The importance of tension and pace

This post is the tenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we get into writing your novel, I wanted to talk about two important elements – tension and pace. Understanding both of these will help you write better scenes in your story.


Tension is the element of a novel that evokes worry, anxiety, fear or stress for both the reader and the characters.

One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events.

Tension can take many forms.

  • Anticipation of conflict
  • Unexpected events– sometimes the reader knows what is coming, but the character doesn’t and sometimes both are surprised by what happens.
  • Fear of secrets revealed
  • Impending doom/sense of urgency

It is the author’s job to figure out how to produce these in the story.

Often once one obstacle is conquered, another one crops up. But while good fiction is full of tension and suspense, it needs to vary throughout the story. You need to turn down the intensity for short periods. How much you slow down the tension will depend upon your story needs and the demands of your genre. But just because you slow down doesn’t mean the momentum stops. This may simply be the calm before the storm.

Tips for creating tension:

Short sentences – short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. Think of your sentences matching your protagonist’s racing heart. Avoid long sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs.

Show, don’t tell – rather than “He was nervous.” Write: “His hands trembled.”

Cliffhanger – leave them hanging

The stakes in fiction matter because the stakes create tension. Your protagonist’s happiness and perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome of the story. If the stakes in the story are low, then the tension will be weak.

It is the stakes of the story – the tension – that keeps many readers hooked to your novel.


Pace is the speed in which events happen in your novel. You need to balance the pace of your writing. If your scenes drag on and on (slow pace) then you lose or bore readers. If it is too fast, you will leave your readers unsettled and it won’t be a comfortable read.

The trick is to get the balance just right. And there is no one out there that can tell you what that balance should be.

A lot of this will depend on your style as a writer. It can also be influenced by your genre and your readers’ preference. A young-adult audience might require a faster pace than adult novels. A short story might quickly jump into the action while an epic tale might be told at leisurely pace, speeding up from time to time during the most intense events.

Ideally, your pace will vary throughout your novel. You will have fast-paced scenes followed by slower ones. This will allow the reader to have a break (and perhaps catch their breath) after your action-packed scenes.

Many new writers make the mistake of believing they need to have a very action filled plot to keep the readers’ attention from beginning to end but this is not the case. It is actually the varying of pace that will keep readers hooked to your story.

So what determines the pace?

Fast pace is all about action. When something is happening, the pace is brisk. Slow pace is more on character reflection of past experiences or wondering about the future. It can be scene descriptions or even the passing of time – sometimes months or even years pass in a single sentence.

To speed up pace:

  • Have lots of action
  • Less description
  • Shorter sentences (and paragraphs)
  • Dialogue is short and to the point
  • Cut adverbs and adjectives to a minimum
  • Use strong, active verbs
  • Omit or limit character thought

To slow down the pace:

  • Longer sentences
  • More description
  • Less action or slow action such walking or making tea
  • Dialogue is more relaxed/conversational

Now your story can be paced very fast all the way through or even have a slow pace through most of the story but often it is best to use a mix of both forms. Using variety enhances your story and can keep the reader engaged.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

3 thoughts on “The importance of tension and pace

  1. Reblogged this on G.L. Cromarty and commented:
    Some great reminders 🙂

  2. […] Source: The importance of tension and pace […]

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