Part Two: Slightly Random Thoughts About Story Pacing… From 10,000 Feet

The Second of Two Posts.  Click Here for Part 1.

The Triggers of Pacing

This is the most obvious part of the pacing conversation, but it gets too easily lost in all this story architecture stuff.

Pacing is all about the reader experience. 

It is the eliciting of desire – desire to know what happens next… desire to know how a specific scene will turn out… desire to know how what happens fits into the big picture… and an involuntary emotional response that springs from empathy and curiosity.

You may not like the word here, but it fits: pacing is an exercise in titillation through narrative manipulation of the reader. 

Feel free to drive them crazy with need and desire… to know.

Part 1 Pacing

How you open your story involves an entirely different frame of reference when it comes to pacing. 

Part 1 has a handful of objectives:

–         hook the reader with an idea or a promise;

–         introduce the hero and her or his world view and current life experience and goals;

–         attach stakes to those goals that the reader will empathize with… foreshadow what’s coming;

–         set-up the mechanics of the approaching First Plot Point, including the use of a killer Inciting Incident that puts the hero’s goal in jeopardy.

Then blend and stir, seasoning to taste.

This is the part of the story when you can luxuriate as you open your scenes, easing us into setting, time and context in a way that makes us feel safe and comfortable. 

All before you pull the rug out at the First Plot Point.

You don’t have that luxury after the First Plot Point kicks the story into a different gear.  You need to get in and get to it.

Keys to Effective Pacing 

After Part 1, what I call the William Goldman Rule kicks in.  So named because that’s where I first heard about it, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, which I highly recommend.

Goldman tells writers – and it should be noted here that he was also a successful novelist in addition to winning two Best Screenplay Oscars – to enter your scenes at the last possible moment.

This has huge implications, all of which are liberating and empowering.

First… you can’t pants this.  You can’t even do it until you understand precisely what this scene is all about and what it needs to accomplish with the bigger picture of the story.

Which brings us to the most powerful pacing tip of all.

Especially when it comes to pacing: your scenes (in addition to the architecture of the four parts of your story) need to be mission-driven.

This is the key to effective pacing.  Know what your scene is… why it needs to be there… and what it must do in terms of delivering specific exposition that thrusts the story forward.

All scenes are obliged to deliver characterization, so showing us something about your character is probably not the primary expository mission.  The job of every scene is to take us deeper into the story… and to do with appropriate characterization. 

Not to tread water, not to analyze, not to flashback or wax philosophic.  This means you shouldn’t ever have a scene that exists solely to tell us something about a character, you need to show us something about her or him.

Which means, something needs to happen

That’s story exposition.

Once you know what a scene is all about, only then can you write the hell out of it. 

Only then can you make it extraordinarily dramatic (like the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, or the courthouse scene in A Few Good Men).  Only then can you cut deep into the scene at the sweet spot, rather than ramping up to it unnecessarily and distractingly.

Distractions are pace killers.  Sometimes they are even story killers.

May your pace be swift and your stories irresistible.

And may your pants remain in your closet, instead of in the driver’s seat of your storytelling.

Learn more about how pace relates to structure in Larry’s ebook, Story Structure – Demystified.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Part Two: Slightly Random Thoughts About Story Pacing… From 10,000 Feet

  1. Kate Lacy

    Okay, I have to ask. Being a new writer with so much to learn, I do not know what “pants” means. I thought at first it must mean do it absent-mindedly or mindlessly, like getting dressed……but that’s probably not it. Women go through all sorts of angst deciding what to wear and how it fits.


  2. A year ago or so I read a blog post on pacing and scene structure that has forever changed my viewpoint on this. It was written by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and it also includes points relative to movie scripting that novelists can learn from.

    She has a different definition of scene than you do. Her scene is a smaller unit than yours, and it often doesn’t start and end with chapters, on-camera/off-camera transitions or POV changes. She says that a scene’s edges should be so blurred that the reader doesn’t really even recognize the edges, because the whole novel flows seamlessly together.

    That said…each scene has to have it’s own GMC. It’s own beginning, middle, and end. It’s own resolution. And she adds a number of other things that you’re saying right here.

    But here’s the kicker (for me). She says that if you take a screen-writer’s guideline and translate it to a manuscript, then each scene needs to be roughly 750 words, or 3 pages. !!!!!

    But I’m realizing that if each ~3-page section of my story has it’s own GMC that flows into the next one, then my pacing is…wow! On the other side, if I identify a GMC and it’s longer than 3 pages (or 4 pages if there’s lots of short, quick dialogue), then it’s very true that the story is dragging there. And then, on the OTHER other side, if I can’t even identify a GMC, then that scene has no purpose and isn’t advancing the story, and needs to be either cut or be totally re-written.

    Here’s the post if you want to read it:

  3. Grrrr…. forgive the apostrophes in my possessive its-es. (How’s that for a word?)

    My fingers betrayed me.

  4. Frank Morin

    This is a great post. Thanks for the hard work you put into these. I’ve been a subscriber for a few months now, and I’ve learned a ton from you. Your two books: Story Structure, Demystified; and Three Dimensions of Character opened huge doors for me. Things I sort of, intuitively grasped are now brought into sharp focus, and I can systematically and consciously apply the concepts you teach. My stories have benefitted tremendously from the things I’ve learned. Thanks.

  5. Larry, as far as pace goes, would a slide be a good analogy here?

    Part one is the slower ladder climb to the top, the top is the first plot point, and the rest is the higher-paced slide to the bottom?

  6. Kate…

    “Pants” comes from the phrase “write by the seat of your pants.” Most call them/us pantsers.

    I’ve been in the writing community for four years now, and I’ve seen that most writers (including myself) start out as pantsers, claiming that they can’t write any other way…the story has to tell itself. Most also discover, a few years into it, that their first book has too many problems and will never sell. (Me, too.) So then we begin learning about whatever things we screwed up in our pantsing.

    Most successful published authors apparently plot, at least to a certain degree. Some plot and outline every little detail, while some pants to get their ideas flowing, then once they know what they want the story to be about, they plot their basic structure, and then pants toward those goals. Sort of a back and forth thing. And then there are, of course, hundreds of variations in-between. Each of us has to find what works for us.

    But Larry is absolutely right that very rare is the writer who can pants and “happen” to end up with a story with a good plot and good structure. It would sort of be like taking soft clay to make a huge sculpture and discovering after the fact that somehow you managed to slide a steel frame under your soft clay to support it.

    Hope that answers your question!

  7. Patrick Sullivan

    Something I’ve become a fan of with the whole “in late, out early” concept is go ahead and, in the rough draft, write the FULL scene. That way when you’re doing edits you can actually SEE where things happen and how they play out within the scene, and probably have a better idea of where the latest possible moment you can enter is and still make sense.

    Once in a while I think I know well enough that I just go ahead and write from some point in the heart of the action (usually it’s an argument when I feel this way, oddly) but overall I’ve liked the results better when I trim on a later pass.

  8. @Kathleen — thanks for the link. I think any rule that says scenes should be x pages , and that x + 1 pages is too long, is a bit too generalized. I also completely disagree that a scene should have soft edges so that a reader can’t sense the shift… that makes no sense when the narrative goes from one place to the next, one time-frame to the next, or one point of view to the next. Also, I don’t define scenes as “chapters” at all — I’ve said many times that a chapter can (and often should) contain several discreet scenes.

    Soak it all in and decide what works for you. Most of all, though, notice how scenes are executed in books you love. It’s all on the table, and it’s always our call.

    @Frank — it’s great to have you here. Anything specific you’re looking to see covered?

    @Shane — love this analogy (you’re good at em). Add the part where the person on the slide hits ground, and either gets up and says, “that was cool,” or falls over from dizziness (for the same reason).

    @Kathleen (again) — what you add here about “pantsing between story milestones” is a huge empowering tool for writers who find themselves averse to story planning (although, pantsed drafts are really nothing other than story planning with lots of a pages). Nailing those story points — especially the ending and the first plot point — is the non-negotiable ticket to a draft that works, even if what happens in between is something the writer creates on the fly. At least they’re writing “toward” something, rather than randomly or with an impending major course change awaiting them.

    @Patrick — good idea, especially for pantsers/drafters or even planners who aren’t solid on how a scene should unfold. That said, if you really understand the mission of a scene (which I think you should) before you write it, and are in command of its context (how it relates to what’s already been revealed, and what is yet to come), then you can “plan the scene” in much the same way you can plan the entire story. You can decide where to enter the scene up front in order to optimize tension and pace, as well as the concept (the dramatic potential) of the scene.

    If not, then I like your idea — write it long, then trim it later.

  9. Pingback: Unearthing Themes « Write On…

  10. Monica

    Writing the entire scene doesn’t just work for those “not sold” on planning, but also for those of us still getting the hang of figuring out the mission, context, etc., of a scene. It’s much easier to figure those out while looking at a written scene.

  11. Sorry about that, Larry… I didn’t mean for that comment to come across as saying you’re wrong. And I know you don’t say scenes are chapters. Some “other” people do.

    Anyway, I frankly don’t care what different people call a scene. I actually thought that what she shared in that post was essentially the same thing you shared here. You said that each scene should include characterization…she said that it must have it’s own part of the character arc. You said that there must always be a mission for the scene…she pointed out that each scene needs it’s own GMC. Somehow, for me, knowing that each had to have it’s own GMC gave me a clear way to test whether a scene had exactly what you went over here.

  12. @Kathleen — sorry if I sounded defensive (I was grinning when I wrote that response, honest!). Sounds like you have your head wrapped around this issue nicely. My only real feedback on the article you mention is the 3-page guideline… these days, a scene (not a chapter) can be less than a page. Relative to pacing, less is more, and a succinct mission (GMC) is always the ticket to making sure the pace is optimal. Thanks for participating here! L.