Call it flow, pacing, or movement—your scenes, chapters, paragraphs, and sentences should be varied in length and technique. As a musician, I prefer to call it rhythm.
Short, choppy sentences and fragments add tension to a scene. In real life, sentences tend to grow shorter as we become more upset. We speak in fragments, sometimes uttering single words at a time. Especially when used in dialogue, this can add a sense of reality to a scene.
Add beats to your dialogue—bits of action interspersed through the scene. Replace the “he said, she said” tags with action or physical gestures to make your writing more interesting. Interior monologue can also be considered a sort of interior beat. Beats serve a variety of purposes, such as allowing you to vary the pace of your dialogue.
Frequent paragraphing gives dialogue extra snap and adds tension to a scene. It’s like the staccato sound of a musical instrument: sharp, crisp, quick. Also try to avoid paragraphs that run more than half a page in length. Unbroken chunks of written material are off-putting to many of today’s readers. Some white space on the page is visually inviting and can make your writing more engaging. Brief scenes and even short chapters can add to your story’s tension as well.
The opposite approach also applies. If your style is a narrative, more relaxed approach—in musician’s terms, legato—you need a more leisurely rhythm to your writing. Longer sentences and paragraphs can soothe the reader, and that’s okay if your goal is literary prose, narration, description or introspection. Just remember—sentences and paragraphs should still vary in length so as not to bore or confuse the reader.
Sometimes a slow chapter nestled into an action-packed story can lull the reader into a false sense of security before the next tension-filled scene. The important thing to remember is that the rhythm of your writing must have variety. If you’re writing a mostly high octane story—thriller, adventure or mystery—you need a few scenes or chapters to let your characters decompress, slow down, relax, regroup. If you’re writing a slower-paced, narrative story, remember you still need some tension—your protagonist still has a goal and problems to solve.