If I was in the back seat of a taxi (Or an Uber)…and the driver took a couple of suspicious left or right turns without asking me, or had a shortcut that I didn’t quite recognize…my first question would be, “Hey, where the hell are you taking me? What’s happening here?” If the driver was racing down the streets at breakneck speeds, or if they were slowing around as if I had all damn day to get where I wanted to go…I would be thrown off, and probably pretty frustrated.
When it comes to pacing out your stories…your readers are in that same position. They’re in the backseat. You’re the driver. You’re supposed to be taking them where they need to go while they’re absorbing whatever it is that your writing is giving them. And it’s your job as a writer to keep them comfortable with the ride, and to also put enough faith in you to get from point A to point B without aggravating the living shit out of them. Now, every reader is different, and there will always be some that want more ‘action’, and some that want you to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit more. But I’ve found that the real talent in pacing your story comes from finding that special sweet spot in the middle. A place where the tale can have high points and low points, dramatic events as well as some downtime, and a smooth transition from one point to another with enough connective tissue between them where your audience will want to keep reading to see what happens next. Like a bundle of grapes…the tasty parts are what you want, but they’ve got to be connected by something, right? It can be done. It’s all in how you view your project, both as a whole as well as in pieces. And it’ll be an important part of making your story a success.
So, let’s talk pacing!
What is pacing? Basically, it’s the literary equivalent of city traffic. When your audience is reading your work, there may be some streets that they can travel down without any slow down whatsoever. Maybe a stop sign or two, but mostly a smooth ride. Then you get into one of the major areas of the city, and you have heavier traffic, stoplights, pedestrians…you’re moving forward, but not as quickly as you were before. And then there’s downtown during rush hour, where it’s just total gridlock! Oh, the horror! Writing a story is very similar. Ask yourself how your plot is moving forward. Where are you going? What is the ‘point’ of it all, and how are you going to get there? More importantly…how are you going to keep your readers thoroughly entertained until you reach your goal? Hehehe, there’s nothing worse than being on a long road trip with a bunch of kids in the backseat who are constantly squealing, “Are we there yet?” And you don’t have anything positive to tell them in response.
In my opinion, the best way to do that is to break your story down into a series of events first instead of a journey from the initial introduction to the climax, and then fill in the rest. You might have an excellent beginning to your story, and a jaw dropping ending…but if nothing significant happens in between the two…your story is going to lag and you may lose readers halfway through. You don’t want that.
You want to know how you get people to wait two hours in line for a ride at Disney World? You keep them looking up a the ride itself, like…”DAMN! I want to get out of line…but I’m sooooo close now!” Hehehe!
You want your story to balance things out in a way that will create a certain sense of momentum in your writing. Even when there isn’t much happening during a scene, or even through a whole chapter, it should be nudging your audience with your words, as if to say, “Stick with me. I’m going somewhere with this.”. As I’ve said before in the past, you can’t have a bunch of dramatic events happening in every single chapter of your story. It may work once or twice in the beginning, but it dulls the impact if you’re constantly trying to up the ante every time your readers click on the next chapter. It’s not a TV reality show. If every single day is full of drama…then what is drama worth? Diamonds and gold are expensive and cherished because of their rarity. The big moments in your story should be treated in the same way. BUT…during those ‘down’ moments between major events, you don’t want to allow your story to lose focus or lag in momentum. Every scene that you write, every bit of dialogue, should be building up to ‘something’. And it should be in a way that your readers can see and recognize as an incentive to keep reading. Even through chapters where they think nothing much happened to advance the story.
You have to maintain that constant idea that even the slower parts of your story are important, and vital in creating something special. Something good? Something bad? Who knows? But it’s the author’s way of saying, “Hey! Pay attention! This will be on the quiz later!” The way you do this is by leaving little breadcrumbs to hint at what might be coming in the future. You’re delivering information, but in a creative way that suggests a hint of mystery as to what may be in store for your main characters and the story in general. Peper these little hints and clues in different places throughout your project. Never give it all away in the beginning, and never leave it all up for the story’s climax to figure out. It’s the middle of your story that is going to become the vehicle to take your readers from one point to another. Always keep that in mind.
For example…maybe you have a chapter where your protagonist has been trying to work up the courage to talk to a boy that he really likes. Maybe he chickened out a few times in an earlier chapter, but he’s really trying to push forward and gain the confidence he needs to make the first move. Now, you might spend an entire chapter just having him trying to convince himself that it won’t be so bad if he just went for it and stopped being so afraid…but fails to get the courage by the end of the chapter. Now, this is a decent way to handle your story for one chapter, and build layers that will add depth to your main character…but if you were to drag this out for two or three chapters…you’re going to start annoying your audience. Some may understand and decide to hang in there, but others will get tired of being teased and will choose to go read something else. Nothing is moving forward. Nothing is being accomplished. You’re letting your story fade away right in front of your audience’s eyes. That’s not a good thing.
I’m not saying that you have to toss in some random event to spice things up just for the sake of entertaining your readers. That could hurt more than it helps, and it ultimately won’t have any deeper meaning within the context of the story anyway. So why do it? It’s not about the big shock moments and major events. It’s about building up to those moments, and knowing when to land that big punch before the build up wears out its welcome.
Instead of spending three chapters on a boy who’s too scared to approach his crush and speak to him…sprinkle in a few baby steps worth of progress along the way. Maybe they end up being the only two people in a room where they are forced to talk to one another. Maybe they end up in detention at the same time. Maybe your protagonist sees his crush having a fun conversation with a girl, or another boy, after class…and now the possible competition has started the ticking clock on when he should move in. He has to push forward before he misses his big chance and someone else takes his spot. Always remember that every chapter that you write should have some sort of momentum attached to it. Keep asking yourself where that particular piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture. Where are you going with that? What information are you delivering? How will this impact the story as a whole?
If you’re having trouble answering any of those questions, then chances are…you’ve gotten derailed somewhere along the way, and need to get back on track. Pacing is all about taking your readers through both the peaks and the valleys of your story without having them lose interest or enthusiasm in your project. Every chapter, whether it’s full of drama, action, and despair…or if it’s just a chapter where things calm down and you feel the need to explain and explore some of the less explosive parts of your narrative…should present a series of questions to the reader about what will happen next, without giving away a single answer to those questions. Every single chapter.
What happens if someone discovers this major secret? What happens if the protagonist takes this particular leap of faith? What happens now that this boy’s mother has discovered his stash of teen magazines? It’s your duty as an author to keep stringing your audience along and continue to present new elements that will intrigue them and provide an incentive to keep going. Not from beginning to end, but from event to event. Remember…pieces. If you’re taking too long to accomplish this, you end up turning your readers off. It’s important to remember that your readers don’t know what you’ve got planned for later. They only know what you have written out on the screen. So, even if you’re building up to one of the biggest, most incredible, most EPIC finales of all time…
…Taking too long to get to the point will guarantee that your biggest fans won’t be around to see it. So don’t let your story get stuck in a quagmire of details that don’t move the story forward in some way, shape, or form. This is the internet. We’re lucky that readers found our stories at all. So let’s keep their attention focused on our projects for as long as we possibly can. Hopefully until it reaches its satisfying end.
It will take some practice, but we all learn how to pace our stories out in an effective way that suits our needs and serves the readers with something that is entertaining and a joy to read. It’s all about planning and choosing your moments, and littering them throughout the story a little bit at a time. Always ask yourself what is most important about your story and your characters first, and then think about what parts of your story are going to support those specific highlights. Everything else? Get rid of it. Don’t bog your storytelling down with boredom. Find your equilibrium. Not too fast, not too slow, know where you’re going. Just like the Taxi/Uber example above.
Down below is a short animated film that I think demonstrates this idea perfectly. It has actually become one of my favorite animated Halloween short films, and that surprised me. Because it takes real patience. Hehehe! It’s about 14 minutes long, and for most of its run time…there really isn’t a whole lot going on. Like, at all. But the genius in this animation is…just when you’re starting to get bored or let your mind wander off a bit…something happens that captures your attention again. It’s small, and it’s subtle, but it makes you think, “Wait…what was that? Where is this going?” And there are a few red herrings thrown in, but I kept watching because I was constantly being pulled along towards the end of the video, just to see what happens next. When you look back at it….nothing is really taking place at first, but there was always this little nugget of ‘something’ that kept me interested. If you watch closely, you’ll notice the literary breadcrumbs being dropped in front of you. Nothing big, nothing major…just a hint of what’s to come. And that keeps you locked in for the entire 14 minutes, where the build up shows its importance and the reveal let’s you know that it was worth the wait.
Don’t skip ahead. That’s just as much of a writer foul as taking too long. Lagging and moving too slowly decreases interest. But speeding through your stories and skipping over essential moments and details to get to the ‘good parts’ decreases meaning and impact.
Check this out, and let me know what you think…
It’s all about creating momentum, the promise of bigger moments, and a climax worth the journey it took to get there. Teach yourself to recognize those golden opportunities wherever you find them, and then use those moments to your advantage. It will help to give your work that ‘can’t put it down’ vibe, and will keep your readers constantly coming back for more. No matter what.
Anyway, I hope this helps! Take these words to heart, and I hope it assists you in writing the best stories that you possibly can. It worked for me, and I keep learning more tricks every day. Tricks that I’ll share with you all as I discover them myself! 😛
So have fun! Happy writing! And I’ll seezya soon!