A lot goes into writing a good story, unless somehow you’ve made BFF’s with a Muse. If that’s the case you don’t need me, and you should go frolicking through fields of daisies, jerk. For the rest of us, there are a lot of aspects of good storytelling that require conscious attention.
These range from having good mechanics (ie: knowing how to put together a sentence that sounds good, or atleast intelligible), to a strong plot (ie: interesting shit keeps happening!), to correct pacing (ie: your character doesn’t spend the first three quarters of the book splayed out on his back whilst sexy servants feed him grapes, and the last quarter of the book blowing up the moon.)
Today, we’re gonna chat about pacing, because it’s one of those elements of storytelling that is a slippery bastard to nail down. As the writer, pacing can be one of the hardest things to keep track of. Which makes sense when you consider how much time you spend inside the story world. After awhile things inevitably resemble an unintelligible gaggle of words.
Are these moving too quickly? Are they moving too slowly? Is it moving at all?
Beta-readers are a great resource in this department. They come at the story with fresh eyes and can tell you when things are dragging and when they are moving too quickly. But maybe you don’t have a stable of virulent beta-readers on hand?
Well, bummer. You’re screwed. Sorry, Holmes.
No, I’m just kidding. There’s plenty you can do on your own. In particular I’m gonna share a little exercise I go through with my stories to make sure they are moving at a reasonable pace.
Here’s what you do:
First, get a piece of paper and write down every scene in chronological order. We aren’t talking about chapters, because oftentimes you’ll have multiple scenes in a single chapter. So go through and pinpoint all the different interactions your characters have whether they be big or small, climactic or anticlimactic.
In Time Heist I tended towards shorter chapters so while there are 39 chapters, there were only 45 different scenes. That’s a stylistic choice I made because shorter chapters, especially within the context of a thriller, make the book feel like it’s moving along at a quicker pace. By comparison, Mind Breach, the sequel to Time Heist (which has 4 point of view characters) has closer to 50 chapters and well over 100 different scenes. So your mileage is going to vary on this one.
Now, once you have your scene list, you’re gonna go through and assign an excitement rating somewhere between 1 and 10. 1 being very boring, as in your character is waking up from a nap. 10 being “holy balls my cat is on fire!” exciting.
“I just woke up from a nap and my cat is on fire!”
Excitement in this context could mean a whole bunch of things. Your main character finding out his parents are getting a divorce will rate differently on the scale based on the kid. The kids growing up in an uber-religious household where he’s been raised to view divorce as a sin is going to react slightly differently from the hippy love child who’s parents only got married for the tax breaks.
It all depends. Conversely, not all physical peril is equal. Your average soccer-dad is going to respond to a bad automobile accident differently than your hardened black-ops assassin woman with a machine-gun leg.
I literally can’t believe I found a woman with a machine gun leg. Go home internet, you’re drunk!
So go through your tale and figure out where each scene ranks. Once you have this all figured out, you’re gonna get a different sheet of paper and graph it out.
Wait…. did he say, graph it out? That sounds an awful lot like math. I don’t like math. Can we make glittery unicorns instead?
Yes. Yes, we can. But later. For now, we’re graphing, baby!
On the left side of your paper create a vertical line and then break it up into 10 equally spaced lines. Then go through your scene list and plot those points out on the graph in chronological order. When you’re done, it should look something like this.
If you did it right, you should see a series of peaks and valleys. If you’re story is one continuous line from left to right, then that means nothing is happening in your story. It’s flatlined. It’s dead. Sorry, bro. We did everything we could to resuscitate it, but some things you just have to let go.
But that’s not you. Your story goes places and therefore it bobs and weaves like a mongoose on Adderall.
Well, that’s not so much bobbing and weaving as it is just going in circles…which you don’t necessarily want your story to do….but…
*look a distraction!*
Back on topic. Boom. Okay, so up above I outlined three of my books in the Firstborn Saga: Time Heist, Infinity Lost, and Mind Breach. Each story is designed to do something different and so each graph is gonna look slightly differently, but what you should, ideally, see are consistent peaks following by consistent valleys. The peaks represent the climactic moments followed by a period of “calm” where less exciting things happen.
These undulations are important for a number of reasons. Think of it like a rollercoaster ride at Disney World.There is the slow build at the beginning which gives you plenty of time to contemplate how poor a decision you’ve made and how you’re likely to die clutching the hairy arm of the Armenian man wedged in beside you. Then there’s the exciting plunge, a few hair pin turns, a loopdeloop if you’re doing things correctly, and then there’s usually a boring section where you can gather your breath for one final push of embarrassing pre-teen screaming.
That’s what you want from your story. Now, it doesn’t always work like that. Let’s take a look at Time Heist which, right out of the gate, I’ll tell you packs an almost unhealthy amount of action between its pages.
Now, one of the problems with the pacing of Time Heist is that it spends alot of time up there near 10 for climactic moments. Tom Mandel is constantly faced with near death experiences that frequently kill him. That’s the nature of the story I was trying to tell and the world I was building, so I rightly accept the critiques that suggest there is too much action. But that was unavoidable, and I knew it from the beginning. Time Heist is a story with a particular market that will love it, others will be put off by it. That’s okay, you can’t please everybody and it helps to know that at the onset of any artistic endeavor.
A couple things I would have done differently? I would have added a few scenes between the climactic moments. This would have stretched the story, giving the reader more breathing room between climactic happenings, and given them an opportunity to reflect on the impending doom.
Also, here’s an important take-away from the Time Heist graph: a scene that stays up at 10 for too long will become tiring, overwhelming, and the reader will eventually lose interest. You can only throw so much at your main character at once. Whoops. I broke that one in spades.
Let’s move on to the next story of the lot, Infinity Lost, which serves as a pseudo-prequel to Time Heist. It’s meant to be read after Time Heist, but it takes place hundreds of years before, so that’ll give you a bit of framework.
Infinity Lost is a very different sort of story than Time Heist. There is very little action and the climactic moments don’t revolve so much around physical peril as they do emotional turmoil. In a lot of ways Infinity Lost is a character study.
Looking at these graphs is interesting because with a little practice you can see where your story needs a healthy dose of stimulants, or where you need to apply a judicious amount of horse tranquilizer. Time Heist could have used a little tranq’ing. Infinity Lost could use a little perking up, maybe a pot of coffee or something.
For instance, right at the beginning of the story there is a big spike (which delineates the stories inciting event, this is the moment that puts our main character into motion (since this is a novella, it comes really early on. We don’t have time for fooling around, ya know?)), but immediately following that spike there is a lull. That scene needs to be perked up a bit, the stakes need to be raised. Not a ton but a drop off that large is jarring.
The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 is a bit peculiar because the climactic moment at the end of Act 1 is less climactic than the moment at the beginning of Act 2. This might need some adjusting, or it might be alright. Won’t know til I get back in there and do some rooting around, but it’s something to be mindful of.
What definitely needs some overhauling is that fat, sagging gut in the middle of Act 2. The second Act is a notorious slaggard. It’s the longest of all the Acts and by extension tends to get a bit sluggish. From the looks of it, this is precisely what happens in Infinity Lost. So, easiest fix is to go find those scenes right in the middle of Act 2 and spruce them up.
Raise the stakes, so to speak. This will keep the reader engaged through the long, boring, death valley drive that is the second Act of most stories.
A quick comment on that big dip you see in Act 3. That’s what’s called the denouement. It’s the break that comes after the climax, the moment where everything returns to normal, and we conclude on a happy note. I don’t end on a happy note, because this is part of a series, so at the end it starts building again to urge the reader forward into the next book, Mind Breach.
As Infinity Lost is different from Time Heist, Mind Breach is different from the previous two. It follows from the POV of 4 characters, whereas Time Heist has 1, and Infinity Lost as 2. Mind Breach, in terms of action, is closer related to Time Heist, but it’s not the non-stop thrill ride that is Time Heist. That’s because the middle book in a series sort of fills the role of a second Act. This is where a lot of the world building takes place, and the finagling of characters and scenes to get everybody poised and ready for a climactic finish in the finale.
Mind Breach, of the three stories, is probably the best paced so far. It needs only a little bit of work at the end of Act 2 to give a more climactic thrust into the conclusion of the tale. But for the most part there is a good build in Act 1, continuous engagement through Act 2, and a nice thick climax in Act 3.
The reason Mind Breach appears to have better pacing is on account of the multiple POV’s. I’m able to break up climactic scenes for one character by hopping to a different character in the next chapter. Flip flopping like this is nice because it gives the reader a nice little mental break and it lets me, as the author, do some interesting things from a storytelling mechanics point of view. This wasn’t possible in Time Heist where there was only a single first person POV. Did the story suffer on account of that? Meh, perhaps. But what can ya do?
Alright, so your homework is to plot out your work in progress and put it down in the comments section so that we can all see it and brainstorm it together.
This was a lot of words. If you made it this far, you deserve a treat, so here’s a picture of Gilgamesh, the cat who thought he could fly, but couldn’t.
Don’t worry, he’s not dead…just lazy.