Writing: How to Pace a Scene


Last time, we focused on the importance of pacing in a novel. Today, let’s examine ways to pace an individual scene as you draft your fiction.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some writing techniques to pace a scene?

Magic Threes

One of the easiest ways to pace a scene is to think in threes. Remember the Rule of Three for writing dialogue? The same general guideline can help you pace a scene correctly—that is, give readers enough info, tension and suspense without hitting them over the head with it. Three is the best number of times to stress something—if you change it up the third or last time. If a character notes a whining child in the supermarket, let the character think, feel or say something in reaction only three times. We all know children aren’t giving up after three tries for the sugary cereal, but you only want to suggest that feeling—not torture your readers with the whole upsetting tirade. Realism is only palatable to readers if they feel a sense of discovery and relevance to what’s written. After that, readers, as in real life, want to get away, quick. If you mention a situation once, it’s discovery. Twice is connection or relevance. The third time is meant for reinforcement, but be careful here: On the third mention, change something about it. Either change it to lead into the character’s processing (deciding what to do about it) so it will lead into the next action, or have the character resolve it with humor or philosophical dismissal.

Say it Once

Often, once is enough. If you write that a character got dressed for work, you could repeat the act of putting on clothing for each item she’s wearing. If you said, “but that’s boring,” you’re right. After you tell us “she got dressed,” you might mention three (and only three!) clothing items if it’s germane to the situation—maybe it’s not casual Friday but he’s dressed in a sloppy T and holey jeans. If she’s dressing to impress, you can describe her outfit, but limit it to the things she thinks will impress the most (there’s that number three again). When you write about the actions of a character, similar ideas will help you pace. If you say, “He went into the house, searching for his keys,” it will feel redundant if you mention that he’s in the house again, as in, “He went from room to room in the house, but couldn’t find those keys. The italicized words aren’t necessary—we already know he’s in a house and that his goal is finding keys. Once you’ve stated the setting, you can give brief reminders if the scene is long without repeating the same phrase. EX: “He wished once again, that they’d bought a ranch instead of this three-story Victorian.” It’s another way of saying, “He went into the house.”

Follow the Pattern

All scenes follow the same pattern: Something happens (ACTION), followed by the POV character’s REACTION. The character must DECIDE what to do in response and then he acts (back to ACTION). While this sounds complicated, it isn’t really. You likely already have an innate sense of this pattern: the reader discovers something new with each action, suspense tightens as the character ponders his next move and then more discovery upon the following action. If you’re not convinced, pick up one of your favorite novels and try to identify each of these three stages of a scene. Some scenes will contain multiples of the pattern, but the character must always go through them. Just as in real life.

Your Turn: What part of pacing a scene is the most difficult for you?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing: How to Pace a Scene

  1. For me the most important advice in this column is changing it up after the third mention. As a reader this catches my eye every time. I’ve noticed many of the pros have caught on to this and use it often. The funny part is that I know it’s coming but I can’t help to turn the page fast enough.

    Thank you, Linda. As always, excellent advice.

    • Bryan,
      The third change-up is so crucial to your reader. I was reminded of this important tool when I watched an interview of Paul Simon from the 70s Dick Cavett Show. Simon said, “You have to do something twice (musically). ” Cavett said, “I thought it was in groups of three.” Simon responded, “Yes, but on the third time you change it a little so it surprises.” What astute observation from a great American songwriter. Keep writing!

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