In the next two articles, we’ll look at some diagnostic tools you can use to help improve your pacing.
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Pacing is hard to study.
And there’s a good reason for this. Pacing is about the reader’s experience of your story. And who are you? Not the reader. Yeah, you’re just the writer. 😉
Your concerns as a writer don’t actually translate into reader experience. Let me give you a couple examples.
Writer: “I want to create a three-dimensional protagonist the reader can root for.”
As the reader is flipping pages, the reader doesn’t have the corresponding question, “Is this character 3-dimensional? Yes. Oh, goodie, I’ll keep reading.
Writer: “I want to build an understanding of what a certain character’s life is like before tragedy strikes so that the reader understands why this is a big deal.”
The reader, again, does not have a parallel question, “Do I understand character’s normal life so I can fully experience what has changed? Why, yes, I do. Awesome.”
Like a puppeteer pulling strings from behind a curtain, as the writer, you only know what you hope your audience will experience. You can’t see your audience’s reaction. You don’t know if they’re leaning forward in anticipation or bored our of their gourd.
That’s a pretty big disconnect. Suddenly it’s like a deep chasm has opened up between you and your creation. It’s not you separated from your reader. It’s you separated from your own writing
This is where Storytellers have a much easier time. They’re out there in front of their audience, engaging them in story. They have the advantage of immediate feedback. Immediate reality. Immediate success or failure.
Does the audience lean forward? Look excited? worried? horrified?
Or just bored?
There’s no arguing with audience response. You don’t get to justify what you’re really trying to accomplish. It either works or it doesn’t.
But for storytellers, they receive in-the-moment feedback to adjust, to say something that brings that spark (good pacing) back to their audience.
How do we get that same feedback? Is it even possible?
The Reader’s Real Question
When readers pick up a book, they’re only concerned with one question: “Do I want to read on?”
There are stories we stay up all night to read. The desire to know what happens next is HUGE. (Yes, even if the story, itself, is quiet.)
That’s the result of good pacing.
Having complex, interesting characters is a given. Creating an intriguing plot (how the story is told in scenes) is a must. But after all that and everything else that goes into creating story excellence, you can still fail. All because of pacing. Because the answer to, “Do I want to read on,” is “not really.”
Pacing is the reader’s experience of the story as brought to life by the characters and scenes you’ve chosen.
What that means is that problems can be a result of your characters, your plot, or simply how your story unfolds. When it comes to pacing, how you communicate your story, the “how it unfolds” piece, is everything.
Here’s the definition of pacing we’ve been working with:
Fresh & Riveting Stuff that Matters (consequences and emotions)
Happening in Real Time (even if it’s just learning about something)
That Causes Immediate Reaction
With an Unknown Outcome
That Changes the Game
For at Least One Character
And the Reader.
Pacing Diagnostics Tool #1: Your Characters
If pacing is a factor of the reader’s experience, and if your reader enters the story through the character’s viewpoint, then perhaps your characters can help us out.
- Is your character receiving fresh (new) information?
- Is your character riveted by what is being learned, by what is unfolding?
- Is your character being presented with Stuff that Matters–really, really matters to her?
- Is your character learning and experiencing in the story time of “now”?
- Is your character reacting immediately?
- Is the future in jeopardy? Is the outcome in question?
- Will the fresh, riveting information, the reaction, or the outcome impact the plot in a way that changes “what will happen”? Does it lead to a new reality?
- Does your character care about this change? This information? This unfolding of reaction?
- Are your character’s reactions, emotions, and concerns on vibrant display? Can we start to see the new reality?
How can each point be made bigger, more meaningful, more emotional, more impactful?
Why isn’t your character bored?
Now obviously, you won’t hit every single one of these in every, single paragraph. But if you aren’t hitting any, then that’s a problem.
Try looking at sequences (several paragraphs or pages). Is the same old information being presented over and over? Is there no reaction at all? Does your character feel intimately involved in what’s happening or is it just background noise?
How does this sequence challenge the character? Force the character to Do Something? Move your story forward in a way that can’t be undone? In a way your character must deal with?
Do not give yourself an easy out. Look for proof. If it’s not on the page, it doesn’t exist to your readers. Does your character really react? How do we know?
Is he momentarily interested as a thought flickers across his mind? Not much of a reaction.
Does he stand up and say, “Hey, wait a minute!” Or does a chill run across his shoulders? Or does he scramble for a solution that will keep the wolves at bay?
Now we know he’s reacting.
Good job. This of this as in-the-moment feedback. It’s a sign your pacing is working.
This article is the 12th in Diane’s craft-of-fiction-writing series on Pacing:
- How to Be a Pacing Genius
- Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)
- You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story
- Shot Through the Heart: Threat, Consequences, and Emotions Equal Pacing
- BONUS: Don’t Hold Back – Pacing Advice by Literary Agent Donald Maass
- BONUS: Using Major Turning Points – Pacing Advice by Christopher Vogler
- FREE OFFER (closed)
- The “Oh, Crap!” Factor: Pacing in Real Time
- Bam! Pow! Wham! Good Pacing Causes Immediate Reaction
- Situation Critical: Pacing’s Need for an Unknown Outcome
- Game Changers: Pacing, Plot Twists, and Reader Engagement
- How Do You Know Your Pacing is Working? Part 1
- Your True Opponent: Pacing’s Race to Outwit the Reader
- 9 Pacing Techniques, 1 Scene on Fire
She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University