Rhythm and Pace in Acting | Creating a Sense of Flow in your Performance

Rhythm and Pace in Acting

Written by on | Acting Tips

Whether it’s in the banter between friends, the rapid movement of a fight scene or the agonising pause before a jump scare, rhythm and pace in acting are foundational elements of drama and storytelling. Just think: as soon as you have the back-and-forth of dialogue, you’re inviting an audience to feel the rhythm created by this pattern, and how that rhythm might change. So it’s maybe for this reason that it can be hard to determine exactly what rhythm and pace are—let alone how to become aware enough to use them consciously (and effectively) in your acting.

Rhythm and pace in acting create or disrupt the sense of flow in your performance. Rhythm communicates patterns to the audience, who can determine factors about a scene such as tone, emotion or tension. Rhythmic performances can create a sense of pace. With pace, an actor can speed up or slow down their performance for dramatic effect; this extends to their use of pauses and silence in a given scene.

In this article, we’re going to tell you everything we know, including how these concepts can enhance the acting work you do. We’ll start with some basic definitions, and then outline where you might encounter rhythm and pace in your preparation for a role.

What is Rhythm?

Rhythm refers to repeated patterns marked by strong and weak occurrences, generally thought of in regard to sound and music. In music, rhythm operates over the framework of a ‘beat’—an underlying constant that denotes the passage of time during a piece of music—and carries the melody. Wherever something can stop and start, a rhythm can be made by either adhering to a pattern or shifting away from it.

In acting, rhythm is found in the actor’s speech, physical movement on stage, and even the structure of the media itself. Most characters in Shakespeare’s plays engage with rhythm when they speak in iambic pentameter (the poetic form the Bard used to structure his dialogue.) The writing of David Mamet is famously rhythmic: inviting quick back-and-forth banter between characters that seed their underlying relationships and dynamics, as seen in this clip from Glengarry Glen Ross:

The movement of a character can also be rhythmic, suggesting a fluidity in their physicality, or perhaps that their actions are natural and second-nature to them.

What is Pace (or Tempo)?

Pace is the rate or speed at which something occurs. It can measure the frequency at which a rhythmic action repeats: fast or slow, increasing or decreasing.

In acting, it generally refers to how fast or slow a character moves or speaks. Like rhythm, pace can change depending on external or internal factors: a character’s heightened sense of fear might cause the pace of their speaking to increase. Or, if you’re Steve Buscemi in Miller’s Crossing, you might naturally speak at a million miles an hour:

What Determines Rhythm and Pace in Acting?

There are many contributing factors to rhythm and pace in acting. We’ll list the major ones below. Note that in this list, there are certain things that are determined by the text, and others by the performer: remember that anything written down by the author is non-negotiable, and should be treated as rock-solid.

If you’re making choices as an actor about the rhythm and pace of the scene, be ready to justify your choices to your scene partner and director. And before you get too far into this list, give our article on script analysis a read/refresh.

Stage Directions

Stage directions, action, ‘big print’ in a screenplay can all modify rhythm and pacing. The inclusion of words like “pause” can stop the action dead in its tracks—and must be observed lest you risk missing out on the significance of that moment. We’ll actually explore this very point in greater detail below.

Sentence Structure

Ever notice the way that a long, long, run-on sentence with lots of thoughts and ideas (and parentheticals thrown in for good mesaurte) and—and we can’t stress this enough, seriously—words and clauses that confuse and distract, can be difficult to follow or comprehend, or even read in the first place without finding yourself hopelessly confused?

Smaller sentences hit different. Punchy. Easier to swallow. They make their point, they get out of the way.

Writers can control the pace of dialogue with the way they structure a sentence. Longer sentences tend to drag and slow things down. Shorter sentences have a greater sense of rhythm, and can convey ideas quickly—increasing the pace.


Commas can add rhythm, or pace, or excitement. Periods stop things dead in their tracks. New sentence, new thought. Elipses can slow things down … only to speed things up again on the other side. Parentheticals—or a clause separated by em-dashes like this—act like little asides (slowing things down just slightly.)

And page breaks?


They can really disrupt the rhythm and make things feel important.

Writers use punctuation to direct actors straight off the page. When you work on a script, take great care to note the punctuation, as that is first-hand evidence of how a piece should read and be paced.

Character Personality

Your character’s rhythm and pace will be influenced heavily by their personality and their identity. Spend time developing your character to explore what this might be. A standoffish character might clash in their rhythm with other people, in the same way a slow-paced character might feel out of sorts in a fast-paced world.

Given Circumstances

Return to the Stanislavski basics of the given circumstances (or do they firmly belong to the incredible Uta Hagen these days?) Answering the who, what, where, when, why and how questions can significantly impact your character’s rhythm and pacing. If they’re starting a new job that has them up at 4am, that will throw off their rhythm. If the “why” of a character borrowing money is that the mob wants to break their legs, that will probably affect the pace at which they ask for a cash loan.


Don’t forget to step back and look at the story as a whole. What plot factors might affect the rhythm of a character, or their pacing? How is the writer using this to evoke a certain response in the actor and, therefore, the audience? Take a look at this scene from Jordan Peele’s masterpiece Get Out:

Daniel Kaluuya’s character, desperate to leave this creepy house of people behind, works at a faster pace than everybody else. This creates unbearable tension, as it puts him out of step with the other characters: they don’t have an ounce of his aggression or anger, and yet he is powerless.

Peele creates rhythm through the repetition of Kaluuya’s dialogue, as well as the editing itself: back and forth between family members. It’s almost as if he’s allowing us a glimpse at each in case one of them might spring into action and attack. He breaks the visual pattern (another type of rhythm) with the extreme close up of the tea cup—struck three times.

How to use Rhythm and Pace in Acting

The first step is to do what you’ve already done by reading this article: make yourself aware of rhythm, and where you may find it. Audiences are innately aware of rhythm and pace in a scene, not because they have any formal drama training, but because they are human beings. When rhythm changes, we react because something in our situation has changed: if a bird’s call, repeating for hours, suddenly goes quiet, it might signal that a predator is nearby.

To be aware of the rhythm of a scene is to understand it. You can parse the relationship/closeness your character might have to another person simply by the rhythm of their interaction. And to manipulate rhythm or pace in a scene is to control it. Your character sets the tone and establishes their power dynamic.

How to Slow Down when Acting

“Slow down” is both an important acting note to receive … and a useless one. It’s like telling somebody not to think about pink elephants: the first thing you do is exactly what you’re trying not to do. Don’t think about them. Stop!

The trick to not thinking about pink elephants is to think about green elephants. The trick to slowing down when you’re talking/acting/performing is much the same. Rather than give yourself a useless prompt, think about why your character might talk slower. Perhaps they’re struggling to be heard, or trying to make a point, or keeping themselves from becoming angry, or upset?

Most actors can afford to speak slower—even if it’s only to aid in clarity and diction. But as a general character note: characters who speak slow sound calm and in control. Slowing down your pace when acting will give you a sense of strength and status. And who doesn’t want more of that?

“What do I do when the script says pause?”

Pause. Silence. Long pause. Beat. Nothing. A moment. Agonising pause.

When a script says pause, you stop. Take a second, take a breath and continue. Just as with any change in pace or rhythm, ask yourself why the writer has called for respite. Why has the character elected not to talk?

Often, pauses in scripts relate to beat changes. Beats denote a change in the scene due to an external factor, or perhaps a character’s tactic in pursuing their goal: “begging” for what they want didn’t work, so they decide to pivot to “bargaining”. A pause can denote a change in pacing—it’s certainly a modifier to rhythm. But running over a pause all but guarantees that you’ll miss something of significance to your character in the scene.


Although all texts suggest consideration of rhythm and pacing, it is unusual that a writer will specifically suggest how a scene should be performed in that regard. At least, not as explicitly as “this scene should be fast-paced”. So when it comes to determining rhythm and pace in acting, your personal opinion and input is always required.

With that in mind, let us leave you with the following piece of advice: keep learning and experimenting with rhythm and pace in acting. Develop patterns, cause disruptions, see what changes in a conversation when things speed up or slow down. The script (and director) can guide you, but you’ll always be the expert as to the way your character speaks and moves through the story world. Try things out, make mistakes, have fun.

Good luck!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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