Every story needs what I call, “Oh, Crap!” scenes. These are the scenes where things do not go as planned. Bad things happen. Character are in trouble.
But specifically it means at least one character now, right-this-very-minute, knows it. There was now, when the character did not know something was bad, and now there is after, the new now.
And I’m stating the obvious (as is sometimes my job), but we’re only talking about stuff that matters to the character and the plot, right? If the bad stuff doesn’t matter then it’s really not part of the story you’re telling.
Okay, back on point, which is why what happens in the now of your story has a huge effect on pacing. And this is where many, many writers get hung up.
So here’s the secret.
When you have great pacing, every scene is really an “Oh, Crap!” scene. Every scene has this element that something is happening now that will change the characters and story after.
No, we’re not talking bombs going off in every scene. But we are talking about something, even if it’s small, making right now, this scene, matter. And most of the time, what matters is tied to a character and an emotion.
If something happens in a forest and no character is there to have an emotional reaction…. Yeah, you get what I’m saying.
Good pacing is about causing emotions and reactions in your characters and your readers. While past events might generate sympathy or outrage or a smile, everyone knows it’s over.
That phrase, “it’s already over,” is death to pacing.
It’s like saying, “But don’t worry about it, because there’s nothing you can do. This is just informational. Obviously we’ve gone on just fine, more or less. We’ve survived, and now here we are, talking about the past.”
Now is the time that matters most in scenes. Now is when every line of description, every reply, and ever action leads to an unknown. And if that unknown is an “oh, crap!” moment, then you’ve created that pacing gold. You will have given your reader and your character something that generates an emotion and a reaction in the now.
Instant pacing. Your reader will intuitively know it’s not over at all. Something is happening. The only way to find out more is to keep turning pages.
Scenes Unfolding in The Now + Oh, Crap! = Scenes With Pacing
A Good Solid Example
Munch is an auto mechanic and ex-addict. She’s working on a car when a man from her old life, someone she just calls Sleaze, shows up asking for a favor involving a baby. Their conversation is difficult. And Munch says no, only to find he’s left a key behind.
Beautiful writing. Do yourself a favor and read Barbara’s books. She does everything right.
One of those things is taking a person from the past and sharing backstory, but doing it in a scene where what’s happening right now is very important. And if you asked Munch how she felt about it, she’s say, “Oh, crap!”
She’s just been played and she knows it. There’s a baby involved, an innocent. And she will have to make a decision (use the key or ignore it). When? Now. The baby needs to be picked up now.
Here are a few pacing tips and tricks to your own scenes. Ask the following questions at the paragraph level, the “unit of action” level, and the scene level.
Real Time: Questions of Importance
- What are the elements that are happening right now (not being explained, but actually happening)?
- What elements are demanding a response from a character right now?
- What are the “Oh, crap!” moments for your viewpoint character? Your reader?
Real Time: Questions of Stickiness
- When readers looks back on the scene, what it is they can’t get our of their head? What worries them? What causes an immediate emotional reaction?
- What about the viewpoint character?
- What was the most unexpected thing that happened? The boldest? The most clever?
Real Time: Questions of Scale (& The Point of Pain)
- What happened in this scene that caused the character to forget to breathe? To freeze? To swallow hard?
- What about the reader?
- Can any of these elements become bigger than they already are?
- Would making them smaller, quieter, increase the personal nature of the pain?
Real Time: Questions of Logic
- Is there a way to make any of these “oh, crap!” elements more believable to the reader?
- Can you make the characters reaction more credible?
- Can you enrich the details and instill more authority and authenticity into the story by investing deeper in “the now”?
A Cool Fresh Trick
Sometimes it’s easier to look at pacing elements if you’re analyzing someone else’s scene. Ask your critique partners if they’d like to trade scenes and brainstorm ideas for upping the “oh, crap!” factor.
In my next FictionZone column, I’ll look at how great pacing causes an immediate reaction within your characters and story.
This article is the 8th in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:
7. FREE OFFER (closed)
8. The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
9. Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
10. Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
11. Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twits, and Reader Engagement
12. Pacing that Matters: It All Comes Down to Characters
13. Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
14. 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire
She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University