When running a marathon, runners start with a burst of speed but soon find a steady pace before slowing down again. It’s only towards the end when they amp the speed back up and go for a win. Their pacing determines whether they’ll finish the race, much less place well. Similarly, when writing, especially something you don’t particularly want to be doing, it’s important to pace your work. Racers and papers that start strong may lose momentum and unravel completely before reaching their natural finish, or may hold the same steady pace and become boring to readers. The best pacing is the one that engages readers from start to end, and it takes a careful push and pull of information to achieve.
Two main issues with pacing are front-loading and flat-lining. To front-load is to push all of your information or plot into the beginning of the piece and hoping the momentum will carry readers through. Imagine the opening to a Star Wars movie. There’s quite a bit of information, but it’s balanced out by an action scene that shows some main characters and two hours of plot. Now imagine if the editors had instead pushed the meeting of the characters together right after that scroll:
“Here’s Princess Leia of Alderaan, leader of the rebellion against Darth Vader and his dark master. Vader is on the ship to capture her but she has the plans to his base of operations and is sending them out to the rebellion, via C-3PO and R2-D2 who were built by Anakin Skywalker, but Luke Skywalker is also here with his family on Tatooine and his friend is joining the rebellion as a pilot and he found the two droids…..”
It’s a lot to take in in ten or twenty minutes. That’s why the editors paced the information out around battle scenes and held back on revealing everyone’s motivations and backgrounds. The juicy facts aren’t dumped all at once and then poked at later.
While not progressing the plot past exposition can be seen as flat-lining reader’s attention, constant amping of action or tension can also kill the pacing of a piece. Humans are wired to get used to stimuli. If an action movie is all explosions and car chases, the final exploding car chase either has to be SPECTACULAR or it will just be par for the course. The audience needs time to absorb information and releases in tension so that the next scene can start building it again. To keep with Star Wars, the opening works because the audience gets some background on the universe and then has time to let it sit while we watch guys shoot at each other. As soon as the audience is used to the action, the pacing slows to allow their attention to shift to Vader’s looming entrance. If he had come in swinging and killing everyone, it would be cool, but lose some of the impact—it would just be another part of the action. Information overload, either trying to keep up with action or information, will burn people out.
So what does good pacing look like? In short: squiggly. The plot undulates between peaks and lulls in attention, allowing readers to see information and break it down without missing something else. On a large scale, the plot of a fiction piece should be something like this: http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4032/pacing_01_star_wars.gif. Tension builds over time but not all at once. For more nonfiction/essay work, the same principles still apply. Outlines are recommended to have important facts and then descriptions, explanations, or interpretations that allow readers to mull them over before the next big point. Too many factoids and no explanation can be confusing, just as a lot of speculation with no proof can be dull.
Pacing is complex and most likely won’t come easy. There’s work and revision put into finding the right balance between action and rest, information and understanding. If you find yourself falling into one or both of the traps above, try to separate out scenes and sections and play around with filler information. Characterization outside of key points, a tie between point A and point B, something to add some space. If there’s too big of a lull, introduce a new idea, ponder over a relevant but background concept, sprinkle something in to make the readers check back in. Don’t forget, if you’re having trouble with pacing and can’t notice it yourself, have family, friends, or peers (like those at your friendly campus writing lab) read your work and see if an outside perspective can help you brainstorm a solution.