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How do you handle pacing your story? (1 Viewer)

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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
There has been a lot of discussion on the forum lately on pacing. I mean it's sort of a nebulous thing that floats around in the background, and you likely only notice it when it's not working. Or maybe not. Perhaps it's something you spend a lot of time on upfront before you start to write.

How do you plan the rise and fall of the plot and action?

Do you think of it in units? If so, when there are breaks, how do you transition effectively?

Do you think about pacing in your sentence structure?

What else can you tell us about how you handle pacing your story?
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
To be honest, I don't even think about it until I start writing. I don't even know why sometimes I feel the pacing is wrong, I just do. And sometimes I think it's off, and it isn't ...

I'm so myopically focused on the minutiae right now, the broader picture seldom comes into view. I'm sure it will at some point and then I'll likely flounder and start asking questions.

I guess, right now, I just write a scene and decide whether I want it to move quickly or slowly and hope when it's all stitched together, it works as a whole.
 

Ajoy

Senior Member
I write by feel, which means a lot of rewriting when I realize the pacing feels wrong. When I started, I had a sense of the inciting incident, the midpoint turn, and the climax, and I work to get to those points in the most direct (and entertaining) way possible. This means I will create a series of events between those major plot points in order to tighten and loosen tension along the way. A lot of my revision is pulling out or changing anything that messes up the tension pulling the reader to the next major event.

I also pace by feel on a scene level as I'm writing, and again work to improve the tension pattern when I revise. For me, that means fixing the writing on a word choice and sentence fluency level (and removing extraneous information).

The pace-by-feel thing is only true for me in writing my novel though. When I write short stories, I outline everything (usually in a three or five-act structure) and plan the pacing before I write. I think I use the short stories to practice developing my sense of feel so that I can work more loosely on my novel-length writing.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Here's a snippet from a book I own. I barely pay attention to a plot's structure, and I know I should. After writing a story, it could be a useful writing exercise for rewriting the story if rejected as well. I think if you have structure, you can increase the pacing of the story and the reader's engagement. The faster the pace, it usually means the story is interesting to read for me. It also means there exists some tension. This is just my opinion. They did however discuss it in another thread.

1.A character wants something badly
2.Something happens that moves the character to action
3.The character meets with conflict
4.Things gets worse until the character is in crisis
5.Almost all is lost
6.Lesson is learned
7.Hard choice must be made

Caldwell, Craig. Story Structure and Development (p. 15). CRC Press. Kindle Edition.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
For conflict I read this tip. What must the character give up in order to get what they want? For example, what must a character give up to make a living? When writing a story based on a real-life situation this seems relatively easy to answer. Imagine a workaholic and an indignant family this has caused problems for. It generates conflict by thinking about the answers to this question. How does this clash and create opposing wants and desires? How does this lead to a crisis? How does this create plot? What does the character do to stop his family member from overworking? The person is convinced that it is ruining their lives. There are multiple ways to disrupt a workaholic person that only a character with willpower will go through extreme lengths. What are their reasons and motivations for doing so? Is there another situation at hand? How does the unpleasant or unpleasant situations translate to a story goal? I got this piece of advice from the book by Vogler called the "Story Memo."

It is the choice that characters make that individuate them. In "Legally Blond" the protagonist makes a choice to study at law school in order to go after someone since she would like to be a part of Warner's life since she wants a relationship with him.
The book is useful. It talks about how to create character's wants, obstacles, and choices. Choices are what determines the conflict in some cases and enhances characterization.
 
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JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
I don't tend to pay it much mind overall. Most of the stuff I write has a point (or at least I hope it does) so the rate at which the plot unfolds answers to the requirements of the narrative.

This builds on the concept of the narrative camera; you look at what's important and how much weight it bears in the big picture, then decide how much narrative film you want to spend getting that point across.

For instance, you have two characters building a shed. At some point they run out of stuff and go to the hardware store. If the story's about the building of the fence you can dash this off in two or three lines - they went, they found their supplies, they returned. If on the other hand the story's about the mental state of the character who's just split with his girlfriend, put his car in the shop, and has to fix a leaking roof at his house...it might be worth going somewhat longer to describe their conversations along the way.

Most stories can be summed up in under a paragraph. That said, most people who enjoy reading want the story as opposed to the summary. Sometimes the slow burning long way around is correct. Sometimes it's better to go direct.

I don't know. I'm making this up as I go.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
There has been a lot of discussion on the forum lately on pacing. I mean it's sort of a nebulous thing that floats around in the background, and you likely only notice it when it's not working. Or maybe not. Perhaps it's something you spend a lot of time on upfront before you start to write.

How do you plan the rise and fall of the plot and action?

Do you think of it in units? If so, when there are breaks, how do you transition effectively?

Do you think about pacing in your sentence structure?

What else can you tell us about how you handle pacing your story?
Pacing is crucial to the story and there is a lot of information to be found about it online. However, everyone approaches it differently.

I try to intrigue the reader within the first few pages/paragraphs. For me, this is either something about the character or the world that lures the reader in.
At about the 8-10% mark I want the reader to be invested in the story and care about the character and the outcome.
From there on highs and lows raise the tension to a critical level.
At about 90% the darkest hour occurs.
The last chapter is for the HFN/HEA - or at least some resolution to the conflict. My goal is to not just provide a conclusion, but ideally leave the reader wanting to know what the characters did the following day.

Rather than pacing in sentences I focus on clarity and brevity - the one area this may not be true is in description, I don't want to be effusive yet want to phrasing the communicates mood along with physical surroundings.
 

K.S. Crooks

Senior Member
For action I like to think of how the psychology or physicality of the situation affects the characters. If the situation is highly physical or stressful the characters will probably need time to recover and eat. If the situation was highly emotional they may need to talk. How much of either depends on the strength of the characters and the toughness of what they went through. I sometimes visualize my stories as a roller coaster. I think of the rise in tension, the fall and moments of calm before another rise.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I think this is another place we rely on our experience as readers, and readers who have read stuff similar to the material we're writing. We get a feel about what works by osmosis.

Didn't a member here recently quote an author saying, "Whenever I feel like my plot is dragging, I have someone burst into the room with a gun!"? LOL

I was close. A search reveals the author to be Raymond Chandler, and the exact quote is: "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

Gee, I hadn't even read this quote, and thinking about it, that happens four times in my sci-fi novel last year. :)

I have to rethink my structure, because my average chapter is 5K words (1K in my Fairy Tale), and I recently read that current readers like shorter chapters. If I have a pacing regimen, it's that I end chapters with a page turning thought or situation. I leave doubt in the reader's mind. Once I write such a thing, I typically go straight to the next chapter. So what am I going to do if I write 2K chapters? I'll leave you exhausted. LOL OR, I'll have to take more subtle measures in ending a chapter.

Here's a common progression for me:
  • protagonists become aware of a problem
  • protagonists develop a plan of action
  • things happen to start the wheels rolling
  • things go wrong
  • start a new chapter

Often that progression is repeated several times within a larger structure in the plot, and that larger structure is doing the same thing.

I think something that helps me is I'm "reading while I write". I can tell if things are dragging in a book I'm reading, so if I'm reading myself honestly as I write, I should (and can) recognize it's time to shock the reader.

On the other hand, I always maintain that a talented writer can describe eating breakfast and make it interesting. I do it almost every book, but only readers can tell me if I'm really making it interesting. I've read plenty of books where I'm halfway in and wondering when the author is going to get to the point and start the main action, yet that half of the book has been plenty entertaining and kept me interested. So if you can write interesting scenes without inserting action and salient plot, pacing becomes less of a concern.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
In my humble opinion, you need to know a lot about your imaginary character's motivation in order to control the pacing. Because that helps a lot to control the tension of the plot's conflict. I recently recommended a book in resources here on the website. It explains how Shakespeare handled motivation. It receives my highest recommendation. Conflict is also useless without characterization (doesn't exist, according to screenwriting experts. I read many books on the topic). If you know a motive, then you know what they want. I have many books on conflict. They say it has to do with psychology that brings out the conflict of the character. Shakespeare's way is that the motive must be some kind of self-worth. Or it could be some kind of desire to control their self-image. If I want to be a good brother. That would be my motive. He defines need as something else (but you can guarantee it is to gain something psychological and external). What your character needs is the goal. If your character wants to get a rare book or to read, check out books in a library to look smart. It is a crisis of self-image. The character thinks psychologically. When in King Lear he wants his daughters to accept him and flatter him, they deny it. It's a play of tragedy, but the truth sinks in. I am no critic of Shakespeare, but I suspect the king wanted something about himself to be granted. He wanted to be flattered, maybe because he wanted them to see him as a good father. Which justifies the actions of the play? It's been a long time since I have heard people discuss the play. I took a British literature class at one point in school. But I never studied that play. Still, all his motivations are eerily similar according to the author of the book. It is no coincidence that he developed characters with motivation in the same way.
 
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Willmatron

Senior Member
My thought is the actions of a character determine how to pace them out. If I decided the day in and day out activities of a character I might not need to return to them until something happens to them.
For example in a story I had a group of antagonists square off against protagonists in a castle and then have to retreat. The next part of the story is the antagonists trying to return to their kingdom before some get captured.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
To be honest, I don't consciously focus on pacing. I usually focus on the feeling I'm trying to convey and I roll with that. So, if the scene is somber and quiet, I'll generally write longer, more descriptive sentences. This is reflective of the character having time available to be more observant. In the opposing vein, fight scenes are usually more "punchy" because the character doesn't have the time available to be thoughtful and descriptive. They're in the middle of a fight! So, it really depends on what the characters are doing and feeling which drives my pacing.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Personally, I think studying psychology from reference books that show explicit examples of, for example: vices, motivations, strengths, can help you picture a character and make them seem real (I found books on all three topics). I will buy books on the topics when I get the money they pay me, I need for this. IMO, it's the way to build a compelling character. Books on conflict I read say study psychology. I will now, as I want to write a character-centered story. I found books on those topics. I don't think I will find one on flaws easily. No fiction writing book is a solution for all your character building needs. Humans are complex beings. So that is what I plan on doing. I think motivation theory could help a lot to create a story that is fast-paced. As long as you have examples of how each of these studied by psychology works. Motivation theory deals with the wants and needs of a character. Supposedly, when they are trying to both be accomplished, it results in conflict. (An example of this theory is Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but it is not the only theory on motivation that exists). Not to mention, many craft books mention that wants and needs can be considered the goal of the character.
 
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JJBuchholz

Senior Member
I don't think about it at all really. I seem to know where and when to further the plot along and how to make it all work. One of the
things I have worked on in recent years is where and when to substitute dialogue for action, and vice versa. Other than that, every
plot event and piece of action happens exactly where it is supposed to.

I guess that in my mind, I can see the story unfold before me like a movie, and that helps me to put everything where it belongs
in relation to the overall adventure.

-JJB
 

Parabola

Member
I should probably focus on pacing more, but my experience has been writing from inspiration, a tricky thing believe it or not, really helps bring it all together (pacing, character, plot). Reading something, then writing, sometimes helps me be more aware of pacing, or just story structure in general. Although it still feels like it functions best for me when it's on a subconscious level.
 

bazz cargo

Retired Supervisor
There has been a lot of discussion on the forum lately on pacing. I mean it's sort of a nebulous thing that floats around in the background, and you likely only notice it when it's not working. Or maybe not. Perhaps it's something you spend a lot of time on upfront before you start to write.

How do you plan the rise and fall of the plot and action?

Do you think of it in units? If so, when there are breaks, how do you transition effectively?

Do you think about pacing in your sentence structure?

What else can you tell us about how you handle pacing your story?
Hmmm.... I never give it a thought. I do try to edit the boring bits into something interesting.

I just write. Never a thought about the technical side until late in the editing phase. Even then it isn't that important.
 
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