can constantly keep moving all the time. It’s exhausting. And your readers also will need time to process any big reveals or shocking twists. It’s not bad to slow down occasionally. Just be careful not to stop. In these scenes where your characters (and readers!) are processing and planning, keep in mind that you still need a source of tension. Whether its worry over the upcoming struggle or it’s figuring out that one unsolvable problem or it’s emotional issues between characters, there’s always got to be some kind of problem that needs to be solved and something needs to change for the character in every scene.

So how do you keep that tension building? The easiest way is to remind readers of the stakes. (For more on stakes, see my earlier post.) Conflict creates tension, but only if the conflict is important. The reader has to care about the outcome, and more importantly they need to feel like the scene matters.

Make it clear that the character’s decisions and actions have weight in this world and are going to change the outcome for better or worse. That is where you find tension. If the things that are going wrong are the character’s own fault, or if they are the only person who can fix things or change them, then their actions become vitally important. And readers will be waiting with baited breath to see what happens next.

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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