Five Tips to Pace Narrative and Structure

Throughout editing my first manuscript, this issue continues to be a problem. From what I have seen in other published novels, it is evident across the published platform.

There are multiple factors that determine the narrative pace, the rate at which your story’s narrated action unfolds. Tone and word choice are two factors. Yet having a good command of grammar helps too.

 Do you find this to be a problem in your project?

Try these tips to build better pacing:


1. Master the participial phrase

A participle is a verb used as an adjective. Present participles ending in ‘-ing’ (e.g. ‘running’, ‘falling’ or ‘dancing’) are useful for building pace because:

  • You can use these words to show simultaneous actions, creating an action-oriented ‘eventfulness’ that builds pace
  • They create a sense of events ‘in motion’

2. Use incomplete sentences

Breaking the ‘rules’ for effect is one of the many joys of writing. The narrative pace moves swifter if you include an occasional partial or incomplete sentence. For example:

Footsteps…Shit. She paused, reaching for-
‘Put your hands where I can see them!’
I’m screwed…

Punctuation such as ellipses (‘…’) and hyphens can signal distraction or interruption. Like exclamation marks, these devices are most effective for building narrative pace or drama when you use them for occasional dramatic effect (rather than every line).

3. Quicken narrative pace using intensifying degrees of comparison

Another way to build narrative pace is to use intensifying degrees of comparison. For example, this sequence of adjectives: ‘loud’, ‘louder’, ‘loudest.’

Here’s an example:

‘A loud splintering issued from the front room. She froze. A louder crash came as she dashed for the panic alarm. It sounded like someone had thrown a chair through a window. The wail of the alarm punctuated the loudest noises as the jumble of voices grew closer, more distinct.’

This ‘ramping up’ of action using degrees of comparison builds the pace, tension and suspense of the scene.

4. Keep intense verbs for the busiest moments

It’s always good to use a stronger, expressive verb rather than the combination ‘simple verb + adverb ending ‘ly’. For example, ‘she sprinted’ is much more specific than ‘she ran quickly’.

Yet good narrative pace also means keeping your strongest, most intense verbs for the fastest or most intense moments.

5. Keep (mostly) to active voice

Passive voice slows the narrative pace. When you write ‘the first shot was fired by a hulking henchman’, the verb appears further into the sentence. Compare this to ‘A hulking henchman fired the first shot.’ The active voice (where the ‘doer’ of the action is the focus) eliminates the ‘helping’ verb, ‘was.’

This reduces ‘clutter’. It creates a smoother, quicker flowing sentence, removing the awkward words ‘was fired by.’

It’s important to note, however, that passive voice isn’t necessarily ‘bad’, in itself.


Do you find this to be a problem in your project?

Post your comments and answers below. If you think someone has an interesting point of view and answer, please invite them or share this post with them.

#DWTSmith #narrativepace

war and history

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