On the Importance of Pacing


…How do you feel about pacing?


No, not the walking-back-and-forth-across-the-room type of pacing (though this can nicely break up the sedentary monotony of sitting around reading books and blog-posts all day!). I mean the pacing in… you guessed it, books! ;) This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while — what is the importance of “good pacing” in a book? How much weight do I give it when I’m rating a book? I wanted to get some of my thoughts down “on paper”, so to speak; and I’d love to hear how other readers and bloggers view the importance of pacing, as well!

Fast-, Slow-, and Unevenly-Paced Books

I enjoy both slow-paced books and fast-paced books, and everything in between. If the writing and the characters are there, the book can be action-packed or slow or a mix of both, and I’ll barely consider it when I’m thinking about the book as a whole.

With fast-paced books, the added action can serve to pull me into the story and keep me glued to the pages — but in the end, all that does is make me finish the book faster. It’s often fun to be rushed along from one exciting thing to another, but it’s not a requirement for me to enjoy a book.

In theory, uneven pacing doesn’t bother me, as long as certain other criteria are met. If there’s a slow section, followed by action, followed by another slow section — that can be fine. I’m only bothered when those slow sections aren’t as engaging as the action-packed sections. And I think this may be a mark of how engaging the actual story is — if it relies on action for its readers to be engrossed, it’s probably not that strong in other areas.

I don’t mind if a book has “slow” pacing overall, as long as:

  • …the characters are compelling…
  • …there’s a steady buildup to a climactic ending…
  • …or both.

Pacing & Great Characters

If the characters are compelling enough, I seriously don’t even care what the rest of the book is doing (unless it’s got absolutely no plot and goes nowhere — but I think it’s probably super hard to write truly compelling characters and lack a good story to put them in). If a book gets me seriously attached to a character/characters, that’s just as engaging as an action-packed story, for me. With those kinds of books, the action serves to add intensity, but my enjoyment of the book doesn’t hinge on it — it hinges on the great characters.

If the characters are just “okay”, then I’ll care more about the pacing. I need more than just “okay” characters to keep me engaged, and a really well-paced book will often do that.

The Importance of Buildup

For me, pacing has a lot to do with build-up, not action for action‘s sake. A book can have tons of action, but still be badly-paced. If you have a book with an “even” pace that’s made up of Lots Of Action All The Time, there’s no build-up or sense of escalating tension. All you get, with a book with lots of action, is… well, a book with lots of action. It may have had even pacing, but just because there were constant action-scenes happening doesn’t mean it was well-paced.

On the flip-side, what about…

The Last 10%

By that I mean, what about those books where they’re slow — or slowly building up — until the very end, at which point there’s an Explosion of Everything Happening at Once. In my experience, I’ve noticed that these sorts of endings often go one of two ways for people:

  2. “I thought the book was slow overall, and the pacing was weird because most of the action took place at the very end.”

These differing opinions are often accompanied by very similar opinions about there rest of the book — the characters can be great, the worldbuilding excellent, and the plot intriguing. But at the end of the day, the readers were affected very differently by the pacing.

As I’ve mentioned, I can fall into either camp depending on other factors — if the characters and plot are great, and there’s a steady (if slow) buildup to the end, I’m in heaven. I love those kinds of books. But if the characters aren’t there, I’ll definitely be more likely to fall into the second category and complain about the pace — because, again, faster pacing can serve to keep me engaged where just “okay” characters don’t.

So, what about you?

How important is pacing to you, when you’re thinking about rating a book? When is pacing most important to you? Do you ever “mark down” an otherwise good book because of slow/uneven pacing?

15 thoughts on “On the Importance of Pacing

  1. The first book that comes to mind with the Last 10% is Well of Ascension – it was such a slow book but holy crap that ending! I agree that I have to be engaged in the characters to enjoy a slow book, but sometimes a gorgeous writing style will do it. The Golem and the Jinni had a very beautiful atmosphere and I loved the characters to pieces, so even though it was pretty slow, I savored every single page.

    • Totally agree about WoA – it was definitely slow overall, though I really can’t complain because that’s one book where I loved the characters so much it really didn’t matter. I didn’t even get into writing style, that’s an excellent point. But for me, writing and characters are connected. Even if the writing is pretty, if the characters aren’t compelling then I’m definitely more inclined to complain about slow pacing.

      I’m absolutely DYING to read The Golem and the Jinni, omg. Great characters and atmospheric writing are two of my favorite things. I’ve heard such amazing things about it.

  2. What an interesting subject you’ve chosen. For me the pacing is important but after the plot and the characters. I like a slow build up if the writing is compelling but not if it is an obvious device where the story is simply being spun out. It does depend on the type of book too. As you say constant action without good characterisation or plot is not good reading either

    • I like a slow build up if the writing is compelling but not if it is an obvious device where the story is simply being spun out.

      For sure!! I totally agree. The build-up can’t be forced, that just defeats the purpose, and for me, that ruins the suspense/intensity, if I can see it’s just being drawn out for no good reason.

  3. I’ve got to be the worst person to try an answer this question. I’m one of those detail-oriented readers, so what seems slow and dull to a lot of people can sometimes be my favorite parts. And I rarely notice the pacing at all. Unless it SO slow or such a ridiculous escalation that even I have to pick up on it.

    Except for extreme cases, I think it’s pretty subjective, don’t you? B/c I think you’re right about great characters making up for a multitude of other issues, but you and I could have completely different ideas about what makes a good character. Same for the last 10%. If I don’t like the characters and am bored with the book, then suddenly ALL the things happen . . . that annoys the crap out of me. BUT if I’m loving the characters and feel that the story built-up appropriately to a harrowing end . . . well, those are my favorites ;)

    • Not the worst!! I love your response! I agree – I’ve read quite a few books that many people have found slow, but that I just devoured, because they were so engaging to me. I seem to only notice (or at least “judge”) the pacing when other elements are lacking — or, like you said, unless there’s a weird escalation at the end that I can’t help but go, “Wait, what?!”

      It’s definitely, hugely subjective. Especially the characters thing. I guess I was just wondering if, when someone loves the characters and other elements, do they ever take pacing into account as another strong factor; does it lessen their enjoyment of the book if they found it “uneven” or “slow”?

      EXCELLENT point about the boring-until-the-last-10% sort of books. Those annoy me too, because why couldn’t we have gotten some of that excitement and interest earlier in the book?? ;)

  4. I tend to agree with you on pacing, I think. I’m okay with fast or slow paced reads if the book is working for me. Really, I don’t even think or recognize a book’s pacing until it’s *not* working. And for example, there are some authors whose books just always seem to start slow–like Maggie Stiefvater’s–but I always like them in the end.

  5. I’ve never really taken pacing into consideration when rating a book, although I might subconsciously. Whenever I rate a book I tend to rate it based on my overall enjoyment of it, and in a way I think pacing plays into that enjoyment. I don’t like slow books where nothing is happening and all I want to do is STOP reading the book, or skip entire chapters just to get to an interesting part. Like you said – only truly compelling characters can make up for slow pacing.

    I enjoy a slow build up (especially in relationships – the tension!), but if the climax isn’t actually climactic, I want nothing to do with it. There needs to be a big bang, something awesome, fireworks – anything to make me cheer for the couple. I know when it’s truly awesome when I’m smiling like an idiot.

    I hate boring-until-the-last-10% books too. I feel like I was robbed of interesting and exciting moments the first 90%, and that makes me angry. A fantastic ending doesn’t make up for a slow-paced, blegh beginning.

  6. I actually prefer reading books that have a slow pacing because when I finish it, it just seems like I was able to get a better reading experience. That way, I have more time to develop and process the book as I go along reading it. After reading a fast paced book, it just seems that I didn’t really get much from it, other than the fun of reading :)

  7. What an interesting topic! I agree with you on pacing…it really all depends on other aspects of the book as well such as the characters. I actually think I care more about characters in what makes me love a story than pacing, but at the same time pacing is also pretty darn important in my opinion. In the last 10% section, I think you are spot on. Most of the time I act like your first example, but sometimes I too can act like the second one. I think it all depends on what the book made me feel as a whole.

  8. I agree that there is definitely a connection between how I feel about the characters and how I feel about the pacing. While I generally prefer faster paced books, if I adore the characters enough, I’m willing to go a little slower with them.

  9. I don’t really mind fast, slow or a combination of pace. But the writing as to be good, and it just can’t be boring. The characters can’t just sit around and wait, or travel ALL the time. I understand that action parts need to happen quickly and that some worlds or characters take longer to develop, but I just don’t want to be bored.


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  11. Mood plays a big part of this too. Sometimes, especially if life is chaotic, I might want a slow, character-driven book. Othertimes, like when life is boring, I might want a fast paced action/adventure book. Often this is subconscious. In that case, reading the wrong type isn’t going to satisfy my needs so I may unfairly complain about the book’s pace. Then I want to smack myself when I reread the same book a year or two later and discover it is perfect!

    However, there are other instances where pacing plays a vital role in my reviews. I don’t mind slow with a gradual buildup as long as the ending is really an ending. Not a fall off a long cliff into “Tune in next year to find out what happens next.” Grrrrrrr. That is what made me stop buying books until the whole series in print.

    The other negative impact is the rushed ending. You have this great love affair going on with a story then about 50 pages from the end your heart sinks because you just know it can’t be tied up that fast. But it does, sorta. Main plotlines are resolved but you feel like 1/2 the story was left hanging in limbo. You close the book going “but what about…”

    And you hope for a sequel.

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