Take the Pacing Taste Test
Does your novel have good pacing? Here’s a down-and-dirty test for finding out.
Q: Did something happen on this page (or in this scene or chapter) that caused a character to have an immediate reaction?
One of the hallmarks of creating a compelling story is that what happens causes an immediate reaction. Cause and effect. Action and reaction.
What are immediate reactions? They can be…
- Emotional (feelings)
- Physical (actions)
- Intellectual (thoughts, conclusions, observations, revelations)
- Verbal (dialogue)
Without a reaction of some kind to what is happening in the scene, you’re just reporting a lot of details that aren’t connected to the powerful story engine called Great Pacing.
From the reader’s point of view, “No reaction? Must not matter. Never mind. Zzzzzzzz.”
If your character doesn’t care, then why should we?
Readers take your word for what’s important, specifically they take your character’s word.
If there’s no immediate reaction by at least one character, not even shocked silence or a new realization, then the reader concludes that NOTHING IMPORTANT IS HAPPENING that can’t be summed up or skipped.
When your story has good pacing, you’ll find that change is afoot, characters react to what is happening, and this reaction moves the story forward.
When your story has Total Pacing Suckage, you’ll find there’s no character reaction connected to the story movement. Not a single reaction to anything on the page (even if that page is very well written).
Learn From a Master
- The story is told in retrospect, after the main character, Deputy Sheriff P. A. Pennington, is retired from 50-years of police work. It would be easy to relate actions as being “done and gone,” as not having immediate consequences. But Steve keeps it immediate.
- Pennington, a WWII vet and sniper, is very matter of fact about death. Police work is his ordinary world. He deals with crime scenes as a series of facts to relate. And remember, relating facts isn’t the same as storytelling. Hidden in these facts, Steve plants a solid reward for the reader’s attention. Amid the facts is an important reaction payoff for the reader.
- The reaction is emotional. You may not be used to thinking of emotion as a reaction, but it is. Emotion is the result of something else. It’s powerful. And it’s the stuff of epic dramas.
From Page 2 of Steve Thayer’s Wolf Pass:
I found Frank Prager hanging out of the cab of his steam locomotive, like a sodden rag doll. A swath of blood, dark and red, stained the entire side of the cab, blacking out the white of the locomotive’s four-digit number. A semicircle of railroad workers stood before the train station in Kickapoo Falls, like statues in the midmorning sun. Shocked. Silent. Grieving. … The dead engineer smelled of oil and coal. Grease and iron. And blood. Brain bits and skull fragments had splashed around the cab, smearing the gauges on the back of the boiler. His black and white striped overalls were tattered and worn. His cap, equally worn, lay at the track below my feet. Balancing on one foot and clinging to the handrail, I grabbed a fistful of soggy hair and lifted his head with my free hand. He’d been shot between the eyes. One shot. A large caliber. The damage to his face was extensive. Death was instantaneous. I recoiled in horror and unceremoniously let his head drop. What remained of his face made a soft bash against the side of the cab.
There are two immediate reactions here that make all the difference for the reader.
- Everyone watching the scene is already reacting emotionally (shocked, silent, and grieving). While we don’t see the beginning of this reaction, they are still having the reaction as the scene unfolds.
- Pennington reacts both emotionally and physically (he recoiled in horror and let the head drop).
These reactions tell us that what is happening right now matters. This scene is important. And this reaction will lead to an new action. In this case, Pennington will care about this crime, be emotionally invested in solving it. He will be vigorous. He will not give up.
The answer to the question, “Who cares?” is this. “Pennington cares.” We know this because he had an immediate reaction. Because Pennington cares, we care.
What if he hadn’t had a reaction at all. If he just related a series of facts. The message to the reader would’ve been different. “Just fact, yawn.” And the writer could’ve just summed up the facts for the reader. “There’d been a murder of a train engineer that morning. It was bloody.”
Now, back to your writing.
Hey, wait! I already have an immediate reaction.
Okay, you’re ready for the follow-on question.
Q. Is it a powerful reaction? How powerful?
This question is not yes or no. This one you rate on a scale of 0 to 10. And then you keep asking questions.
- How profound?
- How much does the reaction impact the current scene and the story as a whole?
- Is the reaction irrevocable? (And so that the story is changed forever.)
- Does it lead to more actions and reactions?
- Does it matter to the other characters in addition to the viewpoint character?
- Does the reaction force others to act?
- Does the reaction itself have consequences?
Back to our example: Pennington reacted in horror. That’s pretty strong. But he didn’t scream, or run, or refuse to take the case. And it didn’t trigger an episode of post traumatic stress. It’s high but not a 10.
What if he’d lifted the head and his only reaction had been to think, “Well, that’s a mess.” That’s not much of a reaction then. Kinda sounds like spilled coffee. Let’s give that a 2.
Look at your scene’s reactions and start getting a feel for how powerful the reaction really is. And start noticing when you introduce fake reactions and fake emotion. Readers know when you’re doing this.
You’ll probably find that a lot of your character’s reactions are really pretty low on the scale. Or they’re so fleeting that they don’t count at all.
In the Wolf Pass example, the horror of the murder sticks with Pennington, and the author links bigger and bigger personal peril to this one death.
And finally, start developing an inner ear for the difference between a character having a reaction vs. just being an ass. Some character’s are jerks. Everything they say is contentious. If the reaction to every event is to be upset or yell, then it ends up being no reaction at all. It’s just a jerk being a jerk. On the scale that’s a zero, plain and simple.
Now go take a look at your scenes. Look for those immediate reactions. Make things matter to your characters and your readers.
In my next FictionZone column, I’ll look at how to keep your reader off balance and turning those pages.
This article is the 8th in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:
7. FREE OFFER (closed)
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