What does pacing mean in the context of storytelling? What makes one story feel fast or another one feel slow? How can pacing be controlled? Throughout this post, we will be answering all of these questions and digging into everything you need to know about narrative pacing. Let’s get started with a definition.
Pace Literary Definition
First, let’s define narrative pacing
NARRATIVE PACING DEFINITION
What is narrative pacing?
Narrative pacing is the speed at which a story unfolds. Pacing can be thought of as the tempo of a narrative. Narrative pacing may result in a story being called slow or fast-paced. Pacing may also be referred to as an indicator of quality, as in “that film was perfectly paced” or “that story had awful pacing.” The pacing of a story typically fluctuates throughout its entire duration and may be fast in certain moments while slowing down in other moments.
Narrative Pacing Characteristics:
- The speed and tempo of a story
- Most narratives have fluctuating pace
- Used as an indicator of speed and quality
Pacing Literary Device
What makes “good” pacing?
When someone says that a story has good pacing, what exactly does that mean? Well, it can actually mean different things in different contexts. It is important to note that fast pacing does not inherently equal good pacing and that slow pacing is not necessarily a bad thing.
Different pacing is often desirable in different genres, and the story being told should always be a consideration when determining the pace at which to tell it.
Action films tend to demand a faster pace, while dramas tend to naturally be slower. One speed is not better than another, but it may be more appropriate within a particular context. A thriller or horror that takes its time building atmosphere might be described as a slow-burn, while an adventure film with the same pacing might be described as just plain old slow.
Be aware that pacing is somewhat subjective. One reader or viewer might consider a particular novel or film slow, while another person might find the same story to have a quicker pace. Neither person is wrong; it comes down to their individual perception and preferences.
Pacing can come down to a general feeling just as much as it is determined by empirical facts like runtime or page count.
While a certain degree of perceived perception is out of our hands, we can control a story’s pacing to a significant extent. Let’s learn how to control the pacing of a film.
How to Control Pacing in Writing
Controlling the pacing of a script
In filmmaking, we have two main avenues to control pacing. The first avenue is the script, where it all begins. Within the screenwriting phase, there are a couple of factors that contribute to the overall pacing.
One of these key factors is page count.
Generally speaking, one page of a screenplay equals about one minute of screen time, and, of course, a longer script results in a longer movie. However, runtime and pacing are not 1:1 comparable. The longer a film gets, the trickier it can be to strike a perfect balance of pacing, but having a longer runtime does not prevent a film from having great pacing.
Just look to films like The Irishman and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood for examples of expertly-paced films with hefty runtimes. In the introductory scene from one of Martin Scorsese's best films, notice how the deliberate pace sets the stage.
Overall length is a factor to consider, but page count plays an additional role in controlling pacing. Specifically, the page that key events land on is pivotal to a film’s pacing. Does your inciting incident land on page 5, 10, 15, or 20? Which page does your climax arrive at? How much downtime is there in your script?
Does every scene push the narrative forward? The answers will make a huge difference to the pacing of your film. For inspiration, check out our rundown of the best inciting incidents ever put to film.
The pacing of a screenplay is intrinsically linked to its structure. If you want to manipulate and control the pacing of your scripts, be sure to have an understanding of story structure theory and models like the classic three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and the story circle.
You can also make use of plot structure tools to help map out your narrative and gain further control over the pacing of your script. When you are ready to take a crack at controlling pacing, you can use StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to write your next script.
What is the Pacing of a Story
Controlling the pacing of a film
Though the script plays an important role in determining the pacing of a film, it does not set that pacing in stone. Unlike a novel where the pacing is finalized at the end of the writing process, a film’s pacing continues to be molded and manipulated as it is shot and subsequently edited.
A scene that reads quickly on the page might wind up as a slower sequence based on how the director and actors decide to play it. Conversely, a lengthy passage in a script might wind up being shortened or cut altogether either on set or in the edit.
The pacing of a film remains in flux all the way into post-production.
The editing room can be thought of as the last line of defense for a film’s pacing. The editor controls the rhythm and tempo of a film and has the final say on the overall pacing of a film under the director’s guidance.
Entire scenes might get cut, extended, shortened, or rearranged between the rough cut and the final export.
There are many factors that contribute to the overall feeling of a film’s pacing. “Good” pacing requires striking a balance between the various factors during pre-production, principal photography, and post-production.
How Does an Editor Control Rhythm?
You now know what narrative pacing is and how it is controlled throughout the filmmaking process. As we just alluded to, the editor of a film controls its rhythm and tempo, but how do they do it? Take a deep dive into the ways an editor crafts and manipulates a sense of pacing in the editing room, up next.