Story Pacing: 4 Techniques That Help Manage Your Plot’s Timeline

The article Story Pacing: 4 Techniques That Help Manage Your Plot’s Timeline appeared first on The Write Practice.

As a writer of fiction, you want readers to open your book and become so absorbed they can’t put it down. It helps to be aware that so much of what happens when a reader picks up a book takes place in the subconscious mind. Readers don’t realize that it’s happening, and many writers don’t pay attention to it either.

One of those largely subconscious mechanisms is story pacing.

story pacing

Story pacing is often ignored as an aspect of learning how to craft a really great story. A lot of writers don’t give it much thought, yet it’s a critically important writing technique and quite exciting to learn about.

In this post, we’ll cover story pacing in detail, and I’ll provide some crucial areas for you to work on in your books—to open up some doors you didn’t even know existed.

Story Pacing Opened My Eyes

One of the primary ways we learn how to craft story is from reading a ton of books, especially in our target genre. I’ve been an avid reader of suspense fiction for as long as I can remember, and it’s been a huge boost to my writing abilities.

So when I started writing thrillers, I felt fairly confident about my skills. I knew I had an exciting storyline, with intriguing plot points supported by well-developed characters and plenty of action.

That’s why I was so surprised when my mentor took a look at one of my stories and said: “It’s not a thriller.”

He told me I had all the right stuff for a thriller, but the pacing was off. After he showed me the same techniques that I’ll share with you in this article, I was able to give the story a better sense of urgency, shaping it into a solid thriller.

With the help of this post, you can do the same with your stories.

What is Story Pacing?

You may be thinking that story pacing is simply the tempo at which your story unfolds. True enough, on the surface. But the deeper reality is that pacing is the art of keeping readers engaged in your story and not letting them out. It’s what pulls them through to the end.

Here’s another way to think about it. In a ThrillerFest panel discussion on the topic of pacing, Lee Child said:

“Every book you’ve ever read has a timeline; it starts somewhere and finishes somewhere. Pacing is how you manage that timeline.”

He goes on to talk about how he writes the slow parts fast, and the fast parts slow. Meaning he operates like a photo editor reporting on a tidal wave. The editor shows the wave coming in at a tremendous pace and then slows down the tape as it crashes into the seawall to intensify the impact and examine it in greater detail.

As writers, we have the ability to speed and slow the rate at which our readers consume a story. You can learn those techniques and master the art of pacing by structuring your story according to genre.

Pacing is Inextricably Connected With Genre

Being clear about genre is really critical to the reader’s enjoyment of your story.

To make my point, I’ll tell you about this little trick my husband likes to pull on me. Sometimes when we stop at a gas station, he’ll disappear inside and come out with a large cup and offer me the straw. Though I never know what to expect, I can’t help but form some kind of preconceived anticipation.

So maybe I’m thinking root beer or Dr. Pepper. I take a drink and—Yuck! That’s awful! What is it? And he might say it’s Squirt. Well, I like Squirt, but since it’s not what my taste buds were expecting, it disappointed.

It’s the same with genre.

Readers start a story with certain expectations, they want a particular type of reading experience. That’s why genres exist. To help readers make good choices about what they want to read.

Pacing is dependent on genre and genre springs from pacing. Like the chicken and the egg, you can’t really separate them. The genre you choose to write will dictate the story pacing and the way you pace your book will determine the genre.

Relationship between pacing and genre

If a reader picks up a thriller and the story doesn’t have fast pacing like a thriller should, they’ll put the book down or finish it in disgust and never go back to that writer’s work. Same with a cozy mystery or a slow-burn psychological suspense.

And the reader won’t even consciously register what was wrong with it. They’ll just know it disappointed.

Pacing in Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense

Let’s think of a story’s pacing like a theme park ride. When you visit a theme park, you know the kind of rides you want to experience. The ferris wheel is fun and so is the Tilt-a-Whirl, but they move at different paces. Story pacing is like that, too.

Use this analogy to take a closer look at how the pacing differs in thrillers, suspense stories, and mysteries. Each genre is a joy to read, but the experience each provides is unique.

Thrillers

Thrillers are roller coaster rides. You get in and strap down and then the coaster pulls slowly out of the station and starts chugging up that first hill. This is like character development, grounding the reader in the setting, and building the suspense.

By the time your reader is solidly inside the viewpoint character’s head and has learned to care about that character, we’ve reached the top of that first big drop and we plummet ahead on a wild ride of twists and turns with an occasional breather while the story builds to another thrilling drop.

Thrillers are made of fast-paced scenes.

Mysteries

Mysteries are more like the funhouse. They’re designed to surprise, challenge, and amuse with puzzles to solve and riddles to unravel. They’re more interactive than a thrill ride, inviting readers to participate in working out the clues.

We may have to work our way through a revolving tunnel or cross a crazy obstacle course. And there may be spurts of fast-paced activity, but the overall tone of the ride doesn’t have the frenetic qualities of a roller coaster.

Mysteries move at a moderate pace.

Suspense

We might liken suspense stories to the spooky rides where you ride on a track through a series of dark and mysterious passages, accompanied by scary music and lots of atmosphere.

Some of these rides are slow, drawing out the suspense, giving you time to worry and wonder about what’s coming next. Other rides move more quickly, giving you less time to recover from the unexpected each time you turn the corner.

Suspense stories vary in pace and run the gamut.

Pacing Influences the Reader’s Experience

As with most aspects of good fiction writing, intentional story pacing provides a quality reading experience. Proper pacing allows us to control what the reader thinks and feels. We do that in obvious ways, not so obvious ways, and some really subconscious ways. As I mentioned before, a lot of pacing is effectively a subconscious control system.

We’re going to look at the nuts and bolts of pacing, but unless you realize their purpose and understand the end goal, you won’t get full value from using these tools.

The way the page looks—sentence and paragraph structure, punctuation, amount of white space—sends signals to the reader about how to consume the story. Page appearance is important in pacing a book correctly.

So, before we dig into the specifics, we need to cover an absolutely key component of successful pacing.

Form Follows Content

If you’re wondering how to structure your sentences and paragraphs, look at your content. What’s going on in the story?

What is the character thinking or feeling in that moment? What should the reader be experiencing? These are what will tell you how long or short to make your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.

In general, longer sentences promote slow-burn suspense while shorter sentences can create a frantic feeling of panic.  But the number one rule to remember in story pacing is this: form must follow content.

This means that what’s happening in the story should be reflected in the way it looks on the page.

If there’s a fight scene, or some kind of fast-paced action going on, the sentences and paragraphs should be short, clipped, and surrounded by white space. If your character is arriving in a new setting and taking it in, these descriptive passages will be slower, with longer sentences and paragraphs.

Flashbacks also slow the pace as you pull the reader from the active voice of the story into a more introspective vein.

Ask yourself what’s happening, and make your form fit your content.

Some people, when they hear the term pacing, think it means fast. And in suspense fiction, that’s often what readers want. But there’s nothing wrong with an occasional slow-paced scene if that’s what the content calls for.

Good pacing is about choosing the appropriate speed to advance your reader through the plot. And that’s dictated by the genre, tone, and events of the story.

Story pacing is about choosing the appropria

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