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The Writer's Compass » About Writing, The 7 Stage Process, Writing Exercises » Dialogue, Pacing, and Tension

Dialogue, Pacing, and Tension

How much dialogue should be used compared to how much narrative or exposition?

In stories, the more dialogue and the less narrative or exposition, the faster the pacing. This is one of the reasons that action shots in a screenplay should be shorter and in a play there should be very little to nothing between lines of dialogue, in these forms the story should be a fast read with just enough imagery for the reader to visualize the story.

However, in all stories, especially in a novel or short story, the pacing of the story should be tempered by increased tension. Faster pacing does not always increase the tension, in fact, sometimes faster pacing decreases the tension. Brisk lines of dialogue will move the story along, but depending on what’s said, may or may not increase the tension. Below are some lines of dialogue followed by examples of nearly silent exposition.

“Get your hands off my woman!” Mark shouted.

“I didn’t realize she was your property,” Trevor responded icily.

“I ought to punch you in the mouth!”

“What’s stopping you?”

Now let’s see what this would look like in narrative form. Below is an example from The Writer’s Compass without the dialogue added.

…Although too many details slow the pacing, they can also increase the tension in novels and short stories. In a fight scene you may want to show how fast all the movements are, but if you take the reader through too quickly, they may miss the importance of what is happening and diffuse the tension you are trying to create. In some cases you can create more tension by showing the dynamic action to the reader step-by-step.

• Mark dashed across the room and swung, hitting Trevor in the jaw. Trevor fell backward onto his butt, then jumped up swinging.

• Anger infused Mark’s dash across the room. Once within arm’s length, he let go and punched Trevor in the jaw. Trevor stumbled backward over an ottoman and landed on his butt. He immediately recovered, jumped to his feet, and swung back.

• By now, Mark was furious. As he walked across the room he had one goal in mind—his fist connecting to Trevor’s jawline. He took one step closer before he drew back his arm and then let his fist fly forward, dead-on. Trevor stumbled backward over an ill-placed ottoman and landed on his butt. In one fluid movement, he jumped to standing and pulled back for a swing at Mark.

• Mark pretended to be listening, but he was focused on Trevor’s hand on Cecily’s arm. The gesture was friendlier than it should be from a womanizer to a woman who’d just become engaged. As he watched Trevor’s hand slide up and down her arm, Mark’s fury increased to rage. Mid-sentence he handed his drink to the idiot in front of him, who kept yammering on about his latest golf game, and started toward Cecily. Halfway across the room he could see Trevor’s index finger travel across Cecily’s shoulder, up her neck and press her chin up as his mouth moved in for a kiss. Cecily turned her lips away. Mark’s focus changed from retrieving Cecily to his fist connecting to Trevor’s jawline. He flew forward the last few steps and smashed his fist into the side of Trevor’s head, driving him away from Cecily. Trevor tripped backward over the ottoman behind him and landed hard on his backside. In a second he was up, fists raised, ready to fight. Cecily stepped in between them. “Enough!”

These four examples tell the same event in different styles. The first one is rapid-fire, the second is more surprising in the suddenness. The third one we see coming, although the action slows down, there is a little more tension built-in anticipation of waiting for what is coming. The fourth one gives more details, and we can see and more fully understand Mark’s motivation and that Cecily is the reason for his anger. We see what Mark is thinking and something of Cecily’s thoughts, by her turning her lips away and stepping in at the end, and we learn something about Trevor’s character. The style you use depends on the way you are telling your story and the way you want to build the tension in your story.

Pacing can also be tweaked by how you put the words on the page, whether each action is a separate line or all in one paragraph:

Anger infused Mark’s dash across the room.

Once within arm’s length, he let go and punched Trevor in the jaw.

Trevor stumbled backward over an ottoman and landed on his butt.

He immediately recovered, jumped to his feet, and swung back.


In writing the scene above, details the reader doesn’t already know could be included, but if most of this was in previous or future pages, then the writer would not need all the details, the tension would be there from what the story had previously revealed about the relationship of these three characters.

Exercise: Now take a few minutes and put the dialogue and narrative together in a way that you feel creates the best tension and pacing for the way you would write the story.


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