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

Part 1 of 2

There’s already an elephant in this article, let’s go there first.

Why random?  And why from 10,000 feet?

Because pacing is to storytelling what love is to relationships.  I kid you not.  It’s what makes it all work.

Which means it’s bigger than this.

Last weekend I was privileged to present a workshop on pacing at Jessica Morrell’s Summer in Words writing conference.  In preparing, I realized how vast this aspect of storytelling actually is.  It’s better suited to an entire book, rather than the cozy and often claustrophobic confines of a 1500 word post or a two-hour workshop.

Can you fix your marriage in a two-hour workshop at the local Holiday Inn?  Didn’t think so.

That said, the workshop delivered a high level overview of how the art of pacing fits into the overall story development model, which means it’s certainly worth repeating here.  Like many aspects of storytelling – and, since the analogy has been launched, like relationships – it’s easy to take for granted by putting it on auto-pilot.

But don’t be fooled. 

Think of this, then, as an overview of the Table of Contents for the book required to do justice to the topic of story pacing.  Every sub-heading below is an entire chapter – and, another blog post… count on it – in that book.

Awareness is a beautiful and powerful thing.  In marriage and in storytelling.  Both of which, by the way, can break you if you don’t do it right. 

Get ready to feel the love.

The Big Picture of Pacing

You pantsers are gonna hate this.  But the truth is, you can’t pants pace.

But you can plan for it.

The pacing of your story is very much like analyzing the flow of the blueprint for a building that hasn’t been constructed yet.  You look at the relationships between the parts – chapters and scenes for writers, hallways and rooms for architecture – and determine if the sequence and proportions are in balance, if they are optimized for flow and feel, not to mention structural integrity and aesthetic beauty, and you make adjustments accordingly

So whether you plan or pants, pacing is something you address – you build in – at the point at which you are sure your story architecture is solid. 

You can’t pace that which you don’t yet fully understand.

Placement of Pace

Here’s something that’s obvious, but only after you realize it: the nature and implementation of pacing is very different as you progress into a story.

In other words, the pacing in Part 1 is different than the ensuing parts.  The further you go into the story, the more intense and contextual the pace becomes. 

Pacing is most extreme and noticeable as you near the end.

The reason for this has to do with the amount of expository story information on the table, including character development.  The more the reader understands about the nature of the conflict (including the hero’s inner demons) at a given moment in a story… including the manner in which prior exposition has moved the story forward… the more incumbent it is upon the writer to adjust the specific means of delivering pace as you move forward.

A mouthful, that one.  Maybe read it again.  I know I did.

This is what makes the last few scenes something the reader absolutely cannot put down. 

Or not, if you don’t get this.

The Realms of Pacing

As a writer looking to optimize the pace of your story, you are juggling several balls, each of which is airborne in context to the others.

The story itself has pacing demands.  Big picture story architecture stuff.

As we just learned, you need to accelerate the pace and the nature of the exposition as you move forward.  You need to identify and deliver the right scenes, in the right place, to make sure the story is moving not only in the direction you want, but at the pace you want.

Those things – direction and pace – are mutually exclusive.  Your job is to keep them joined at the hip.

Character arc is also subject to pacing. 

The hero (and perhaps others) grow and evolve over the course of the story as they square off with obstacles coming at them, both externally and internally.  How they handle those challenges defines the nature of the way a scene unfolds in terms of pacing. 

Pacing links to tension in a given moment, and the more we feel the tension within a character – which means we need to understand the inner demon that is in play – the more urgent our need to see what happens to her or him.

Scenes themselves – once identified and properly placed – are highly sensitive to and dependent upon pace. 

Effective scenes have a micro-structure that renders them effective when well executed.  We’re all guilty of skimming through the beginning of a chapter just to get to something that happens… this is the author’s fault.  Don’t let that author be you.

If you pace a scene poorly you render it ineffective, even when it’s just what the story needed, when it needed it. 

It’s like putting a relief pitcher into the game with men on base.  Even though the guy is your proven stopper – the right pitcher at the right moment – if he doesn’t deliver, you lose.

Next up (Friday) — the rest of this.

Also… a Newsflash — now has the pre-sale page up for my new book from Writers Digest Books, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.  Due out February 2011. 

(Storyfix in an affiliate marketer.)


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

4 Responses to Slightly Random Thoughts About Story Pacing… From 10,000 Feet

  1. Diana

    Another great post. You are too cool. Your book about structure has helped me immeasurably. Looking forward to next year’s book. Thanks.

  2. Would one step up the pacing/tension as a PlotPoint/MidPoint approaches? Or would that depend on the nature of the PP?

    If the PP is subtle, the pacing/tension might be subtle, too.

    How about after the resolution in Part 4? Perhaps a bit of wind-down but not actually an epilog?

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

  4. Pingback: Planning for Pacing in your story | Javen Blog