Being a Better Writer: Pacing

This post was originally written and posted March 24th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Hoo boy, I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew here. Today’s topic is a bit of a tricky one, mostly because as I was thinking about it the other day, I realized repeatedly that it’s one of those things that you just sort of have to experience with in order to make it click. There’s no “X amount or process works 100%,” but more good old fashioned trial-and-error. Not exactly the most hopeful or encouraging words, I know, but pacing isn’t something that simply “happens.” It’s something that you stitch into the entire length and breadth of your work. It’s something that, along with plot, you need to be thinking about the entire time that you write your story.

So in my attempts to hopefully make things a bit easier for you, let’s start with what pacing is to a writer. Pacing is the rate at which you divide out tension, information, and events to the reader. It’s similar to the way a long-distance runner will pace themselves on a marathon: Starting at an easy pace, maintaining a pace that keeps themselves moving towards the finish line, taking a slower period when they need it, and then saving their energy for the big, momentous moments at the finish. Pacing in a written work follows suit. You want the information and the story to come at a good pace for the reader, a pace that keeps the story moving towards its conclusion without tiring them. But at the same time, if everything stays at the same pace the reader will become bored. So you have little moments where things move quicker, where stuff happens, balanced out by the calmer, quieter moments where the reader can relax off of one of the more intense bits.

Have you ever seen a film or a read a book where things started out with a bang and just kept exploding? Or a tense film that just stayed tense and never gave you a moment to relax? And by about halfway through, you’re actually bored with both of them? That’s because the pacing was poor. You can only keep an audience in a constant state of tension/suspense/action before the audience is tired of it. They need a moment to relax, to digest. To think about what’s happened. They need a slower moment where they can catch their breath, and if they don’t get it, they’re going to stop enjoying whatever it is they were watching.

The same rule applies to writing: If you keep your story in a constant rise or flat level of tension, you’re going to bore your audience. The best way to picture this is to think of your story as a line graph. On the Y axis (height), make the label “tension.” On the X axis, “time,” the left-most zero value being the start of your story and the  right-most point being the end. Now imagine that you’re a hiker, and the line of “tension” is your hike. One that simply moves upward at a steady, constant pace is going to tire you out. Worse, it’ll be dull. One that starts at a tall height but stays at that same level is likewise going to be tiring and boring. You don’t want a regular line.

Instead, when you write, the goal should be to give your line little dips and spikes of tension and relaxation. It should gradually work its way upwards, but with a lot of up and down motions. For an example, let’s look at Gamasutra’s pacing chart for the first Star Wars film (you can also read the associated article here … after you’ve finished this one).

Star Wars is a great example of clever pacing that gives the audience time to breathe while keeping them engaged. It starts out with the title roll, and then there’s an immediate bit of tension with the capture of the rebels. We’re not entirely familiar with these characters, but the action is fun and keeps the audience engaged. Then we get some down-time as R2-D2 and C-3PO wander Tatooine and end up in the hands of Luke Skywalker. Along the way the audience has little bits of excitement, but most of interest just comes from knowing what’s coming while they learn a bit about the characters. Then R2-D2 runs off and we have the Tuskan Raiders, which serves to bounce the tension back up as we meet Ben Kenobi … and then the characters are talking again, giving the audience another breather.

Try it yourself for a minute—look at the image linked above and pick a few periods of high and low tension and see if you can figure out what constitutes each part of the scene. What’s increasing the tension? What’s giving the audience a breather? And, once you’ve picked a few out, what keeps the audience engaged during the moments when the tension isn’t high?

Earlier I mentioned that pacing is how you divvy out things like tension, information, and events to the reader. However, this doesn’t mean that any time you’re giving one of these things to the reader (or any of the other elements that make up a plot) that you either are or are not giving the reader tension. Tension can come from many sources. A high-tension scene does not have to be an action sequence. Those of you who watch good romantic movies will know this: tension can come from many places.

For example, during the events of Rise, one high-tension scene that has very little action is near the end of the story, when Luna confronts the Nova about his past. It’s not an action packed scene by any means, but is instead tense for other reasons: His character arc has been building towards a confrontation like this since he was introduced. Every time the reader learns a bit more about him, the tension for that scene rises, and when it finally arrives, it ends up being one of the first tension arcs of part three.

Let’s notice something else about the “rising” moments of the first Star Wars film as well. Where does the exposition happen? A lot of the background detail (and stuff we can absorb without jumping out of our seats) comes at the low tension moments. But, do you notice how those moments lead into rising tension? When and where that information is given out is a delicately chosen detail, because that information is what starts the tension rising (on a side note, this is why I despise over-or-improper use of flashbacks: most authors use them very poorly and ruin pacing with a cliff that goes straight downward in the middle of a tense peak rather than a start from a low period). In Rise, for example, the information gathered by the characters leads up to a climatic battle on a train by the end of part two. Part three then starts out with a little bit of a relax as we find that the team is ok, and everything is good … until the characters reveal the new puzzle pieces that they picked up in the fight, all of which give the reader more to think about and worry about, this raising the tension back up again. Intensity, brief-lull, building towards new intensities (keep in mind that the tension is, as an average, always rising—stories build to an end).

At this point I’ve probably hammered the point home well enough. Now the tricky part: how are you going to get your own work properly paced out?

First, you’ll need to decide what is driving the tension “peaks” in your story. Ever watch Dr. Who? Sometimes, in certain episodes, there will be something that we would normally expect to be tense (like a bomb) that isn’t, because the story isn’t playing it for tenseness (instead having the problem be easily solved or fixed). The story instead finds its tension elsewhere, with a character’s emotions, a mystery, or … well, you get the picture. So, decide what elements of your story are going to be tense (again, trial and error, you might find that your audience either isn’t fixated on the right thing, or that you didn’t choose a good tension focus). What will happen with your stories high-points? What about what will happen when you want to give your readers a break? What tools will you use to ratchet up the tension when the time comes to make it rise? How are you going to keep an overall upwards motion?

With this in mind, now write your story, be it a 200K-word epic or a 10K short. And as you write it, keep thinking to yourself “where is the tension coming from? Is it high enough? Too high? Too low?” When I first wrote Rise, I realized that the first half of part two as I’d initially envisioned it was a vast valley of tension. In other words: It was boring. It was just the characters figuring things out and learning to work together until the dinner. It was a slow rise that was far too slow and steady.

Once I recognized this, though (and luckily, I caught it early), I realized that I needed to have something happen that would create a nice spike of tension. Nothing big, but something that could keep the reader’s interest while moving the story forward. From that acknowledgement came the capture the flag game, which ended up being some of the more commented-on chapters in the entire work next to the ending. It was lightly tense, delivered the exact same information as the original plan in a more “show” format (rather than tell), and even ended up letting me move a few character developments forward at a faster pace.

So, as you write your own work, keep thinking about where the tension is coming from and how high it is. Then check with your alpha readers to see where they thought the tension was. Keep checking that mental map of the tension highs and lows—but don’t be afraid to move a few valleys and peaks around if the situation calls for it! Is one part of the story burning people out or dragging? Figure out why.

At the same time, what makes the low-tension moments low? Sometimes, a scene you thought was low tension winds up being tense when a reader looks at it or you go over it because you’ve made a single slip in where the focus was. Sometimes a scene that you thought was going to be tense winds up being a complete relief to the reader. You’re going to have to identify what helps readers relax in your work and then use it.

Now, as I said, some of this is going to plain and simple be figured out for you through trial-and-error. We all have our own styles. What increases tension in my stories won’t work for others. You’re going to have to figure out the nuts and bolts of it on your own, but the best place to start is with the path in mind. Whether you plot things out in advance or make it up as you go, you’re going to want to keep your pacing in mind. Pacing can make or break even the best works. There are plenty of decent or even really good stories out there that are overall well written, have great characters, etc, but fail simply because the pacing is poor. Crud, I read a 100K word novel this weekend that had such poor pacing it ended up with severe mood whiplash, effectively ruining any overall effect the story had (part of the problem was the writer was trying to use forced humor to decrease tension, and it failed in multiple ways). Poor pacing can shatter the best works.

Likewise, great pacing can take something that’s not exactly the greatest work ever and make it wonderful. Ever seen The Princess Bride? Fantastically cheesy story, hammy acting … and pacing so well-done the whole thing just comes together because you don’t care. The “tension” moments are divided up artfully, and the movie is a classic in part due to that care.

So, is there any one way to make sure your pacing is good?

No, no there isn’t, unfortunately, not until it’s done. Aside from maybe “make sure that the tension is on the rise and has ups and downs.” You’re just going to have to take the concepts written about here and figure out for yourself how they fit into your story. It’ll depend on your audience. It’ll depend on your genre. And it’ll depend on you.

But hey, practice makes perfect! So get to writing and see what you can do!

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6 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Pacing

  1. […] I’ve talked about this one before, and with good reason. Pacing is a big deal. But the try/fail cycle, if used in key moments, allows us to control our pacing a little better. After all, if we need a low point between our high points, we need both an ability to grant those low points as well as the assurance that our high points are actually high. In a story where the characters are effortlessly moving forward, as pointed out earlier, tension is lost. So these high points stop being such. […]

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  2. […] Pacing we’ve gone over before. More than once, actually. And I doubt either of those will be the last time I tackle the topic. Why? Because pacing is vitally important. Just as no runner can sprint for an entire marathon, no reader can keep up with an endless, never-stopping barrage of action. We need to give our readers time to breathe. Time to pause, slow down, and reflect. […]

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